He sounds an uncomfortable man to be, the T-shaped manager, arms flung out in the embrace of knowledge, crucified uncomfortably for the sake of his firm.
Coined by the British newspaper The Independent in 1991, the expression “T-shaped manager” refers to a man in a matrix, someone responsible both for a function – marketing, say, or operations – and for the dissemination of knowledge across functional boundaries. The key insight, as Bolko von Oetinger and Morten Hansen, two former BCG authors, make clear, is that knowledge diffuses, not through databases, but primarily through people.
The advantage of the T-shape is thus that it resolves one of the knottiest issues in knowledge management, the difficulty of making tacit knowledge explicit. By treating managers as live vectors for knowledge, the T-shape concept diverts energy from knowledge formalisation to knowledge transmission.
The T-shaped manager is an expert first and foremost: he or she has developed a body of knowledge and skills in a particular function. Functional expertise, the vertical line of the T, is developed first. Only then is it extended – the horizontal bar of the T – across functions in a process that both transmits knowledge from the function and receives information from the other functions with whose representatives the T-shaped manager interacts.
How does a firm that develops T-shaped managers differ from one which promotes other organisational best practices such as learning circles? The decision to pursue the T-shape should be deliberate. It requires investment both in functional expertise – for no manager can be effective if he or she has nothing to disseminate – and in the skills required for knowledge transmission. These will be twofold: first, the manager will need to understand the wider context of the business beyond his or her function, in order to filter accumulated expertise selectively; secondly, he or she will need sufficient social and didactic skills to work with others and to pass on knowledge. The firm will also need to support knowledge diffusion structurally.