Generation Flux & the T-Shaped Professional

Gartner recently downgraded their forecast for IT spend in 2014, and it caught my eye. According to Mr Lovelock, one of the reasons for this lowering of projection is how quickly we are moving to what he called, “The Third Age of IT”. Apparently 1980 to 2000 was the “IT Craftsmanship Age” where we were building all those (now legacy) systems and putting together our IT departments. And then from 2000 to the present is what’s being called the “IT Industrialization Age” where we’re currently focused on automating and efficiency. In the legal industry I’d say we’re still very much in the midst of this age, but at the same time getting swept up with ReInvent Law etc into the Third Age of IT. (As an aside, I wonder when the defining characteristic of the Third Age becomes clear enough that we can give it its own proper name.) This Third Age of IT is where “Technology isn’t serving an existing business, it’s dictating what a business is.”

Throughout these changing times, IT professionals have had to update their skillsets to meet the new challenges and stay relevant. Another forecast by Gartner in 2005 for example, had predicted that by 2010 the traditional IT functions would break down into four distinct domains of expertise:

– Technology infrastructure and services

– Information design and management

– Process design and management

– Relationship and sourcing management

To keep up with these changes, Gartner predicted that IT professionals would need to not only keep on top of their specialist area as the technology itself constantly evolved, but also now need to maintain broad expertise in all of these domains too. That IT generalists (or “versatilists” as Gartner called them – hmm, I wonder why that phrase never took off?) would be the only ones to succeed in these changing times. “Versatilists are people whose numerous roles, assignments and experiences are enabling them to synthesise knowledge and context to find business value.”

But it’s not just IT professionals that need to adopt versatility to stay relevant. In 2012, a Fast Company special report was on “The Secrets of Generation Flux”. The by-line summed it up nicely with, “Modern business is pure chaos; but those who adapt will succeed”. The report interviewed seven representatives of this Generation Flux – all business leaders who are eager and excited by learning new skills, shifting their focus and changing careers. And those careers now average just four years – that’s 10 or 11 different jobs in a lifetime! Having spent way more than a weekend simply choosing tiles for my new bathroom, I hope they’ll last a lot longer than four years.

According to the article this widespread career volatility has been brought about largely due to mass layoffs, an increase in freelance and contract opportunities and the technical disruption of whole industries. More and more people are taking control of their own careers and skill development – not only to stay relevant but also to ensure they have back-up plans for if and when that job or industry implodes.

I think those of us in IT, KM and Marketing departments of law firms know this only too well. We branch out beyond our deep and narrow expertise in one particular area, to also have a breadth of knowledge along a range of disciplines and skills. Welcome to the T-shaped professional. IBM, McKinsey, BP, IDEO are all adapting the types of people they want to hire. They want people who can see outside their own narrow field of expertise; to see connections and opportunities across the organisation. Our chaotic world with its complex problems needs us to collaborate across disciplines to solve them.

I got caught up in this talk of T-model professionals back in 2004. UX designer Peter Boesma drew a T-model to describe information architecture as just one discipline of the broader practice of user experience. I was so excited by this idea that I drew my very own T-model to represent my hybrid practice of IA (at the time I was most disappointed that there was no ‘content strategy/management’ discipline to represent my dual passions of the time).


Now this model has been extended even further and is being used to guide the hiring of IA and UX professionals as a kind of competency framework and maturity model for the profession. Indeed, my own T-shape has also evolved to reflect new interests, domains and skills over the last 10 years.

And now it’s the lawyers’ turn to question their deep legal specialisms – their I-shape. Whilst every organisation needs a mix of I-shapes and T-shapes, Amani Smathers at ReInvent Law suggests that the 21st century lawyer should be T-shaped. Amani suggests six potential disciplines that lawyers should have some shallow but broad understanding about in addition to their deep legal expertise: design, e-discovery, analytics, technology, project management and business tools.

Right now lawyers rely on knowing who to call or who to outsource this to, rather than adding these skills/clubs to their own golf bag. And that approach is amazingly effective when we know at least a little about what other people know. At its simplest level it is enough to recognise there is a tax element to your deal and call in the tax expertise from elsewhere in the firm. This can also be effective at firms small enough that we know who to call; where we know all of our colleagues, and we know enough about their deep legal specialisms to call on them when we need them.

But our firms are getting bigger all the time and having a handle on exactly who knows what and to what degree is getting harder. In addition, when we’re designing solutions to business problems we may need more than just legal clubs in our golf bag. If you don’t know anything about data analytics how will you know when to ask the resident expert about applying it to your legal solution? Or if we don’t know how design thinking can foster the creativity needed to deliver more innovative solutions, how will you know when to inject some creative problem-solving into the process?

One of my favourite phrases in Knowledge Management is that “we stand on the shoulders of giants”. But we need to know just enough about what those giants know in order that we can learn from them and add that knowledge to the cross-disciplinary solutions we’re designing for our clients.

The legal industry provides solutions to this chaotic business and regulatory world we live in and so also needs professionals who can look outside their specialist subjects and see connections and solutions that can cross a wide range of disciplines.

“What defines GenFlux is a mind-set that embraces instability, that tolerates–and even enjoys–recalibrating careers, business models, and assumptions. Not everyone will join Generation Flux, but to be successful, businesses and individuals will have to work at it… Few traditional career tactics train us for an era where the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills.”


  1. Thanks for this overview of T-shaped information architecture. I’ve referenced Generation Flux, and the implications to young lawyers, here on Slaw before.

    It’s definitely a new era we are entering into and all of us will need to adapt, including in the legal industry. We may not be outsourcing just the IT, but the legal services themselves. Grant Cameron recently wrote in the Lawyers Weekly,

    Canadian legal consultant Jordan Furlong of Ottawa, a principal with global consulting firm Edge International, believes there is an “employment revolution” underway, in the way lawyers are employed, how legal work is done, and how firms are run.

    In the past, he says, a firm traditionally employed lawyers on a full-time basis but the trend now is to hire lawyers on contract to do the work.

    Furlong recently wrote a white paper on the new world of legal work for Lawyers on Demand, an alternative legal services provider launched by Berwin Leighton Paisner in 2007.

    The paper notes that private-practice lawyers will increasingly be entrepreneurs and some will continue with solo practices, although with much more specialized niches, while firms will be smaller with fewer permanent lawyers and staff occupying less square footage, and offices will be reserved only for the most influential partners.

    In future, firms will rid themselves of lawyers who are not integral to the firm and set them up with contract work, Furlong says, while legal work will increasingly be farmed out to consultants who are available and can be hired by the firm on a piecemeal basis.

    “It makes more sense to say, ‘Let’s find someone who can work for us on a short-term basis and specifically someone who has the specific kind of skills we’re looking for.’”

    Furlong says young lawyers shouldn’t count on being an employee of a law firm for life — the traditional model of the last several decades — because the model is changing and lawyers would be better off developing their entrepreneurial skills instead.

    “Plan on being someone who basically says from day one, ‘I’m taking charge of my career, I need to know how to run a business and I need to know the basic principles of small business entrepreneurialism and how to find clients.’”