When I was much younger, I worked as a roughneck in the West Texas oil fields. The guys I worked with dubbed me “college boy” because they knew I’d be heading back to school in the fall. As you might guess I got to do the manual back-breaking jobs because I wasn’t trained to operate any of the equipment on the job site. At the time, I thought they had the easy jobs and I admired their skill, their ability to jump from the driver’s seat of one piece of machinery to another and operate it with equal skill and ease. That got me thinking as I stood under the Texas sun about the ability to perform different jobs at the same worksite, how it made their day go by faster, and probably made them more valuable employees because of their ability to quickly adapt in a fast moving and often dangerous environment.
Indeed, when Charles Darwin was referring to the “survival of the fittest,” he didn’t mean the strongest or the fastest, but the most adaptable. The species that could adapt would thrive. In organizations you could argue that the “fittest” employees – the most adaptable – are those that are cross-trained. In most cases, cross-training is not only good for the employee, but also for the employer. Cross-training employees is like having a disaster recovery plan in place: You probably aren’t planning your daily schedules to have employees jump around among jobs, but caught in a pinch, some employees would be capable and available to fill in the gaps. In a small business, having cross trained employees could make the difference between shutting down due to absent employees or staying open. The employee who’s filling in may also offer insights on ways to improve on how the job is being done.
For an employee too, there are benefits to being able to fill in on a coworker’s job. He or she knows more, can do more, and becomes potentially better positioned for a promotion or a lateral move. In fact, knowing another person’s job could make the employee better at performing his or her regular duties. I worked in sales for years before moving into marketing. Now as head of marketing, I look at marketing campaigns through the lens of a sales person. When I’m thinking of a marketing campaign I’m not only thinking about the brand, but how the campaign will translate to more sales leads for the account executives.
It doesn’t sound like there is any downside; why not just cross train everyone? Not so fast. It does cost money to implement a well-rounded cross-training program. And there is less productivity while training occurs. In addition, a poorly implemented program can have unpleasant consequences, such as:
- Decreased morale-if employees feel that they are in jeopardy of losing their jobs.
- Resentment-if employees feel that they are assuming more responsibility for the same pay.
- Confusion-if employees lose sight of their primary responsibilities.
- Loss of specialized knowledge-if employees spend all of their time learning a little about everything.
A poorly managed program can also result in dissatisfied customers and possibly even costly mistakes. Cross-training is not a successful strategy for every business. But for those businesses where it seems to work the following steps are helpful:
- Identify the tasks performed for various jobs and designate which ones could be successfully performed by other employees.
- Identify who is interested in participating in the program. It may be counterproductive to force someone to participate. Decide how to deal with this situation.
- Cross-train members of the same team. My summer job in the oil fields demonstrates how efficient teams become when they can step in to do significant pieces of one another’s work. Also, it’s a natural learning process for one team member to pick up skills from another.
- Identify who has the competencies to perform the tasks designated as cross-trainable in step 1. Specialized skills in some professionals (engineers, scientists, programmers, lawyers, accountants) may be less available for cross-training than others. Determine what proportion of team members’ job can be reasonably shared with others.
- Apply coaching skills to the process. Cross-training is at the challenging end of the learning curve, involving major portions of employees’ jobs rather than a task or two. Those who do the training – whether it is a fellow employee or the manager – need to understand the appropriate coaching behaviors to apply at each stage in the process.
- Reduce workload during training and while tasks are being performed. Otherwise, the people involved may feel resentful about the process.
- Recognize and reward employees that have new skills and/or responsibilities.
- Incorporate the cross-training process into an overall development plan for the employee.
The decision to move forward with a cross-training program is entirely your own, but it’s an option that should be considered nonetheless. You know your business and you know your management team. Ask them how they think their people would respond to the program and weigh your options from there. There’s certainly risk with cross-training, but the rewards can be substantial.