Cross-training involves teaching an employee who was hired to perform one job function the skills required to perform other job functions. In the world of sports, the benefits of cross training are clear. By mixing different activities into a regular workout routine one can avoid overuse injuries, balance the development between muscle groups, and prevent boredom. The same may be said of cross-training in the workplace. Employees involved in cross-training programs become skilled at tasks outside the usual parameters of their jobs and thus become greater assets for the company while gaining knowledge and skills that benefit them personally.
Many small businesses use cross-training practices regularly, although in a less formal manner than is usually written about in business journals. When an entrepreneur starts a business and makes those first hiring decisions, he or she will naturally look for candidates who appear to possess the flexibility to handle multiple and often unrelated jobs. A welder, for example, who has taken college courses in engineering or a bookkeeper with people skills who is willing to help with human resource tasks. In a small business it is often the norm to wear more than one hat.
Cross-training programs are a way to more formally organize the process of getting employees prepared to be able to do more than a single job. These programs offer a wide variety of benefits for businesses. For example, a well-designed program can help reduce costs, improve employee morale, reduce turnover, and increase productivity. It can also give a company greater scheduling flexibility, and may even lead to operational improvements. Perhaps the most important benefit that accrues to companies that implement cross-training programs, however, is greater job satisfaction among employees. Cross-training demonstrates that the company has faith in employees' abilities and wants to provide them with opportunities for career growth. In an age when companies are always trying to accomplish more work with fewer workers, anything that helps to motivate and retain employees can be worthwhile. Cross-trained employees often feel that their jobs have been enriched, and they are often able to contribute more to a firm by coming up with creative solutions based on drawing upon their knowledge of different company systems.
Another benefit of cross-training is increased workforce flexibility. The ability of cross-trained employees to fill in during absences, vacations, and peak demand periods can reduce the costs involved in hiring and training temporary workers or new employees.
Cross-training programs may also improve the overall work atmosphere in a business, which may in turn improve the bottom line. Employees are a valuable asset in small businesses, which often must maintain only a bare bones staff in order to remain competitive. This makes it even more important to make maximum use of employees' skills and talents. Investing in on-the-job training shows all those involved that individual career growth is a valuable and necessary part of the company's overall growth. If employees believe they have the potential to improve within the company, they will be generally happier with their jobs and more willing to go the extra mile when needed. Employees will be more productive and feel more a part of the overall mission of the company. This usually leads to a high overall morale.
IMPLEMENTING A CROSS-TRAINING PROGRAM
To be effective, a cross-training program must be carefully planned and organized. It cannot be implemented all of a sudden during a crisis. For one thing, there are a number of decisions that a company must make before the program can get started. It is important, for example, to decide who will be eligible for training, whether the training will be mandatory or voluntary, whether the training will be restricted within job classifications or open to other classifications, and whether it will be administered internally or externally. Prior to implementation, it might be helpful to set up a task force consisting of both management and employees to research the pros and cons of cross-training for the business, assess the feasibility of setting up a program, work out the implementation issues, and set up a realistic schedule for each position.
One of the first steps to setting up a cross-training program is having each different area or department draw up a list of functions and tasks that are necessary to its day-to-day operations. Then the various tasks can be prioritized to decide which should be included in the cross-training program. This helps match staff members to the tasks that need cross-training coverage. It is always important to have participating employees review the lists of functions and tasks. This way each can identify the functions/tasks they already know how to do, those they would like to learn, and those they would be willing to learn if necessary. Having their feedback allows the program manager to consider both competence and interest in the matching process.
Rather than simply training one employee to perform another one's job—which would not really solve the problem if the first employee experienced a long absence—it may be better to train several employees in various components of the first one's job so that they can all pitch in as needed. Training can take place through an on-the-job buddy system, or supervisors can be asked to conduct all the training. It is important to note that those selected as trainers may need to receive instruction in how to teach others. Finally, cross-trained employees must be given the time they need to absorb the new information. Their workload should be reduced both during the training and during later practice sessions so that they will not feel as if they are being penalized for participating in the program. It may also be helpful to evaluate newly trained employees' progress on a regular basis.
One of the most important factors in the success of any cross-training initiative is gaining the full support of top management. To be truly dedicated to cross-training, the traditional idea of one job per person must be replaced with a broader definition. It is also vital to involve employees who are already performing the job in the training process. Making all those who will be impacted by a cross-training program feel included from the outset, involving them in training will help avoid fears that their job may be in jeopardy. It is extremely important to communicate to employees that cross-training is not a management scheme designed to eliminate jobs. These programs benefit both the company and the individuals involved and this fact must be emphasized when implementing such a program.
Creating a successful cross-training program is not necessarily easy, and small business owners should expect to encounter some resistance from employees. One way to help ease acceptance of such a program is to address compensation issues ahead of time. Companies must be willing to compensate employees for increasing their skills. In some cases, instituting pay-for-skill or pay-for-knowledge programs may help encourage people to participate. It may also be helpful to promote people who learn new skills to a new grade in a graded-pay system, or to attach a dollar value to specific skills and then pay employees for the time they spend cross-training on a higher-paying skill. Employees must be made to feel that their efforts are being recognized for a cross-training program to be successful.
There are several potential pitfalls that companies need to avoid in order to implement a successful cross-training initiative. One of the major pitfalls is trying to establish a program without taking a systematic approach. Some other potential pitfalls include failure to include employees in planning the program, trying to coerce the participation of reluctant employees, assuming that employees are familiar with the techniques needed to train others, penalizing employees who take part in cross-training by not reducing their workload accordingly, and not recognizing the value of new skills with appropriate changes in compensation.
In the "new global economy," which Thomas L. Friedman calls flat in his best selling book The World is Flat, we are all encouraged to prepare for a future in which we will have many jobs and need to embrace "lifelong learning" and not "lifelong employment." Cross-training certainly fits into this view of the future.
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