During a company's frenzied start-up days, staffers often have so many different duties that some entrepreneurial companiesforego job descriptions entirely. Later, as companies grow, employees tend to specialize. But some CEOs argue that it'simportant for employees to remain flexible. The better everyone knows everyone else's job, the thinking goes, the better thecompany runs.

To foster that kind of flexibility, more companies are cross-training -- instructing employees in the essential elements of anumber of different jobs within the organization, regardless of whether they are likely ever to perform those jobs. Despite thecosts of such training, proponents say the benefits are numerous.

One obvious benefit is higher employee morale. GreenPages, a computer reseller in Kittery, Maine, which had 1998 sales of$88 million, puts each new employee through two months of intensive training in all job functions. Customer support peopleget sales training, salespeople learn about purchasing and credit services, and so on. That, according to CEO Kurt Bleicken,promotes mutual understanding. "When people are familiar with what the rest of the company is doing," he says, "it breaksdown the typical 'us versus them' attitude."

Cross-training also helps companies ensure that:

  • Every employee can help a customer. At The Chip, a Valencia, Calif., computer technical support and repair company with1998 revenues of $4 million, everyone is trained in computer repair -- including the receptionist. That way, whoever answersthe phone is able to address technical problems. According to president Chip Meyer, the company phones can act as a defacto help desk for clients.
  • Every employee knows how to sell. For Nick Nicholson, CEO of a recycling and waste management company inColumbus, Ohio, with 1998 revenues of $40 million, it was important that each of his employees understand the salesprocess. All Ecology Group staff members received sales training, including classes on good questioning and listening skills.Once, a member of the accounting staff was on the phone with a client who had a huge overbilling problem. In the process ofclarifying the problem, the employee identified an opportunity to extend the Ecology Group's agreement with the client,involving more locations and more business. "I don't think he could have done that if he hadn't had sales training," says Nicholson.
  • No employee is indispensable. Kurt Bleicken of GreenPages, which is a two-time Inc. 500 company, also uses cross-training to counteract short- and long-term leaves of absence, such as maternity leaves, among his 125 employees. Hehas two highly cross-trained individuals whom he calls "GreenPage runners." These employees can fill many positions in thecompany -- purchasing, sales, credit services, or accounting. And they can sub for almost any length of time, coveringeverything from sick days or vacations to extended sabbaticals. Of course, since the runners are generalists by definition,they're not always as effective as regular employees. But when you're anxious to keep the sales flow even, for instance, "it'sbetter than starting over from square one," Bleicken says.