Cross-training maximizes an organization’s personnel return on investment (ROI) by assuring that all – or at least most – personnel are able to perform multiple jobs.
Cross-training should be standard operating procedure (SOP) if for no other reason than people take vacations, get sick, retire, or quit for any number of reasons.
Everyone’s a Rifleman
In the U.S. Marines, everyone who wins the Globe and Anchor is a rifleman – or to be politically correct, “rifleperson;” it makes no difference if the person is a rankless “slick sleeve” or the Corps commander with a galaxy of stars on epilates. If you are a Marine, you are a rifleman.
Marines also may be something else – radio operator, pilot, whatever – but before all else, they are riflemen. They are cross-trained to be proficient in multiple jobs.
When this scrivener was in the Air Force, my primary “AFSC” (job code) was “906*0” which meant that my normal job was medical administration. But like everyone else with a “90***” AFSC, I was first and foremost a medic (corpsman to Navy and Coast Guard forks). The last exercise at the end of specialist school was not a typing test or a quiz to see if I knew the procedures to admit or discharge a person from a hospital, but to see how well my classmates and I could evacuate “patients” from a “burning” aircraft. (Trust me, the Air Force did some pretty good simulations.)
That was the “high level” cross training. On a lower level, both the Marine and the Airman also are “cross-trained” for KP and other “out-of-scope” fun and games.
Non-military organizations need to consider cross-training as a matter of SOP.
As with the military, there can be different levels of cross-training.
One level would be within the employee’s career field. A person handling accounts receivable is cross-trained to handle accounts payable; the person in payroll might be cross-trained to work on travel.
Depending on labor contracts, the person working on a lathe might be trained to operate a fork lift; the person on the import side may be trained to work on the export side.
While the obvious benefit is for business continuity response functions, cross training is just good business; it may be the best option to cover absences, scheduled or otherwise.
Beyond the Career Niche
Admittedly not everyone can, or need be, cross-trained to work outside their career niche.
But some people can expand their horizons, even if only on a temporary basis.
The best candidates are those with either a background in the alternate field or those who have, one way or another, shown an aptitude for the alternate function.
Discovering employees with experience in, or a flair for, an out-of-career path function requires both human resources and direct managers to do more than just look at a person’s abilities as they relate to the person’s primary job.
Too often, personnel have skills no one knows about simply because no one cared and no one read – really read – the person’s resume.
Case in point: I once worked on a business continuity plan – COOP in government speak – for a municipal government’s IT department. I got to know some of the people in the building who were not part of the planning team. One of the people had a more extensive disaster recovery background than the consultant. Yet the government agency failed to utilize his expertise because it apparently missed the experience on his resume.
Senior managers – C-levels and VPs – often are overlooked in the business continuity scheme of things. That’s a mistake.
What can you do with a senior manager? Some can be given spokesperson functions – if they are comfortable before inquiring minds: the general media, trade press, lenders, stockholders, vendors, and clients.
Some can be go-fers. This is not a task to be treated lightly. A good go-fer must know where to go and should have the political pull to get what is needed expeditiously. If something needs to be purchased, the go-fer needs the authority to buy whatever needs to be bought. Go-fering is not suitable for interns.
In an emergency – a disaster condition – all hands should be considered as potential resources.
It used to be common practice that interns and the boss’ kid worked all over the business. This gave the newbies a taste of all the jobs in the business and let good managers see what the newbie was best suited to do. If someone was absent and the newbie had worked in the absent person’s department, he or she could be brought back to fill in, fulfilling a wonderful on-the-job training program and a win-win situation.
Unless cross-trained staff occasionally refresh their secondary skills, their level of confidence and their expertise will deteriorate. Since most organizations – unlike the military – fail to provide refresher training, the organization must depend on carefully crafted documentation.
The documentation format must be consistent across the board; the “how to” for an HR job must follow the same format as the “how to” information for an info-tech job.
The document format must be designed for use by a person who may be under a little – or a lot – of pressure. Overriding all else, the documentation must follow the KISS principle (keep it simple stupid).
Instructional documents should be written by the person who does the tasks day in and day out. Then the instructions must – not “should” but “must” – be validated by a person who has little or no experience with the tasks. All too often, the task subject matter expert fails to document something that prevents a novice from completing the task successfully. “Yeah, but everyone knows you have to reset the system by moving the toggle switch on the back of the box.” Well, maybe not “everyone.”
Cross-training is for every organization. It benefits the organization on a day-to-day basis and may make a difference in recovery time and costs in the event a disaster condition occurs. This is one SOP than can enhance the ROI.
John Glenn, MBCI, (JohnGlennMBCI.com) is an enterprise risk management - business continuity practitioner with more than 13 years experience; he invites comments on this article and others at his Web site to Planner@ JohnGlennMBCI.com.