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 summer Texas sun about how the ability to perform different jobs at the same worksite not only made their day go by faster, but probably also 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 meant not the strongest nor 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 can make the difference between shutting down due to absent employees or staying open. The employee who’s filling in may also be able to offer some insight on ways to improve on how the job is being done.
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 the following effects:
- 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 bit about everything.
When cross-training is done right, there are benefits for employers and employees alike. The cross-trained employee knows more, can do more, and becomes potentially better positioned for a promotion or a lateral move. For the company, having key roles filled by multiple, well-trained employees makes for happier customers and better morale among employees.