How a basic cross-training program can ease disruptions on the IT team

IT managers offer advice on how to identify weak spots and boost business continuity plans.

2020: Employees should be learning in the flow of work, not from A to Z
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If the coronavirus hasn't disrupted your business operations yet, there's a good chance it will soon. This first wave of illness will not be the last time the coronavirus disrupts daily business operations. First companies had to adjust to remote work for all employees. The next challenge may be filling in for colleagues who are out sick or caring for family members or friends who are ill. A cross-training program can make this transition go smoothly. 

Sam Maley, an IT operations manager at Bailey & Associates, an IT consultancy, said cross-training can minimize disruptions and reduce stress levels due to absenteeism.  

"Cross-training programs are designed to build versatility and skill overlaps in your team members," he said.

Jeff Fleischman, CMO at the consulting firm Altimetrik, said cross-training needs to be part of business continuity plans. 

"To receive buy-in from top management, quantify the impact disruption has on the business such as revenue loss, reputational risk, defaulting on contractual obligations, and failing to meet regulatory requirements, and then explain how cross-training would eliminate these risks," Fleischman said.

SEE: Cross-Training Tool Kit (TechRepublic Premium) 

Cross-training is one of those nice-to-have ideas that somehow always falls to the bottom of the to-do list. It's also as important as a response plan for a data breach: When you need it, you really need it. 

This overview will help you establish a cross-training program in your IT department or at least make the case for starting such a program.

Selecting skills and people

The first step is to identify which skills or job roles to include in the cross-training program.

Luigi A. Iacobellis, PMP, and a manager of global IT business analysis at Kinross Gold Corporation, said that one way to do this is to look at IT service management tools to generate statistics on the volume of incidents or service requests being submitted and which teams are handling these requests. This would provide some empirical data on where resources may be constrained.  

Another approach is to rely on subject matter expert feedback and ask team members what is consuming most of their time. This will often allow you to identify areas that you may need to backfill.  

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

Michael Segner, the director of content and communications at AvePoint Inc., said that Office 365 administration is a prime candidate for cross-training.

"It's a critical business platform to support remote work and many IT staffs haven't fully shifted from their on-premises skill sets and responsibilities," Segner said.

Fleischman of Altimetrik said the depth of the bench in a particular department and mission critical roles are two main areas to examine and consider for cross-training. 

Basic components of a cross-training program

Iacobellis said that the first step in building an effective cross-training program is to establish a well-defined function profile. 

"A function profile outlines the responsibilities of a role or job function that need to be covered such that there is no ambiguity about what tasks need to be performed," he said. 

Once the function profile is in place, the next step is to develop a process to train a team member on how to perform the job. The steps of a basic-cross training program include:    

  1. Identify key skill sets in a role or roles
  2. Identify the tasks within these roles that could be performed by other employees
  3. Identifying which team members are responsible for each task
  4. Have team members create standard operating procedures (SOPs) for each task
  5. Share these SOPs across a team
  6. Provide people with an opportunity to job shadow or observe
  7. Have the trainee perform the new function with support
  8. Implement an incentive program to reward employees willing to take part in cross-training

Keenan Beavis, a growth consultant and a co-founder of Longhouse Media, said cross-training is crucial for his small team.
 
"The primary reason we value cross-training is to create a workplace of shared respect and understanding that we all have a unique role to play in the success of our business," he said.

He offers paid job-shadowing time every week to the members of his team. One person works alongside a colleague for four hours once a week.

Longhouse has internal training videos to reinforce the job shadowing. 

Getting buy-in from team members and management

When the cross-training program is in place, the final step is to make sure both upper management and individual team members support the effort. Maley of Bailey & Associates said the best way to illustrate the importance of cross-training is to simulate absenteeism. 

"Ask team members to refrain from performing a specific task for a few days and see how well the rest of the team picks up the slack," he said.

Maley said one problem he often finds is that more experienced team members are reluctant to follow a SOP for a new task.

"These team members are used to using their initiative to solve problems, and get bored when tasks are too formulaic," he said. 

To overcome this, Maley breaks tasks down into their smallest possible components, and has team members cross off each subtask as they go. This creates accountability and lets the individual adjust the process to his experience and style of working over time.

Another way to encourage reluctant cross-trainers is to frame the opportunity as a personal development opportunity that looks good on an annual performance review.

"Either lending resources or participating in cross-training is a good way to develop clout, improve reputation and show you're a team player," Iacobellis said. 

Jeff Miller, associate vice president of learning and organizational effectiveness at Cornerstone OnDemand, said getting buy-in from reluctant leaders or team members is the hardest part of cross-training. Starting the program with a specific goal—-such as career mobility or recruiting millennials—helps.

"Aligning the cross-training program with broader organizational goals will facilitate internal mobility and help hit business objectives," he said.

Also see

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