The importance of cross-training

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Flexibility is going to be a critical asset in a rapidly changing world. Cross-training can build additional flexibility into your workforce.

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Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In speaking with colleagues and friends, the biggest challenges most mention around the COVID-19 crisis are not dealing with various business closures, social distancing measures, or conflicting reports on how to protect oneself; rather, it's the uncertainly of the whole experience. No one knows for certain when this crisis will pass, how the economy will perform, or whether we'll ever return to a pre-COVID-19 state of business as usual, making planning a challenge, and creating a gnawing uncertainty at all levels of organizations, from leadership to line employees.

The only proven antidote to this state of uncertainty is flexibility, and we've witnessed some amazing efforts on that front, from automakers retooling to build ventilators, to the hundreds of YouTube videos demonstrating how to make various DIY face masks. Similarly, the more flexibility you can create in your technology workforce, the better you'll be equipped to manage tomorrow, whatever that future brings.

SEE: Cross-Training Toolkit  (TechRepublic Premium)

Start by de-specializing

Too often, we focus on helping our teams become technical specialists, who know volumes about a single technology, but quickly lose sight of how that technology connects with others, making their skills highly dependent on whether the organization uses that single technology. Intriguingly, these chaotic times present the perfect opportunity to allow your staff to "de-specialize" and start branching out of their core competencies in order to quickly respond to a changing environment. Allowing your staff to experiment and quickly respond to challenges as they appear immediately makes them more resilient, and better able to learn and deploy related or new technologies.

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As you ask your teams to use unconventional approaches to address the challenge of the moment, look for individuals that embrace the opportunity, and can quickly problem solve and learn new skills. Not only might you identify people who can quickly apply their skills in one technology to another, but you also might find a developer with great UX skills, or a designer who is a natural leader who brings the best out of an ad hoc team. These should be the primary candidates for more formal cross-training efforts.

SEE: Cross-Training Toolkit  (TechRepublic Premium)

Let staff self-select their cross-training

With traditional job roles and schedules abandoned, now is the perfect time to allow your teams to not only take advantage of the online training your company may already offer but allow them to apply it to their job immediately. My employer provides access to LinkedIn Learning to everyone in the company, and they also offer a free trial month, and I've been able to take a basic design class that's immediately upped my presentation quality, as well as some audio engineering classes for an internal podcast I recently launched. I was amazed at the volume of classes, with everything from digital transformation, to video production, to metal fabrication on offer. Similar volumes of training, albeit a bit less structured, are free for the asking by typing things like "Make your first iOS app" or "Record your first podcast" into Google, nearly all of them also providing completely free tools with which to practice.

Where a course on video production might have seemed frivolous pre-COVID-19, perhaps that aspiring director on staff can put her dream to work creating quick training videos to support your cross-training efforts, while an aspiring designer in Network Ops can apply lessons learned online to producing guides on how to set up home video conferencing equipment that is deployed company-wide. Ideally, the individuals most willing to "de-specialize" are also the most willing to avail themselves of your cross-training tools and apply them on the job.

SEE: Cross-Training Toolkit  (TechRepublic Premium)

Formalize your cross-training efforts

As we shift out of crisis response mode, you'll likely be developing a strategy to support your part of the company going forward. Presumably that strategy will be focused on creating more organizational flexibility in areas that might range from supply chain to customer-facing tools and apps. Share elements of this strategy and the need for flexibility with your team so they understand the motivation for cross-training. This may come as a culture shock to some, especially if your organization highly valued specialization in the past, and as a leader it's your responsibility to communicate that needs and expectations will be shifting from business as usual even if we're returning to offices and pre-COVID-19 habits.

Focus your cross-training investment on the people you identified previously, especially with skills that are relevant to your evolving strategy, although if they are exceptionally adaptable, current skills may be less valuable than their ability to learn and adapt. Cross-train on related and complementary skills. For example, a team with a couple of front-end developers with design skills, or an elusive full stack developer could drive a project end-to-end or shift their focus from front-end to back-end work as company needs evolve. Similarly, the shining star who used to just do procurement development and demonstrated an ability to lead their team in a crisis might be just the leader one of your supply chain team needs. Get these people formalized skills training that allows them to play multiple roles as needs change.

SEE: Cross-Training Toolkit  (TechRepublic Premium)

Don't forget yourself

Finally, while you're out extolling the virtues of cross-training to your staff, make sure you're taking a dose of your own medicine. If your most recent technical skills include "hot" talents like Pascal and Fortran, use some of your time to learn basic JavaScript and create a "Hello World" mobile app, or take a basic technical architecture or digital transformation class. Perhaps even a couple of philosophy or history books, or something completely outside your wheelhouse is just what you need to make yourself a more well-rounded leader.

To learn more about how to identify opportunities, design, implement, scale, and evaluate a cross-training program check out the Cross-Training Toolkit  from TechRepublic Premium. 

SEE: Cross-Training Toolkit  (TechRepublic Premium)

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