More companies than ever are trying to implement cross training within their departments. They might create a one-size-fits-all plan that stretches across every employee or leave it up to individual managers to decide how their team members learn. The problem is that both of these plans can be ineffective.
A successful cross training strategy requires set goals and guidelines from management, but also internal flexibility to decide what is right for each employee. It’s not as easy as it seems.
Check out these 15 tips if your company or team is trying to launch an employee cross training program. You might be able to avoid common pitfalls and gaps that plague most organizations whenever they attempt to increase the amount of ongoing education across departments.
Set Company-Wide Goals for Improvement
If you plan to launch a company-wide cross training program, then you need to give your employees a reason to get on board.
“Training merely for the purpose of having it is futile,” independent business consultant Larry Alton writes. “You need concrete outcomes in order to stand any chance of deploying materials and a curriculum that add value to your firm.”
Alton provides a few reasons that companies can use when setting overall training goals. These include:
Preparing for organizational growth or change.
Adjusting to industry requirements and standards.
Adapting to a changing company structure affecting employee roles and responsibilities.
Rather than simply following management-issued instructions, these reasons can motivate employees to embrace cross training to prepare for future changes.
Present Cross Training as an Opportunity, Not an Obligation
The way you approach cross training can either motivate employees to embrace it or discourage them from participating. The team at Panopto, a video platform for businesses, encourages employers to emphasize the enrichment and developmental aspects of cross training to get teams excited to learn.
Without the right motivation, your team has no reason to prioritize cross training efforts. They might see it as extra work and push back. By making the learning tasks fun or interesting and proving that the learned skill can streamline workflows, your team will be more willing to try.
Be Selective in Employee Training
Intek Solutions, a consulting agency, encourages employers to carefully choose which employees are to be cross trained and the skills they will be taught. While some employees are ambitious and eager to learn new skills, others are more comfortable where they are. You could overwhelm some employees and face resistance from others.
Intek says your best bet is to talk to employees about what they want to learn — and ensure they are willing to learn — before you create any cross training plan.
Use Annual Reviews to Highlight Candidates
Tony Dill at the human resource management company HR Partnerships encourages employers to use performance reviews when looking for cross training opportunities. The annual review is a great time of year to talk to employees and create a game plan for the upcoming quarters. By analyzing performance reviews, you can:
Determine which employees are most likely to embrace cross training.
Discover hidden talents that you can develop and improve.
Learn what skills your employees think they need and are interested in developing.
At the end of the next year, you can look back and see how the goals created from previous performance reviews turned into useful skills or helped employees advance. This is key when determining promotion prospects and calculating raises.
Prioritize Cross Training By Department
Your HR team and senior department heads don’t want mass roll-outs of cross training plans. If everyone in the company is trying to cross-train, it’s likely to cause problems and conflicts. Instead, Jen Rossi at ECBM Insurance recommends prioritizing cross training within specific teams or departments. For example:
Choose teams that need cross training the most (i.e., understaffed departments, teams with newer employees, and teams with employees leaving for maternity or paternity care).
Identify teams that would be open to new experiences. These departments would be able to try new training techniques and serve as guinea pigs as you grow your cross training plan.
Look for eager teams that want cross training. If certain departments are already cross training internally or have mentioned it multiple times, start with them because they already want to see the program succeed.
Once you have worked out the kinks in your training strategy, you can roll out your method across the company.
Learn What Your Employees Want to Know
Interestingly, your employees are already practicing some form of cross training on their own time. Darren Shimkus, general manager and vice president at Udemy for Business, shares some interesting statistics at Entrepreneur about millennials in the workplace:
95 percent of workers believe life-long learning is critical to career success.
42 percent worry that they’re falling behind on their skills, making them less competitive in their respective fields.
Almost half of employees are willing to spend their own time and money improving their skills.
This is another reason why it’s important to talk to your team. You can learn what they want to know and what they have trained for on their own. In this case, cross training becomes a reward for their initiative because they’re able to put what they studied on their own into practice.
Nick Gidwani, chief revenue officer of the talent development platform Pathgather, agrees. “Many of the most successful people had to fight tooth and nail for opportunities to learn new skills and advance up the corporate ladder,” he writes at Harvard Business Review. “That’s often because what they wanted to learn and achieve wasn’t in sync with what their bosses wanted for them.”
While you might not be able to give your employees exactly what they want, taking their career goals into consideration can help you find tasks and skills that will motivate them to grow and work more effectively.
Create Co-Worker Partnerships to Cross Train Internally
By building cross training into the workday and pairing team members together, your employees can form peer-learning systems and turn to their co-workers whenever they have questions.
“Learning through a supervisor or a on-the-job ‘buddy’ can help trainees learn the practical side of their work, as opposed to just the theoretical aspects,” Jason Silberman writes at Training Station. “Not only does this make the training process more effective, it also reduces the amount of time needed for practical training, since trainees are given first hand training.”
Other benefits of mentoring on the job is that employees might not learn as well in a classroom setting with multiple students, doing better with one-on-one training. Plus it can be harder for managers to gauge the effectiveness of classroom lessons.
Ask Trained Employees to Become Mentors
Some companies “graduate” employees from a cross training program and turn them from mentees into mentors. This reinforces their skills by having them teach it to others, while creating a positive incentive for learning the material.
“The experienced learner will be able to recount their own temporary discomfort during the learning process,” Stephen J. Meyer, president and CEO of Rapid Learning Institute, writes. “They can reveal how the training benefited them and their career. In short, how the hard work was worth it.”
Mentors who themselves had to learn the material might come up with better ways to teach the methods and skills. In that sense, a mentor program can actually improve your training processes and materials.
Avoid Limiting Specialization
One thing to avoid as you cross train your team is limiting specialization. If everyone is good at a lot of little things, few people will be great at a few things.
“Cross-training teaches employees a little bit about a lot of things,” market and business administration specialist Cecillia Barr writes. “It spreads their understanding and capabilities over a wide range of skills and tasks.”
While Barr highlights the potential loss of specialization, she counters it by suggesting that the training focuses on skills that help employees do their jobs better instead of expanding their overall skill base to processes not relevant to them.
Set Boundaries for Cross Training Hours
Before you start a training plan, make sure your team knows what time commitments and limits are expected for learning. You don’t want to lose entire weeks to training, but you do need to make enough time for education.
“You’re running a business, not a school,” the team at Pro Staff Careers writes. “An hour here and there can go a long way without curbing productivity. Extending the training process also allows time for new information to be absorbed.”
Consider setting up a weekly hour of training to review basic concepts. You can test employees on what they learned previously to reinforce the message and then move ahead with new ideas. Over a few months, the message can stick without taking too much time from the overall work week.
Build Cross Training Into Onboarding
Justin Reynolds at the employee engagement platform TINYpulse writes that it can take up to eight months to onboard a new employee. Even employees that have an understanding of the job can still struggle to pick up certain concepts months after they’ve been hired.
By cross training new hires, they learn other skills along with their regular duties. Furthermore, you can invite existing employees to attend the new employee training to learn what their job duties are. If you’re already training one person (the new employee) it wouldn’t hurt for the message to reach a few others. This also creates a team of peers that can rely on each other for support as they learn new things.
Encourage Management to Participate
Greter Sierra at the learning management system eLeaP writes that involving leadership in cross training can boost employee morale across all levels of the organization. Not only does recognition from upper management make employees feel valued, but training high-level employees on the processes of lower team members can help them understand what their rank-and-file team members do on a daily basis.
This understanding might help management realize the importance of investing in certain tools or make them comprehend why some processes are slower than others. Training management can lead to greater empathy and better decision-making for the organization.
Create an Evaluation and Recognition System
What criteria will you set to prove that your employees have fully absorbed the material? What incentives will you provide to encourage employees to increase their skills?
HR expert, author and founder of the PR consultancy, Come Recommended, Heather R. Huhman encourages managers to set company-wide standards for evaluation and recognition. This might entail a manager testing employees on their skills or requiring workers to achieve specific certification levels.
Furthermore, setting reward systems are just as important as creating evaluation plans. From monetary rewards to extra time off, providing recognition and rewards can motivate employees to grow their skills and keep them fresh.
Let Employees Apply Their New Skills
What is the point of training your employees if they will never use what they learn? Part of your cross training plan needs to include opportunities to apply those skills.
“Regular practice not only builds up mental muscles, it also establishes and reinforces a more whole-brained approach to work,” professional marketing consultant Marla Lepore writes.
If a team member is trained on a software tool, consider asking for weekly or monthly deliverables highlighting its effectiveness. Alternatively, an employee can set aside a few hours a week to work on a side project that uses those skills to help other departments. This will grow their knowledge base.
Provide Additional Resources and Support
Christoforos Pappas, the founder of The eLearning Industry’s network, writes that cross training doesn’t stop once an employee has a certificate. There needs to be a support system for them to continue using the skills they learned and continue advancing their knowledge. This might range from skills refresher classes to informal social media chats, online forums or email threads.
This is another example of why peer-training can be useful. Peers can start delegating tasks to help their co-workers use their new skills and can be available for any questions and problems their team members might have.