Kicking Up Cross-Training

By Jennifer Taylor Arnold Aug 1, 2008
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HR Magazine August 2008 coverCross-training can be a key component in developing your employees -- and your organization.

When leaders of the Jackson, Mich.-based bakery supplier Dawn Food Products decided to close a production line at its California plant earlier this year, managers faced a challenge. It was not a job separation issue -- the plant’s other line offered plenty of work for the 17 affected employees. The question was whether those employees could readily adapt to a new work environment.

“The old line was a cake mix line, [which is] very repetitive. Every employee had a single responsibility, and it didn’t change,” says Tom Harmon, president of global human resources for Dawn Food Products, with more than 4,000 employees worldwide. “The new one, a decorated-cake line, makes 50 or 60 different products in a day, with different shapes, colors, decorations, flavors. It moves much faster. And the four people on the line rotate responsibilities” during each shift.

Production lines have been around since the Industrial Revolution -- and managers have been facing issues like this ever since. In the old days, managers were likely to take a “sink or swim” approach. Today, companies such as Dawn Food Products use high-tech online behavioral assessment tools to identify workers likely to acclimate rapidly to new tasks, and to shape employees’ training to best equip them for their assignments.

Doing More

Employers find value in cross-training employees because it’s usually more efficient than bringing in new hires. Many managers take those efficiencies to the next level by leveraging technology to improve cross-training efforts.

Employees appreciate cross-training because it allows them to broaden their skills. And, according to experts, workers with a broad base of skills are becoming increasingly important as the pool of skilled workers shrinks and budgets tighten. “By cross-training, with a limited pool of skilled workers available, you’re getting the most done with the fewest employees,” says Ira Wolfe, president of Success Performance Solutions, a talent management consulting company in Lancaster, Pa.

What’s more, cross-training can benefit employers and employees in any type of economy and labor market. It’s “a good practice” in a “belt-tightening market,” says Eric Krohner, CEO and founder of The Solution Group, an HR software technology company in Farmington Hills, Mich. “It impacts employee engagement and prevents job stagnation. It’s something that induces candidates to join the company and encourages employees to stay.”

Mind the Knowledge Gap

All cross-training should begin with two basic steps: identifying the knowledge and skills needed for each position, and then cross-referencing that list with an inventory of current employees’ proficiencies to reveal gaps.

Today, various technology options make it easy to gather and analyze such information. In fact, experts say, many companies already capture these data in their performance management or talent management systems, although they may not be taking advantage of them. “There is a lack of effective use of performance management systems,” says Bruce Fern, president of Bedford, N.Y.-based Performance Connections International Inc., an employee and customer engagement firm. “Everyone has one, but they are often ‘performance management’ in name only.”

While performance management systems are used to automate the employee review process, many systems also include development plan functions that readily lend themselves to a cross-training application. “When [performance management systems] generate active employee development plans, those development plans will often contain cross-training components,” Fern says.

Managers currently using a performance management system should check the application’s data fields and reporting capabilities. A few simple edits may be all it would take to segregate the necessary data and create a report detailing gaps between existing and needed skills -- with no capital outlay. If not, contact the software vendor to check the availability of add-on functions, upgrades or customization that addresses the need for additional data analyses at a relatively low cost.

Selecting a System

For companies interested in purchasing a performance management system, options vary from hosted web-based solutions that charge a low per-employee per-month fee, to licensed systems installed on the corporate server. Depending on the number of employees, level of customization and integration, and other factors, annual costs range from a few thousand dollars to almost $1 million.

As a general rule, hosted subscription-based applications are more affordable for smaller companies with fewer employees, have few startup costs and can be deployed quickly. Licensed systems require more setup time and more upfront costs, although they provide efficiencies over time for companies with a large number of employees.

For smaller companies, a standard database program can often accomplish the same objectives.

At Auto-Valve Inc. (AVI), an aviation valve manufacturer in Dayton, Ohio, Operations Manager Bob Hale recognized the need for cross-training among his 40 employees. “It became apparent to us that when somebody wasn’t here, we suffered -- especially in key positions that have [tasks] to be done on a daily basis,” he says.

In response, Hale developed an Excel spreadsheet of the 150 necessary job functions, rating them “A,” “B” or “C” to reflect how critical each was to daily operations, and compared it with employees’ existing skills. Hale then used these data to create a training plan.

Now, at least three people can perform each identified function, and conducting the skills assessment and creating a training plan are annual events. As a result of the initiative, Hale says, “our turnover is basically nonexistent.”

Keys to Success

As Dawn Food Products’ experience demonstrates, automated assessment technology also can be a useful cross-training tool. In recent years, many employers have adopted this type of technology to measure job candidates’ skills proficiency and the personality characteristics that are the best indicators of whether the person will succeed in the job and become acclimated to the corporate culture. With existing employees, assessment tools reveal skills gaps that need to be addressed through training and can help identify employees best suited for cross-training. As with performance management systems, costs for assessment tools vary widely depending on usage, customization, complexity and integration. Expenses can range from $20,000 to $1 million.

Dawn Food Products’ behavioral assessment system, provided by The Solution Group, is a web-based application. It contains a custom database of the behaviors of Dawn’s top performers in each position. Employees complete an online questionnaire that assesses their innate abilities in a variety of areas. The system then allows managers to run cross matches to identify employees who have high potential for cross-training success.

E-learning Options

Cross-training initiatives can be undermined by managers and employees wary of taking time away from current job responsibilities. Technology can help address those concerns by providing access to cross-training content at employees’ convenience, thereby minimizing the time spent away from their current jobs. ›

As with any learning, experts say e-learning is most effective when it is used as one component of a comprehensive cross-training program. “Technology is probably best utilized for cross-training when it’s part of a blended solution,” says Fern. “It’s hard to get through on tech alone. You need some dialogue.” Fern suggests that cross-training can be successful with 80 percent of content delivered through various types of e-learning and 20 percent delivered in a personal, interactive way.

In U.S. Audi car dealerships, sales and service personnel pursue certifications offered through the Audi Academy for Sales and Leadership. Both the sales certification and service certification tracks require course work in the other specialty, a cross-training approach that helps improve customer relations and promotes team spirit.

The academy’s staff recognized one major challenge: “If salespeople are out of the store, they’re not selling,” says Duncan Crook, manager of the Audi Academy. In response, the academy provides about 25 percent of its curriculum through technology-enabled options, including web-based content and modules distributed on CD-ROM. “Not everything needs to be instructor-led or sent out in a binder,” Crook says.

E-learning doesn’t have to be sophisticated or expensive; in some instances, a PowerPoint presentation can convey information effectively. Other affordable options include off-the-shelf e-learning authoring software that costs $1,000 to $2,000. Content development vendors typically charge several hundred dollars an hour for design and development, depending on complexity and experience. At the Audi Academy, some e-learning content is developed in-house using Articulate authoring software; more-complex modules are bid out to content development vendors.

At Dawn Food Products, food safety training is provided through a series of DVDs. This year, Harmon plans to launch a web-based safety training module and make computers accessible to line employees.

At AVI, most cross-training is hands-on and occurs on the job. But knowledge is technology-enabled: Hale’s skills matrix and the plant’s quality manual are accessible via the corporate intranet. “All the job functions are identified in the quality manual,” Hale says. “If the inside salesperson is off today, anyone can go to the quality manual and see who to go to.”

Some of Fern’s clients in financial services are turning to high-tech multimedia simulations to deliver cross-training. Utilizing telephonic, video and web-based technologies, these simulations can place employees in situations they are likely to encounter on the job and allow them to make decisions and respond to the outcomes. Managers and trainers can review simulation exercises with employees and discuss their decision-making processes. Periodic review ensures success.

Review Time

Identifying and addressing cross-training needs is not a “once and done” project. To make it effective, the employee assessment process, cross-training content and delivery methods must be monitored continually and updated.

For example, skills inventories need to be reviewed regularly to ensure that they reflect changes in the work environment and in the employee. Building these issues into the annual performance review function in a performance management system can automate and simplify the process. “At least once a year, the manager is going to have a conversation with the employee,” Fern says. Tying it to a performance review, he says, “links cross-training to a nonnegotiable event.”

Behavioral assessments also need to be refreshed regularly, although not as often as skills assessments. “People don’t change that much over the years, but they do change,” says Harmon. While Dawn Food Products has been using The Solution Group’s behavioral assessment tool for only a few years, the plan is to update employees’ behavioral profiles every three to five years going forward.

Delivery methods also need to be reviewed on a regular basis as technology evolves and more options become available. For example, mobile learning delivering on-demand, just-in-time information via smart phones and personal digital assistants is gathering momentum and is likely to swell rapidly as hardware and telecommunications capabilities expand.

Similarly, Fern predicts that more companies will be using online virtual communities like Second Life to provide training simulations in the future. These and other developments in technology may provide convenient, cost-effective options for managers looking to reinforce cross-training efforts.

“People want to be challenged. They don’t want to do the same thing over and over again,” says Wolfe. “The more they feel they have value, the happier they are.”

Today, technology makes it easier than ever to take advantage of the benefits cross-training offers.

The author is is a freelance writer in Baltimore.

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