Cross-training reduces reliance on individual experts and extends a firm’s capabilities without hiring externally. A single specialist can become a bottleneck in a business process simply because he or she is the only person with a necessary skill. This is evident in areas such as software development where the idea of multi-skilling has become a component of Agile development. The problem that cross-training solves is the natural creation of islands of expertise and its consequences. While some people certainly need to be experts, cross-training problems occur at a lower level.
Overall, it is important to recognize that isolated skills and resultant bottlenecks develop as a process over time. Consider an individual familiar with a particular tool, concept, or platform (e.g., an important API). The first work with that API goes to this individual who then uses it to learn more about its functionality. Soon after, that person becomes known as an expert in this function, and work in this area tends to flow to him or her. Finally, the company reaches a stage where it becomes more difficult for others to undertake work in the API area because of this individual’s experience. This is a “skills bottleneck” (see Figure 1).
When there is only a single person or just a few who have a specific skill, a number of problems are likely to occur, including:
- All work requiring the skill or skill set will need to go to those people, creating a bottleneck in work processes.
- Those who have an isolated skill will tend to either be overworked in constantly handling the needs of the specialty, or underworked and lacking the general skills of the team where the specialty is not so frequently required.
- Those having special skills are likely to create problems when they are no longer available either through retirement, illness, or leaving the firm entirely. They can take with them valuable company knowledge as well as skills required to perform mission-critical tasks.
- Individuals with isolated specialty skills may find themselves in an uneasy place within the work environment, being subject to special treatment, such as issues of pay and workplace fairness.
- Skills held only by one or two people easily become islands. They are not shared or further developed within the firm.
- There is no opportunity for peer review for isolated skills. This makes it difficult to spot errors or determine if there is a more effective approach.
Cross-training makes it possible to remedy this situation, but it is also important to ensure that isolated specialties do not continue to emerge. It is far better that project work flows to several people who have similar though lesser experience than having all work flow to a single individual, thus creating potential for a project bottleneck and a huge loss of efficiency in the future.
Cross-training has additional benefits for an enhanced work environment. It can help avoid burnout from handling the same problems repeatedly, enhance team efforts by bringing greater knowledge to bear, and expand skills in complementary areas. Cross-training can also add to overall flexibility and resilience by expanding the pool of available expertise.
In the coming years, as seasoned veterans reach retirement age, cross-training is likely to become particularly critical as a means of retaining accumulated knowledge. This is a general HR problem, but companies can offset it to a degree through cross-training.