Leadership Lab: Management Competencies
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Cross-training: A Case Study
T. Brian Granier
Customer service ratings are down and your average resolution times are suffering. After investigating, you find that quite frequently one person has a back log of issues to handle while everyone else on the support team may as well be twiddling their thumbs. To your surprise, this trend has played out quite frequently and it is not always the same people twiddling their thumbs and not always the same people working hard. Having worked with your team for quite some time, you don’t believe this is a case of slacking employees or an inability for issues to be assigned according to the intended work flow processes.
This scenario is one that I became painfully aware of some time ago with a team I manage. In this team, I am responsible for the IT Services group for a company that provides managed services for the small the medium business community. As a relatively small company, the IT team consists of seven to nine employees. Two to four of these employees are at the senior technical level. In digging deeper, it became obvious that the workload was consistently being divided in a disproportionate manner specifically due to the fact that some individuals have strengths in certain areas and would, as a result, be assigned all tickets related to those areas. Further, in many cases, many of these issues could not be reassigned to another employee simply because they lacked the experience or training to handle the issue appropriately. Since the problem was not in having the appropriate man hours to get things done, but in the division of knowledge and the ability to be able to balance the workload amongst the various team members, the solution seemed apparent to me. It was time to cross-train!
This article is presented as a case study outlining the reasons for cross-training, methods of implementation and analysis of the results as it applies to my personal experience with my IT services team. While the context of the case study should be kept in mind, it is my expectation that this information can be useful for many managers regardless of industry in analyzing and assessing the value of cross-training in their teams, a basic framework for implementation and how it can positively impact core business goals. As a point of reference, responsibilities for the team in this case study include support for all Microsoft server side platforms, Firewall/VPN and security management, VMS Administration and Network Management.
Reasons to Cross-trainThe indicators that suggest a need for cross-training can be numerous and may take a little bit of time to properly identify. The issues identified in the example environment that were ultimately related to the lack of a cross-training program were the existence of single points of failure, inflexible division of labor, lack of a team atmosphere, an inability to address the need for a rotation of duty as a security principle and a lack of variety in employee job duties. To expand further, we will discuss each on in turn to discuss how each of these areas relate to cross-training.
Single Points of Failure - Evident in the fact that certain tasks were always assigned to a single individual specialized in a particular area is the existence of a single point of failure. Most people use this term to describe technical issues if you only have one switch, one power source, one firewall or one connection to the Internet. However, this concept should not end with technical equipment and environments and must extend to personnel concerns. If only one person knows how to support a given technology and they need to go on vacation, decide to retire, meet with an unfortunate and untimely accident or any other similar scenario, then your company is at risk.
Inflexible Division of Labor - In order to obtain staff with the appropriate depth in certain areas to meet the support needs of the company as a whole, it is necessary to focus on a small portion of the entire IT support needs of the team when hiring new employees. However, with the lack of a cross-training initiative, the team is prone to have an inability to share the workload as specialized employees will tend to remain specialized and not develop the hands on experience in the areas that their co-workers are specialized in. The end result is an inability to share the workload amongst the team members.
Lack of a Team Atmosphere - The biggest negative effect that the lack of a cross-training program brought about is the 'tennis effect'. Since there was no program or incentive for employees to learn or take responsibility for other knowledge areas, there was a tendency when issues came in that were truly a cross-discipline problem for no single individual to take true ownership of the event. They would investigate or address the aspects of the issue that related to their specialization and if nothing is found they would tend to point their finger at a co-worker and indicate that it was their problem and say 'the ball’s not in my court'. The end result is two-fold in that no single individual took ultimate responsibility for these types of issues and the team tended to work against rather than with each other, striving to make sure the 'ball' remains always in someone else’s court. Instead, the team should be focused on playing football, where every team members plays their part collectively to carry the ball to the goal.
Rotation of Duty as a Security Principle - When discussing security principles, two topic areas that often come up from a personnel perspective are the concepts of rotation of duty and mandatory vacations.
The rotation of duty concept is that by setting up job role rotations within an organization on a scheduled basis then inefficiencies and corruption will become easier to identify and resolve. This is usually discussed in the financial sense where if you have one person managing the finances for a particular division for twenty years, it will be fairly easy for that one individual to embezzle money. However, if you have a team of accountants responsible for several different sets of accounts or groups and you rotate their accounts every year, this kind of corruption will be much more difficult to hide.
In a similar vein, there is a school of thought that believes mandatory vacations provide another layer of security for much the same reason in that by having short period of times where an employees job tasks can be reassigned to other employees. The intent is that by doing so, similar corruption or inefficiencies might be uncovered.
Unfortunately, true rotation of duty tends to only be feasible in larger organizations that have enough staff that jobs can be more easily rotated, due to an abundance of similar work. For the environment in this case study, cross-training can help achieve a similar effect not by rotating the job positions, but by sharing the workload so that other employees become knowledgeable enough in the appropriate areas to be able to provide peer oversight of each others realm of expertise. Another side effect is that by sharing the knowledge of each of the specializations, mandatory vacations become possible.
Lack of Variety - Often, one of the biggest reasons staff move on to other companies is that their job ceases to be challenging. By allowing employees to become comfortable in their areas of expertise, we increase the likelihood that employees will reach a point where the job presents no new challenges. Cross-training is meant to expand the knowledge area and introduce new challenges, leading to more variety in the day to day workload and carrying the advantage of providing a fresh perspective to old problems.
Several methods were used in this case study environment to implement a cross-training program. While these steps were tailored to the specifics of the organization, the process at a conceptual level can be useful across a wide variety of cross-training scenarios. The basic steps were to identify team skill sets, analyze and prioritize gaps of knowledge, establish on-the-job training sessions and stop pigeon-holing.
Identify Team Skill Sets - Before we can even consider what training is required, we needed to spend time documenting all of the various skill-sets that are used throughout the team in order to do our collective job. To accomplish this task, all of the job descriptions within the team were reviewed and the high level knowledge areas were identified such as Firewall administration, Windows administration, Network administration, etc...
Next, each of the major areas was given to the specialists for that area where they were asked to expand into sub-categories within the subject area. For example, Windows Administration was broken down as follows:
- Active Directory and user administration
- Basic SQL administration
- Exchange administration
- Terminal Server administration
- Disk administration/setup
This was then analyzed for each sub-category and broken down into much smaller and individually trainable subject areas. For example, Active Directory and user administration was broken down as follows:
- Add/use/modify users and groups
- Review event viewer for system issues
- Create OI
- Understand GPO
- Understand the different security policies
- Understand Delegate control
- Understand Replication
- Understand FSMO
- Understand Trusts
- Add computers to domain
- Use the ADSI tool
All of the job description break-outs for the entire team were then assembled into one location and sent to the entire team to expand further where anyone saw fit before a finalized 'Team skill-set' document was established. In this case, we had identified 240 separate knowledge areas.
The final step to this process involves getting basic metrics for each knowledge area. A spreadsheet was created to list each item with a column called Skill, Importance and Frequency. The following instructions were then given to each employee along with a copy of the excel sheet:
2: I have a general idea, but I struggle with it.
3: I can get by. I have to look things up fairly often.
4: This is routine for me, but I have to look some things up.
5: I could teach a class.
2: Not very important
4: Very Important
The next column is Frequency. This is how often you experience a need to use this skill in the normal course of your duties.
2: At least once a quarter
3: At least once a month
4: At least weekly
5: At least daily
Once all of the responses were received, they were centralized into one master excel sheet where the data could be analyzed to establish the areas that required the most immediate attention.
WARNING: Caution must be taken when doing the items discussed in this section as some employees may misinterpret the motive. It is important to be open and honest with your employees so that they know the true intent of these activities. The more skeptical employees will believe that your real goal is to develop a skill-set requirement in the event that one of them is to be fired.
Analyze and Prioritize - At this point, all of the data is now at your fingertips. Based upon your employees self analysis and your observation, you have the blueprint to understand what each employees strengths and weaknesses are. You also have good feedback identifying the frequency and importance of each of the knowledge areas. With this information, you should be able to identify which areas carry single points of failure and use the importance and frequency metrics to prioritize the order in which these should be addressed.
Establish on the Job Training Sessions - Set aside dedicated time on a regular basis for training sessions. On a rotational basis, task each employee with the responsibility to create a presentation or training material and teach the other members of the team how to accomplish one of the knowledge areas identified in the spreadsheet. These sessions should be short and focused on as specific of a task as is appropriate for the time given.
Stop Pigeon-holing - This step has proven to be the most fruitful of all of the steps taken towards establish cross-training as a team objective. Pigeon-holing in this context is meant to describe the practice of repeatedly directing work of a specific type to one individual, since they are the best at the given technology. The objective to stop pigeon-holing changed many ways in which the case study environment work flow processes worked and manifested itself in several ways described below:
On-Call Schedule - Prior to this initiative, the 24/7 staff was trained to escalate in the off-hours to whichever senior level technician they believed knew how to resolve the problem at hand the best. This practice resulted in all senior level technicians effectively being on-call at all times and was the source of tension and stress within the group. With the objective of no longer pigeon-holing, an on-call rotation was setup so that any issue requiring escalation in the off-hours would go to one pre-designated senior level technician regardless of the 24/7 staff expectation of how well they could resolve the problem.
Ticket Assignment Rotation - Similar to the prior off-hours calls mentioned above, the first line technicians also had been previously trained to assign tickets requiring escalation to the senior level technician they believed knew the issue best. This practice resulted in an unequal division of labor and deprived senior level technicians from learning opportunities they would otherwise have. To combat this practice, a policy was established that all non-emergency tickets, regardless of the issue, are assigned to the senior level technician with the least number of tickets. Emergency tickets will still be assigned to the senior level technician that specializes on the issue.
Try-Train-Escalate - For the next step of the process, the senior technicians were given instructions whenever they received issues they did not know how to handle that they were expected to attempt to complete the task using the tools at their disposal, which for the most part meant by using Google and support contracts. If they reach a road-block and can not determine what to try next, they are expected to seek out training from their peers to complete the task. This on the job training has been the primary source of the cross-training in practice. In this phase of the process, the original technician is expected to complete the task under the supervision and direction of the peer that is specialized in the area involved. However, there are occasions where the workflow is heavy and it is unlikely the task will be completed within a reasonable amount of time using the try-train method. In this case, the senior level technicians work together to reassign tickets and get the tasks completed as quickly as possible. Whenever this happens, the original technician that was given the ticket is expected to follow-up as time permits and seek out training on how they could have accomplished the task without escalation. In practice, this follow-up training is only done in about one out of every four cases, but the end result has been a significant increase in proactive learning opportunities.
Balance via Communication - The downside of the methods mentioned above is that while technicians may have an equal number of tickets, this does not necessarily translate into an equal workload balance as some issues take much more time to manage than others. In order to provide the next level of balance, senior level technicians are encouraged to maintain open communication with their peers and are expected to help each other out by identifying tickets that can be taken from the technicians under the highest load whenever the situation dictates. Communication is key to making the entire process remain effective.
The impacts of the steps taken above are noticeable and significant. I would not be telling the truth if I suggested that my team is entirely cross-trained as, like security, it is a journey, not a destination. Besides the issues mentioned as reasons to cross-train, we have realized several other benefits. There has been a significant reduction in the time to resolution for the average problem, stress levels for the technical support staff has greatly reduced due to a more equal division of labor and most importantly, the increased level of communication, training and direct interaction that these steps imply have resulted in a better team atmosphere and, most importantly, improved customer satisfaction.
As a call to action, I invite you to consider the indicators that reflect the need for a cross-training program mentioned at the beginning of this article and look for them within your organization or team. If it seems apparent that this type of program can benefit your organization, then you can use the methods for implementation mentioned above as a starting point and modify them as is appropriate for your environment. Once the project is underway, it will be important to analyze the results of the effort on a continual basis in order to identify other areas that need improvement and to report on the successes of your team (and to reward them appropriately) as you continue the never-ending journey that is cross-training.
This paper was presented to complete the requirements for the course Management 421:SANS Leadership and Management Competencies
Other Related Articles in Leadership Lab: Management Competencies
- Cross-training: A Case Study - Jul 27th, 2007
After going through the entire employee search, interview and hiring process, it’s time to train your business’ new employee. Typically when someone is hired on a managerial level, they are cross-trained to perform a variety of tasks in multiple roles within the organization. Now it has become common for new, non-manager level employees to also learn skills required for various roles.
While cross-training employees can provide great benefits to any business, there can also be some downsides, making it an advantage and disadvantage. Here are a few pros and cons of cross-training employees.
The Advantages of Cross-Training Employees
If there is only one guy in the office who knows how to troubleshoot network issues, what will happen when he’s out for a week with the flu? You might as well close up shop if he’s not there. Having cross-trained employees would be beneficial in situations like this because when Jeff is out with the flu and your whole network is upside down, you’ll have Sarah as a backup. This may also come in handy when a position is vacated. Cross-trained employees can take on some of the responsibilities until the position is refilled.
Every business owner knows that sometimes unexpected disasters just happen. The reservation for 20 is on the books for tomorrow night, yet here they are a day early, standing at your door. Or your oven stops working and you need to find another way to get your specials ready for the dinner rush. When you need all hands on deck in dire situations like these, organizations that cross-train employees will have a better chance of bouncing back quickly from major disruptions. AND it speeds up the process because everyone works together as a team, making for easier and quicker recovery efforts.
You can’t talk about cross-training pros and cons without discussing the fact that cross-training employees can improve the way things are done because team members must understand the process before teaching the new hire the ropes. Sometimes as new employees are trained, they may even see a more efficient way to complete a task because they have a different point of view, making this a double cross-training benefit. It’s a learning process for everyone involved but, in the end, it increases your efficiency, which is a plus for any business owner.
Cross-training not only adds value to the business, but also to the individual employee. When an employee is given more responsibilities, he or she might see it as a manager putting more time and trust into that person’s personal and professional development. Employees might feel as if they have more to offer to the company than they originally thought, causing them to work harder, providing another cross-training advantage yet.
The Disadvantages of Cross-Training Employees
One disadvantage of cross-training employees is that taking responsibilities away from one employee and passing them onto another employee can break a person’s confidence. It could be even worse when those responsibilities are given to someone who just learned the skills required to fulfill them. Employees might feel as if they aren’t good enough for the job they were hired for, or that they might be easily replaced.
Quick Fix: Always consider intangible factors like the impact on employee motivation when cross-training your team. Ensure that your staff understands that cross-training is actually for their benefit, not a means to replace them.
While healthy competition is great for business and production, unhealthy competition can create major conflicts within a company, making it a major con of cross-training employees. If employees feel as if their jobs are being threatened, they might go to unethical extremes to make sure they keep their position. It could also lead to gossip circulating around the office, employees putting personal problems above their work, and possibly even blackmailing. If word gets out to the public about the internal turmoil, it may soil your company and brand.
Quick Fix: Do things to make your employees feel like a team so they work together in unison. Also, be careful not to pit one shift or one area of service against the other. Let them know that they’re all a valuable part of the process.
Many times, people are not 100 percent satisfied at work as it is. So generally, when an employee assumes more responsibilities, he or she might expect an increase in pay. If one person gets a raise while no one else does and word spreads around the office about it, the other employees might feel unfairly treated. They might begin to feel resentment towards their tasks, manager and maybe even the company.
Quick Fix: To lessen the negative impact of this cross-training disadvantage, check in with your employees regularly to see how they feel about their jobs. This enables you to deal with any bad feelings directly. It also makes it possible to understand how your actions may be making one employee feel less valued than another.
Loss of Focus
By cross-training employees, you lose specialized knowledge. Cross-training teaches employees a little bit about a lot of things. It spreads their understanding and capabilities over a wide range of skills and tasks. A person who was hired for a specific position who shares responsibilities with an employee from a different role might lose sight of their main focus.
Quick Fix: Although cross-training does tend to “water down” some more specialized duties, you can combat this by making sure employees have the opportunity to hone their skills. This can be accomplished by sending them to trade shows or trainings.
Cross-training employees is not the best tactic for every business. It can have positive effects as well as negative effects, making it both an advantage and disadvantage depending on where you stand.
Carefully developing a cross-training program, utilizing technology and keeping your company culture in mind can help your small business reap the benefits of this strategy. Ultimately, it will make the pros of cross-training stronger and weakens the cons of cross-training even more, leaving you with a better business as a result.
Cecillia Barr has a bachelors of science in business administration degree in marketing from the University of Central Florida. She is known for covering personal and business finance and debt solutions. Connect with Cecillia on Twitter.