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Cross-Training for Workforce Agility

By John Ambrose
[Talent Management Magazine January 2008]

As organizations grapple with the increasing pace of change, workforce agility is emerging as key to becoming an industry leader.

Cross-training workers in multiple skills and providing ongoing learning opportunities delivered in the right place, at the right time can ensure an agile workforce.

Agility can mean different things to different organizational units, but one common thread persists: accelerating speed of change. Organizations must not only keep up with change, but catalyze change to keep a competitive edge. And, one critical aspect of an agile organization is a workforce with a broad skill set and in-depth knowledge across multiple areas of the business. Cross-training is the key.

Why Agility?

As far back as the 1960s, researchers recognized the environmental contexts of organizations were changing at an increasing rate due in large part to technological change. F.E. Emery and E.L. Trist wrote about the trend in their 1965 article in Human Relations titled “The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments.” According to “Agility and Resilience in the Face of Continuous Change: A Global Study of Current Trends and Future Possibilities,” conducted by the Institute for Corporate Productivity, practitioners were also noticing that the nature of change was changing, and from these studies, they coined the term “turbulent environment.”

This new terminology was an acknowledgement that the normal expectations and rules for dealing with change no longer applied, and companies that could not adapt quickly enough would struggle for their survival. This is even more the case today, as companies are battling for their corporate lives in this rapidly changing climate.

According to authors Edward Lawler and Christopher Worley in the 2006 book Built to Change: How to Achieve Sustained Organizational Effectiveness, “an analysis of Fortune 1000 corporations shows that between 1973 and 1983, 35 percent of the companies in the top 20 were new. The number of new companies increases to 45 percent when the comparison is between 1983 and 1993. It increases even further, to 60 percent, when the comparison is between 1993 and 2003.”

Additionally, a series of major issues surveys conducted by the Human Resource Institute show that managing change has been perennially ranked among the top workforce management issues since the 1990s.

Managing change effectively has become a significant corporate undertaking, impacting critical success factors when adopting emerging technologies and business models, fighting competitors and undertaking myriad business innovations. It is from this rapid-fire change environment that the term “agility” has emerged.

Defining Agility

According to the Institute for Corporate Productivity’s study, “Agility and Resilience in the Face of Continuous Change,” an agile business “can move quickly, decisively and effectively in anticipating, initiating and taking advantage of change.”

According to Mary Pat McCarthy and Jeff Stein, in their book Agile Business for Fragile Times: Strategies for Enhancing Competitive Resiliency and Stakeholder Trust, agile companies can do the following:

Maintain a continual focus on profitability and revenue growth.

a) Understand central priorities and the importance of assessing and reporting on value.

b) Sustain commitment to communication that starts at the top.

c) Acquire and filter pertinent information from and to key constituents, rapidly.

d) Test assumptions and frequently measuring results.

e) Have a performance culture.

f) Enable shared decision making.

g) Adapt rapidly to change.

Agility and its qualities must be employed at the most senior level. Its importance is evident in executive education, such as the course offered in Harvard Business School’s Executive Education program, Strategic Agility: Leading Flexible Organizations. However, to be truly successful in being flexible, agility must permeate the entire organization. How does this translate into the different business units throughout the organization?

A report from Gartner outlines how effective business process management (BPM) can result in agility. The 2006 report, titled “Achieving Agility,” states that BPM is “a discipline that enables business agility in three important ways. It allows faster and better-informed decisions, reduces the process revision cycle time, and promotes consensus for rapid adoption of changes.”

Service-oriented architecture (SOA), a form of technology architecture that aligns IT services with business processes, is also frequently referenced as a means to agility. A 2008 IBM Global Services white paper states that a study on the business value of SOA, performed by IBV (Institute of Business Value), found 100 percent of respondents saw increased business flexibility from their first SOA project.

Traditionally, the means to becoming an agile company are found throughout organizations in leadership and management, culture, software development, information infrastructures, project management, compliance and policies. However, one area that has not received as much attention is the ability of employees to respond to unforeseen challenges and solve problems quickly. This requires getting pertinent content into the hands of staff at the exact time they need it during their day-to-day work.

Cross-Training for Agility

The best way to ensure employees have the skills and information they need is to weave learning into how employees work naturally. By sharing bite-size nuggets of targeted learning content, such as a relevant chunk of a course, a job aid, a simulation or other resource, organizations turn learning into an enabler of the corporate mission.

Through cross-training, employees have the opportunity to learn new skills, which can make them more valuable in their current job and enhance their own professional development. It also allows for more flexibility in managing the workforce.

To increase agility, cross-training employees can be made an inherent part of the workday that is easily accessible via the corporate intranet or portal. E-learning allows workers to train at their own pace within the flexibility of their own schedule. Employees have the ability to cross-train and develop skills outside of immediate tasks to adapt easily and quickly to expanded responsibilities.

To maximize knowledge retention without disrupting employees’ normal workload, organizations also are utilizing learning structures that blend content in meaningful ways. This often involves integrating easily consumable bits of knowledge into business workflows. With this connected learning methodology, content and technology are no longer viewed as stand-alone components; the value of the content comes not only from its inherent qualities, but also from the management, delivery and customization tools used to provide it.

This model of on-demand learning allows employees to solve problems in real time as they arise, without departing from their normal day-to-day functions. Additionally, by cross-training employees in other sectors of the business, organizations can eliminate the stagnation that can occur over time, making all employees agile and ready to adapt to change quickly, whenever business needs dictate.

Regardless of where agility is needed in the organization, dealing with change impacts the workforce, putting it in constant transition. Employees have increasing responsibilities and demands and are expected to know more and do more due to global expansion, virtual locations and mobile offices. Companies are realizing that to be an innovator during this constant change, they must support employees in acquiring and applying knowledge in the moment of need.

However, speed of change has proliferated information at such a disturbing rate it has overloaded our ability to gather information and comprehend it. What’s needed is information in context that will provide knowledge for needed skills, stimulate thinking, and create innovative ideas, enabling the workforce to move quickly, decisively and effectively. The quest for information can be a barrier to agility.

The volume of information at our disposal can be overwhelming. The amount of new technical information is doubling every two years, yet this is creating more problems than it solves. Research shows employees are spending inordinate amounts of time searching for information to help manage their responsibilities and to keep current. According to a Business Week Online survey, employees spend upward of 12 hours each week on information-gathering tasks.

And, according to a survey conducted by Accenture, the information they are finding is often of no value or is incorrect. Without easily accessible learning assets, employees may turn to traditional algorithmic search engines to find information they need to perform day-to-day tasks, which can lead to an inordinate amount of time spent sifting through irrelevant information before ever finding useful data.

A Butler Group report, titled “Enterprise Search & Retrieval,” states ineffective search and delivery strategies are hampering business competitiveness, impairing service delivery and putting companies at risk.

Users need a way to access and absorb the information that will best help them accomplish their mission. Equally important, users need an easy way to search rich media assets, such as videos or training simulations. These learning assets have diminished value if they are not readily accessible and easily searchable. An effective cross-training system can provide employees with a context for information and help them more efficiently find what they need, when they need it.

[About the Author: John Ambrose is senior vice president of strategy, corporate development and emerging business at SkillSoft.]