Writing in Harvard Business Review, Seth Harris and Jake Schwartz argue that competing for skilled workers is a mistake—that organizations would be better served by growing the talent they need from within. Employers are often reluctant, however, to invest in training programs, and it’s not hard to see why. Additional skills may make an employee more “marketable” to other employers, and if the employee takes a job elsewhere, the investment goes with them.
The authors are well aware of this risk, but they note that investing in training and skill development benefits employers, even if some employees do leave the organization. For one thing, because employees prize educational opportunities at work, training and development programs can aid recruitment and retention efforts.
Another barrier to developing talent internally, however, is that training usually tends to be role specific. We might expect someone in an entry-level sales job to receive some additional sales training so they can stop making cold calls and start going out to meet prospective clients. We would not typically expect that same individual to receive training that’s unrelated to their sales job or career path.
This barrier, too, is easy to understand. Budgets are limited, and it’s usually not in an employer’s interest to teach employees skills they don’t need for their job now or won’t need in the near future. Why would an engineering manager want their team members to learn about marketing techniques, sales processes, or customer service? That sounds like a waste of money, no?
In a work culture where roles and career paths are specialized, it certainly does. But hiring individuals with specialized skill sets, and keeping those employees on predetermined paths, isn’t the only way to build a team. Imagine if every employee in a company received a basic level of training in other aspects of the business. Nora, for example, might be her company’s graphic designer, but she’s also been shown how to conduct a sales call, create a budget, write social media posts, calm a frustrated customer, create a pivot table and analyze its data, interview a job candidate, and facilitate the development of a new product. In turn, Nora has taught her colleagues some of the basics of graphic design.
This approach, called “cross training,” creates a versatile team of people who can move about within the organization outside of the routes originally dictated by their specialized skills sets. It establishes a work environment where people’s place in the organization isn’t limited by the skills they came in with or team they started on. 6
Cross-training also has the benefit of exposing everyone to what their coworkers do in the organization. Cross-team collaboration is difficult for a lot of organizations because different teams have different ways of operating, different priorities, and different needs—and the people on those teams often don’t understand and appreciate those differences. Putting on someone else’s work shoes and hat can help us see another’s work world from their perspective.
In practice, cross-training is more common in smaller organizations where there aren’t enough employees for everyone to wear a separate hat. It’s much more difficult and less cost-effective for larger organizations where there are people with the same or similar specialized roles.
For organizations both large and small, some of the benefits of cross-training can be realized by taking a team-focused rather than task-focused approach to employment. In a task-focused workplace, people apply and get hired for a job—a set of tasks—and to the extent that they have to work with others, they’re part of a team. The team forms almost as more of a byproduct of individual people doing their work in tandem. In contrast, in a team-focused workplace, people join the company to be on a team, one that works together to complete the needed tasks. The difference here is subtle, but it can make a big difference in how employers and employees see one another.
When someone is hired merely to fill a position, their connection and loyalty to the organization may only be as strong as their interest in the job duties on a given day. If they grow tired of doing their assigned tasks, they’ll naturally look for a position that better suits their interests. They wanted to do a certain job, but that job isn’t motivating them anymore, so there’s no use sticking around if their employer has nothing else of interest to them. Conversely, if the tasks they do cease to be of value to the organization, and there’s no immediate position that matches their skill set in the organization, the employee will no doubt be let go.
When someone is hired to be on a team, they’re part of something that extends beyond their current job duties. They’re attached not simply to a set of tasks, but to a community of people. There are tasks to perform, of course, but these assignments are seen not as belonging simply to individuals, but as the responsibility of the team to manage. Team-focused leaders aren’t just intent on keeping the positions they manage filled, but in creating a team, developing that team, preparing it for future needs, and keeping it together.
Regardless of training methods, people will continue to join and leave the team when it’s in their interest to do so. But a team-focused approach to employment creates both broader and deeper social bonds among team members and their leaders, and if leaders are thinking about the future and preparing people on their team to perform future tasks (e.g., through upskilling and modern apprenticeships), the incentives for people stay with the organization long term are stronger.