Dual Roles

Dual Roles

Cross-training to enhance customer service, employee engagement, and career advancement
HR cross-training

With budgets still tight and a workforce still lean, some higher ed institutions are applying an old approach that allows them to do more with less.

Cross-training employees, or training them to perform key tasks of a coworker’s job, is nothing new. Perhaps it’s never more appreciated than when employees take vacations, become ill, work on special projects, or quit their job.

While there are many benefits of cross-training, it’s not easy finding examples of it on campuses, with the exception of student service centers. One reason: It requires a lot of time and resources. Some departments are short-staffed and employees are overwhelmed with work. Yet, cross-training needs to be considered as an investment to help schools become more efficient in delivering customer service, completing projects, recruiting and retaining employees, or exposing those seeking career advancement and growth.

Several cross-training programs are under way at the University of South Carolina. About two years ago, officials began implementing a new student information system, which will be followed by new systems for HR, payroll, and finance. It’s a several-year project, says Chris Byrd, vice president of human resources at USC. One of the challenges was determining how senior staff in IT could be dedicated to the project while still performing their daily responsibilities.

“That large of a project was going to require significant effort from all corners of the IT organization,” he says. Nearly 10 IT managers were cross-trained to perform the jobs of those senior managers, which enabled the senior managers to work on the project. They received one-on-one orientations with the senior manager of the function they would support.

Since HR and IT anticipated the project in advance, Byrd says the IT managers were given a bump in salary before the project began so they would be fairly compensated for their efforts.

When the project ends next year, he says the cross-training will provide the university with more freedom to structure its organization, since IT managers will possess a broader set of skills.

So will the four new hires participating in the university’s two-year junior financial analyst program, launched last summer. These employees spend several months in different areas that include the controller’s office, accounts payable and receivables, internal auditing, and bursar’s office. They’ll return to finance with sufficient expertise to fill business or finance positions held by retiring employees.

More cross-training is occurring in HR. Since January, the seven employees in its benefits department have been learning about each other’s jobs, explains Ro Kelly, benefits manager. “Most staff welcomed it,” she says. The employees attended training sessions conducted in-house and by vendor partners.
During process mapping sessions, the department members have also analyzed specific functions, such as how to enroll new hires. “We would all sit at the table and tell what our process was for doing that,” Kelly says.

Other than anecdotal evidence, it’s premature to tell what the real impact has been, adds Byrd. Next year, HR will survey employees to gather key indicators such as employee satisfaction and customer service. Meanwhile, he says cross- training will continue.

Practical Tips

Not all cross-training efforts succeed, for various reasons. Some employees, for example, may not be interested in expanding their skill set. Perhaps a good place for HR to pilot a program is in its own department where employee roles may overlap or support each other. As assistant director of organizational effectiveness at the University of Minnesota, which supports approximately 30,000 employees on five different campuses, Carolie Carlson says trainers in the school’s HR department were cross-trained to teach different courses so that employee training would not be interrupted.

Carlson’s experiences taught her some valuable lessons:

  • Ensure that employees have some kind of professional connection to the job. No one would consider training a recruiter for an IT role unless he possessed IT skills or experience, for instance.
  • Offer periodic opportunities for employees to apply new skills. They may soon forget what they learned, make mistakes, and become frustrated. 
  • Include employees in the communication channel. They should get updates, be informed of process or procedural changes, and attend training related to that position.
  • Ask employees to realistically pick a job they would like to (and could) perform. Then include it in their career development plan and, most importantly, carve out time for them to be trained.

Initially, Carlson says, HR may need to sell the concept of cross-training to institutional leaders. Offer examples of such programs at other schools, mention its positive impact on employee engagement and satisfaction, and note how employees with different backgrounds or perspectives can help streamline or improve existing processes. “Then give them tools for how to do this,” says Carlson. “Giving them reasons why and a development plan template, which should start with [employee] goals and competencies, would be an excellent place to start.”

Worthwhile Effort

As hiring freezes continue, departments become short staffed. This can place cross-training on the back burner at some schools, including Houston Community College, which supports nearly 3,000 full-time employees. “HCC would like to do more cross-training, but sometimes day-to-day activities get in the way and make it difficult to justify,” explains Thomas Anderson, HR director. Still, as a supporter of cross training, he recently moved HR generalists from one campus to another so they could share perspectives, learn about the varying needs of other campuses, and expand the scope of their services.

He believes cross training needs to occur throughout HR, particularly at the administrative level. The key question any department considering cross training needs to address is: What value will it bring to the organization?

It’s brought much value to The Ohio State University. Three years ago, the school cross trained 30 employees in its Student Service Center. “Training for our department is still very much a work in progress,” says Kara Miller, director of the center. “We took the counseling and public contact functions from the registrar’s, bursar’s, and student financial aid offices and combined them into one.”

Initially, employees were trained on the processes of all three offices. But Miller realized some translation was needed and hired the center’s own trainer to teach employees how to apply the information they learn. “Training is huge for our office,” she says. “I don’t want to scare anyone away from it because there’s a lot to be gained. It takes a pretty big understanding of the effort involved to do it well.”

Likewise, staff in Onondaga Community College’s (N.Y.) Student Central were cross-trained to perform functions involving the registrar’s, admissions, and financial aid offices, shares Pat Freeman, director of Student Central.

Employee training is a hybrid involving classroom training by directors from those offices, not HR, job shadowing for several days at each office, and ongoing support. Since 11 employees who worked in the three offices were transferred to Student Central, there were experts on board in each function, which was a tremendous help, she says. Collectively, employees possessed different degrees of knowledge and learned at different speeds, creating unique training challenges.

Freeman says it’s essential to select the right employees for cross-training—those who enjoy learning, are flexible and not easily flustered, possess strong decision-making or problem-solving skills, and may be seeking career advancement.

For now, that’s the college’s only formal cross-training program. But informally, HR used job shadowing to cross train four of its employees to cover the front desk, explains Enid Reiley, who was recently hired as the assistant director of HR/employee training and development at the school. 

She believes cross training relieves the “boredom factor” and can positively impact employee satisfaction if workers understand they’re playing a role in the big picture. She plans on promoting the benefits of cross training to employees attending leadership development seminars.

“Take people back to the mission of the college,” she says, adding that cross training needs to be marketed as an upfront investment. She suggests asking employees to think about who they’re here to provide service for and how they’re going to do it in the best, most efficient way. 

Cross-training can meet a wide variety of needs. What better way to deliver customer service, engage employees and move them forward?


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