What is cross functional training? Plus how to implement it in your organization

What is cross functional training and how to implement it in your company
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Out of the 50% of Americans who said they want to make career changes, 39% want a raise or promotion, and 33% want to switch industries.

Most of them go external to achieve this common goal. But what if they didn’t have to?

Cross functional training initiatives are opportunities for HR professionals to leverage internal networks, hone employees’ skills, and retain motivated individuals looking for challenges.

Instead of taking a risk with new candidates or laying off good employees, you can move your existing human resources more fluidly and expand them to cover all your bases.

Companies with excellent internal mobility retain employees for 5.4 years on average – nearly twice as long as companies that struggle with it.

Other internal mobility benefits include higher engagement and agility and reduced costs and hiring time.

Cross functional training is a great, organic way to become more mobile. Companies like Google, Apple, and Netflix are already in on it.

Consider this your formal invitation to hop on board.

What is cross functional training?

Cross functional training or cross-training is a talent development practice where employees learn skills and knowledge that aren’t part of their current job description.

Cross-training can mean one department learning from another.

Since cross functional training promotes teamwork, out-of-the-box thinking, and a cross-pollination of ideas, many companies take this approach to the next level and form permanent cross functional teams.

For example, instead of having separate groups of developers and data analysts, you can rally them under the same flag to form a more diverse development team.

Permanent or not, cross functional team training ties in closely with upskilling and internal mobility because it focuses on bringing employees from all different departments and teams together to learn skills not regularly associated with their day jobs.

This way, throughout your organization, you can:

  • Share skills and insights

  • Break down silos

  • Use resources to their maximum potential instead of being stuck in one lane

  • Build connections and relationships between team members that help them advance their careers

Is cross functional training related to cross boarding?

Yes.

Cross boarding is hiring internally or transitioning an employee from one role to another in the same business.

As you can imagine, cross functional training is a fundamental part of the cross boarding process.

You can’t hand out a job to the first willing internal candidate just for the sake of not hiring externally, can you?

They could have valuable company knowledge, but the same rules that apply to external recruitment also apply here: The right person must have an adequate skill set and personality to succeed in different roles.

But how would you even know if you have diamonds in the rough if you only ever talked to your employees about things directly associated with their job?

Cross-training is the key that unlocks their true potential.

Even better, pair it with skills evaluations to:

  • Test employees’ current knowledge and address internal gaps

  • Use as learning material when running cross functional training programs

  • Test employees again after they’ve completed their training as a rite of passage

This way, you can plan succession and cross board employees without a hitch.

The benefits of cross functional training: Why should you invest in it?

The short answer? 

Cross functional training helps you spend less and get more out of your employees. 

But for more details about these eight key benefits, you’ll have to keep reading.

The benefits of cross functional training and why you should invest in it

Skills gap prevention method

As things stand, 87% of companies either already have or expect to have a skills gap within the next few years.

In other words, you must assign some responsibilities, and nobody has the qualification to handle them within capacity.

That’s walking on thin ice. Do you rush to make a new hire? It’s a high-stakes gamble. Do you overload current employees? That’s a recipe for higher burnout and turnover.

No – there’s a much safer option: a holistic talent strategy.

Talent shortages across industries and a holistic view on talent strategy

Source

Cross functional collaboration training helps with building skills (investing in L&D to grow talent) and bridging talent gaps (by helping people into new roles upwards or laterally).

Your strategy can then focus on leveraging internal talent in two steps:

  1. Doing regular skills gap analyses to show you where you’re in danger of a shortage

  2. Cross functional training to help you prevent and close those talent gaps

External resources might not even be necessary in most cases.

More skill and talent sharing across teams

Cross functional training enables you to share skills across departments to strengthen overall knowledge and reduce the need for external help.

For example, an IT expert can teach the best cybersecurity practices to other departments.

It’s technically not in their job description, but all employees must comply to keep the company safe. Just one employee accidentally downloading malware is enough to expose confidential data in a breach.

Cross functional training also helps facilitate a culture of continuous learning.

People get to share their expertise and use the opportunity to learn from experts about topics they don’t know as much about.

Increased company resilience and agility/mobility

A larger pool of employees with versatile skill sets is an investment in the future.

It gives you a greater number of flexible workers that can bounce across projects and departments, increasing your company’s resilience, agility, and employee retention.

Many jobs already have an approximate expiry date because of technological advancements. So, what happens to those employees?

With cross functional training, you can keep them in new, modified roles and save money on hiring in the future.

More trust in the workplace

Remote workers often report feeling out of place in their company and not trusting their colleagues, so this is a chance to work on it.

Cross functional training facilitates trust in the workplace:

  • It’s an opportunity to socialize with colleagues and form better relationships

  • It provides a higher understanding of everyone’s responsibilities, leading to more empathy and better teamwork

  • A sense of belonging leads to lower turnover, fewer sick days, and higher performance

Goal alignment and better relationships across teams

Again, remote workers don’t even get to see and interact with their closest teammates, let alone other departments.

Cross-training is a perfect opportunity to go beyond Slack chatting and task comments to include and connect with everyone.

It unites the workforce to move together towards the company’s goals instead of each department pulling its weight and focusing on its differences.

When they join forces, experts from different fields have much to offer each other.

Cross functional training ensures you don’t waste good ideas. It also directly contributes to better relationships across departments, leading to a more efficient and fruitful collaboration.

Great leadership training for future leaders

Managers have to wear lots of hats. It’s part of the job – they need to know a bit about the jobs of everyone they’re managing.

Cross functional training is a good, low-risk exercise to give them a preview.

Future managers get to test their collaboration and communication skills with colleagues from other departments, not just their closest circle or team.

Leadership training enables you to groom motivated and trustworthy managers who show leadership potential and are familiar with the business instead of looking for a perfect candidate externally.

Happier workers with more internal career opportunities

Development opportunities are the top factor employees link to work satisfaction.

But development doesn’t have to be one-directional. With cross-training, you can help employees experiment with new roles and move around the entire company.

There’s no need to confine them within their current job description and its traditional progression. Maybe they want to move on from their role but don’t want an upward promotion.

Instead of leaving the company, employees can turn a fresh chapter internally – everybody wins.

Reduced hiring costs

Cross functional training nurtures a flexible, agile workforce.

A flexible workforce means less need for temp workers because temporary changes get absorbed more easily without affecting results.

But what if you still need a temp or even a full-time hire?

Cross-training nourishes your internal talent pool, so you have plenty of great talent to choose from internally, saving you cost and time-to-hire.

The challenges of cross functional collaboration training

Below are the main difficulties associated with cross functional training and our tips on how to overcome them.

Challenges of cross functional training and collaboration

Employees losing focus on their strengths and responsibilities

Cross functional training doesn’t mean chaos. But chaos can happen if you lose track of why you’re doing it, who’s involved, and their primary goals.

Priorities still need to be clear, and most employees don’t need to be Jacks of All Trades but masters of one. That doesn’t exclude them from cross functional training.

However, the training needs to be focused and clear.

Stress to employees which responsibilities they must prioritize (starting with their current roles) and what to explore next.

Demotivation due to too much work and/or irrelevant learning

You don’t want to overload staff by making everyone learn everything – cross functional training only makes sense when the point is clear.

Explain to employees why learning about a certain topic or gaining a new skill could help their current performance and which options open which future doors to incentivize them.

But don’t force anyone to attend random training they don’t want or need. It might backfire.

Conflict between employees

Competition doesn’t have to be bad, but it can stir conflict. Beware of:

  • Competitive tendencies getting out of hand

  • Employees interpreting instructions or responsibilities differently

  • Staff being difficult to steer

These issues happen because of unclear communication.

On top of that, employees often don’t report to the appointed team leader, so it can be difficult to manage cross functional teams, especially when they have different, even opposite goals.

The fix?

Prepare communication channels ahead of time, create a process or a standard operating procedure document that dispels uncertainty, and encourage questions.

This way, it’s clear who’s in charge of what and who to contact for help navigating the complexities of interdisciplinary teamwork.

Cross functional training examples

How about some real-life cross functional training examples and case studies for inspiration?

Real cross functional training example

Key points

IDEO

IDEO is famous for its cross-disciplinary talent approach built around so-called “

T-shaped people

”; T-shaped people have depth in their field and a disposition for collaboration – empathy and a drive to learn other skills; The company recruits this type of person consciously by going past the resume and taking in the whole person; It gives employees a chance to learn and collaborate with others in continual cross functional training

Northwestern Mutual Life

A

financial services mutual organization

and a leader in building cross functional teams; It appoints a non-stakeholder to each team to get rid of echo chambers and instigate fresh ideas; In one of its first cross functional collaborations, its financial, investment, and actuarial departments predicted how computers would influence business; As a result, one of the first information system departments was born, and it kept the company ahead of the curve; Today, it has cross functional teams in every area of the organization

Apple

Instead of an autocratic leadership model, each member has a chance to contest ideas and contribute; It’s all about the user experience and inter-departmental collaboration to make operations as smooth as possible; They formed a cross functional team of experts, now known for its innovation, to create the iPhone; Apple hit

$394.33bn in revenue in 2022

Other companies that use cross functional training and even have permanent cross functional teams that can inspire you include Amazon, Facebook, Cisco, and Nokia.

Now, let’s talk about yours.

How to get started with cross functional training: 9 best practices

Cross-training employees is all about breaking the mold. There are about as many ways to approach it as there are cross functional teams in the business world.

But we can think of nine fundamental practices you should implement.

1. Identify the roles and skills your organization requires to be more resilient

This far into the article, your head is likely buzzing with possibilities. But be careful not to get carried away.

Cross functional training needs to be done in a way that makes sense with your organizational goals and current skills.

Otherwise, you could waste a lot of resources with little payback.

Start with a skills gap analysis. An analysis gives you an overview of your current situation and illuminates gaps or gap risks.

These will be your training focus areas.

2. Build a formal training structure across these skills

Next, you need a process. Nobody likes documentation, but it’s a necessary framework to produce consistent and reliable results.

There are ways to speed up and optimize this process, too.

You can expand the learning experience with a learning management system to have all courses and programs in one place.

You also need standard operating procedures in place to regulate the processes and define:

  • What an employee needs to do

  • Who to ask

  • Where to sign up

  • Which criteria to fulfill to get access to some training or shadowing or get assigned as a mentor/mentee

This one-time effort ensures you take care of half of your logistics and save time on each training session.

Best of all, you can bulk-send it to employees instead of explaining things to each person individually.

3. Use skills testing to identify talented individuals to focus on

Don’t judge a book by its cover or employees by their resumes.

Use tests because they help you identify those talented T-shaped people who have all it takes: the depth and the breadth, as IDEO puts it.

Remember to include motivation, empathy, learnability, and transferable skills – these are all as vital to a trainable employee as their hard skills.

Tests also help you later on to monitor their learning and development.

4. Encourage employees to express their interests

A sure way to guarantee staff receives training well is to let them choose which types of training to attend.

Only relevant courses should be mandatory. The rest of them need to be up to the employees.

Motivate them to seek cross functional training that aligns with their career development plans, so they have a personal investment in their growth.

Otherwise, you risk draining their motivation and wasting resources on an unengaged audience.

5. Try cross functional coaching and mentoring schemes

Consider pairing your employees with coaches or mentors they can learn from.

Pairing employees with coaches isn’t the same as learning from peers. A mentor is somebody with higher knowledge and expertise, like a senior staff member who can teach junior members the craft.

Similarly, a coach is there to help employees overcome the learning curve. But it isn’t necessarily someone who has the knowledge they’re trying to obtain.

Rather, a coach’s expertise lies in navigating the learning journey itself so they can guide an employee through learning a skill even they don’t possess yet.

Both of these make sense, especially for inexperienced, junior employees.

6. Allow workers to go on secondments and try work shadowing in other departments to get on-the-job training

For employees who already have familiarity with the field they’re learning about or hands-on learners, work shadowing can be just what the doctor ordered.

Secondments enable them to learn on the job alongside peers.

These activities can look like employees quietly sitting in on meetings, completing specific tasks, taking notes, practicing new skills in a controlled environment, or even fully handling the responsibilities of their temporary role.

If they have a question or need help, experts who can give them quick input are at their fingertips.

Secondments and work shadowing foster good teamwork and deepen the understanding between departments, which is already a good outcome for the business.

On top of that, your talent becomes more flexible – if you have a shortage in the department where they learned on a secondment, they can jump in and help.

The only caveat?

You must ensure the employee has the necessary knowledge level to go on secondment so you don’t burden their “foster” department with educating a colleague from scratch.

7. Standardize the tech you use across the organization to enable collaboration and communication

The importance of tech standardization bears repeating, especially in remote and hybrid environments.

You need smooth online communication, which should comprise:

  • Appropriate and accessible channels with a clear overview of individual, group, department, and other communication

  • Standard operating procedures that explain where to ask which question and how to use the channels

Email isn’t enough.

A chat app like Slack combined with your CRM or project management software where you can collaborate on individual tasks gives you much better odds to keep everyone in the loop.

8. Tie cross functional training into your succession planning efforts

When you build cross functional training into succession planning, it helps:

  • Make transitions smoother for the company and unnoticeable to clients and customers

  • Prevent chaos when a senior employee decides to move on or retires

  • Ensure key knowledge gets passed on to the next person in line instead of leaving a gap in the business that’s hard to fill later

It’s the most logical way to prepare for what’s to come.

Potential successors can learn directly from the employees whose responsibilities they will inherit.

When the day comes, you can focus on giving the employee a proper goodbye, knowing your business is still in good hands, instead of landing in a crisis and panic-hiring a poor replacement.

9. Make sure to cross board employees when opportunities arise for full-time switches

How do you know a cross boarding opportunity when you see one?

Here are some scenarios where it makes sense to cross board:

Scenario

Solution

An employee needs a change

If an employee’s creativity is all burnt out, they could shine in management or have the potential to work in another department

You have a skills gap in your company

Try closing the gap internally

before

you turn to the external market

A job role is going through changes or is slowly becoming obsolete

See if you can cross-train and transfer those employees to a new role

Keep an eye out, and you’ll recognize an opportunity when you see it.

More importantly, since you know it will happen, invest in cross functional team training now and be prepared.

Cross functional training is a smart investment in your future

Cross functional training is a way to prepare and become resilient even to factors outside of your control – like global trends or technological advancements.

It helps you maximize your resources right now and optimize your talent for the future.

Ready to start?

Take advantage of our test library. It’s there to help with hiring, but you can also use it to test your employees’ abilities while cross-training.

For example, various Programming skills tests help you check how well your developers are versed in different languages and confirm their training is complete.

Keep learning about talent assessment tools or talent optimization to align your business and talent strategies and steer your cross functional training in the right direction.

Sources

1. “The Great Work/Life Divide: How employee desire for flexibility and employer concern is driving the future of work”. (October 12, 2021). CNBC. Retrieved April 12, 2023. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/10/12/why-50percent-of-workers-want-to-make-a-career-change-new-survey.html

2. “2022 Workplace Learning Report”. (2022). LinkedIn Learning. Retrieved April 12, 2023. https://learning.linkedin.com/content/dam/me/learning/en-us/pdfs/workplace-learning-report/LinkedIn-Learning\_Workplace-Learning-Report-2022-EN.pdf

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