In 1921, a candidate leaked Thomas Edison’s widely-known intelligence test questions. The questions and much backlash about them were soon after published in the New York Times.
The test, which Edison wrote for college graduates applying to work for him, resembles a list of trivia more than any sort of examination. It includes questions like “who discovered radium?” and “what mountain is the highest in the world?”
Edison wasn’t just curious about candidates’ random knowledge. His questions were aimed at a very specific goal.
Rather than focusing on only the practical aspects of the jobs, Edison wanted to assess the range of candidates’ interests and intelligence. After all, only a very curious and self-driven individual would bother enough to find out from where the U.S. imports cork, or what country produces the most nickel.
To Edison, it was not enough for a person to be qualified to fulfill the prescribed job duties; he wanted his employees to possess a diverse skill set and range of intelligence.
Dive Deeper: 5 Employee Training and Development Improvements for the Digital Age
The best employees are well-rounded
Many candidates today encounter similar knowledge or critical thinking tests in interviews, especially in the technology industry. Like Edison, contemporary hiring managers seek well-rounded employees who can think out of the box.
The same logic applies for training employees during their onboarding and ongoing time in the company. Rather than maintaining a narrow focus throughout an employee’s tenure, it pays to “cross-train” them so they are prepared for work beyond their official title and job description.
Cross-training means teaching employees about the purpose and value of other roles within the organization, as well as how to perform key functions. For instance, your marketing team might have one dedicated business intelligence professional. But if everyone on the team possessed an understanding of data and how to use it to optimize processes, everyone’s performance would improve.
The value of cross-training is clear: it diversifies the skills of your workforce and diffuses knowledge and helps you avoid the consequences of the skills gap. It fosters a culture of learning and information sharing, and improves the overall intelligence of each employee.
In the digital age, cross-training is more important than ever. Here’s why.
Cross-training employees encourages agility
In the digital age, agility and adaptability are critical for keeping up with changes in the market. When your workforce is able to perform a wider variety of functions, it makes it easier to be agile.
On the other hand, if each employee is only able to perform their own specific job functions, you’ll run into issues in the event of an absence, unexpected departure from the company, or the need to expand your capacity.
Having a broader understanding of functions outside of a specific role will help employees become more capable workers.
Employees will understand the bigger picture
As the saying goes, if you narrow your focus too much, “you can’t see the forest for the trees.”
Rather than siloing the knowledge within individual employees, it is important to create a web of information across your organization.
Cross-training employees decentralizes the information. By learning the purpose, value, and how-to for other roles within the org, employees can understand the whole picture rather than only their individual role.
For example, train sales skills to an engineer and engineering skills to a salesperson. The engineer will be able to understand how their product is being presented and the salesperson will be more informed about the product.
Employees will grow within the company
Many employees leave a company because, somewhere along the way, they realize they want to pursue a different type of role. But, what if the employee knew they could find that same opportunity without switching companies?
Cross-training enables employees to grow both vertically and horizontally within the same company. Only 5% of workers believe that potential employers see the amount of time they worked at their previous company as the most important factor when recruiting. Skills gained is far more valuable.
As a company, work to develop “T” shaped rather than “I” shaped employees. Where “I” shaped employees move only vertically, “T” shaped will grow both vertically and horizontally.
Cambridge Press defines “T” shaped employees as “deep problem solvers with expert thinking skills in their home discipline but also have complex communication skills to interact with specialists from a wide range of disciplines and functional areas.”
Encourage employees to remain active and engaged in their current role, but also seek out skills to grow their career within the company.
Improve motivation in an employee’s current role
Employees want to be constant learners. When given opportunities outside of their formal role, they are more likely to find fulfillment because there is always something new to learn.
54% of people in the labor force see developing new skills as essential components to keeping up with changes in the workplace. If the workplace is changing, and it always is in the digital age, employees will need and want to change with it.
Motivate your employees with cross-training so that they can learn new skills and have the option to choose what interests them.
Cross-training employees creates a more intelligent workplace. We may not know all of the answers to Edison’s test, but offering diverse training to employees will help them build skills to increase their individual value and ability to contribute to the company.