Home Management Performance Management for Agile Organizations: Overthrowing The Eight Management Myths That Hold Businesses Back
The practice of flexible deployment is essentially about utilizing an employee’s skills and abilities in a variety of roles and work situations. There’s little doubt the employee—working in the transformational global marketplace—needs to learn and apply a wider range of skills to maintain their relevance. For this and other reasons, flexible work approaches are quite common in the changing workplace. But as a people management practice, flexible deployment isn’t usually implemented in a systematic way; or for the proper reasons. Applied in a coordinated fashion, with the right motives, employing skills-sets in a comprehensive range of work situations, increases the employee’s and organization’s capacity to operate with agility.
Three key things are essential for successfully instigating a flexible deployment program. First, all employees—not just a select group— undergo training and coaching in areas beyond the scope of their current job specification. Second and aligned with learning and development, a multi-skilling program needs to be implemented in a coordinated and systematic way. This program commences within the employee’s immediate team first, and eventually spreads to cross-functional learning and application. Third—to gain full buy-in from the workforce—an incentives program encouraging employees to progressively learn new skills and capabilities should accompany the learning process. These three characteristics are the essence of a strategically planned program of skills deployment across the business.
But in reality, organizations that are based on specialization have no discernible link between their learning and development program and flexible deployment (Chap. 10 for more about this). The majority of training, after all, is designed to support the specialization of job skills. People—not to mention the organizations they work for—are deprived the opportunity to fully develop if training programs are restricted to current job specifications. Employees and organizations consequently fail to cultivate skills and competencies in the range necessary to cope in the relentlessly transforming work-setting. And if a multi-skilling program does exists in these traditional workplaces, it’s often used to cut employment costs. The conservative thinking behind this cost-saving measure is: If we can train people to do a variety of tasks, we can reduce the number of employees and cut our labor costs.
If the principle motive behind introducing flexible labor strategies is to cut operating costs, then one of the costs that’s likely to be cut is learning and development. In businesses adopting this approach, the responsibility for skill development rests squarely on the shoulders of the individual employee. Managers with a cost-cutting mentality may introduce flexible deployment strategies as a means of slashing the business’s training budget and its obligations for developing the people working in it. While this isn’t an unusual practice regrettably—justified on the basis of reducing costs or “overheads”—it isn’t the right rationale for carrying out a policy of flexible deployment. In the long run, slashing the learning and development budget can cost more money than it may save in the immediate term.
Beginning any form of flexible work arrangement is based on the goals of management. Flexible forms of work shouldn’t be used as a cost-cutting strategy, however. But my research indicates that the flexible deployment of labor, in many cases, is synonymous with deregulating the workforce and reducing the costs of employment.3 Enterprise flexibility however, doesn’t necessarily mean deregulating the workforce. It certainly doesn’t mean that cutting employment costs will improve the agile performance of a business. Promoting agility in all its dimensions should be the sole purpose of practicing flexible deployment.
Besides its rationale for implementation, the implementation itself is not always done well. It appears we have some way to go to positively apply flexible deployment programs in organizations. Take for example some recent research conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in the United Kingdom. The results indicate that only 28 per cent of employees surveyed believe that the training pro?vided by their organization is relevant beyond their immediate duties, with 27 per cent concerned about whether their skills will be relevant in the future. Finding time for training is another concern for employees. CIPD’s research indicates that 39 per cent of employees say they can’t find time to undertake training and development programs. Other apprehensions are costs associated with these training programs and the less than positive interest levels of employees to be involved in these programs.4 It is therefore of little surprise that specialization remains the dominant practice in industry and there are several impediments in breaking this mould.
Notwithstanding the prevalence of specialization, there are several effective strategies of flexible deployment. The most used practices are job rotation, job enrichment, job enlargement, and multi-skilling. I’ll concentrate on multi-skilling here, and provide a practical tool for easy and effective implementation. By focusing on multi-skilling, I’m not suggesting other people management practices don’t have merit; they do. But in the context of promoting agility, I think multi-skilling can get the best results in the quickest time, with the most people.
Where the rubber meets the road ...
Benefits of multi-skilling
United Kingdom food producer Campbell's Grocery Products wanted to make the most of their technicians' skills using the flexible deployment strategy of multi-skilling. The company recognized that its 20 technicians—10 per cent of the total workforce—were underused. Their role was to work on the production line, helping operators, and come off the line to repair breakdowns. But their on-line duties prevented them from practicing their skills. All 20 technicians were subsequently trained in both electrical and mechanical skills to attain a multi-skilled standard required. This was done over two and half years. Most of the training was delivered internally, on site, during each technician's shift. The results were quantifiable: stock accuracy improved, the levels of surplus stock held in the warehouse fell, the number of breakdowns reduced, customer response times shortened, and the time taken to repair faults decreased. Simultaneously, technicians' morale and team spirit greatly improved, especially as a result of the increased efficiencies generated by the training, which resulted in less "firefighting" and frustration. The technicians' former feelings of irritation were replaced by feeling that they were contributing to the site's success.5
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