Companies and organisation have constantly faced socio-political and economic challenges with a lot of negative bearing on the growth and sustainability of the business.
Since time immemorial, the challenges posed a lot of uncertainty on businesses and this has been worsened and compounded by the calibre of employees manning the majority of organisations. Many organisations have a singular approach to work.
When recruiting, they look for someone with purely specialised experience and qualifications on a certain area and seem to pay little attention to experience and qualifications in other areas.
This mindset is short of appreciation and understanding of the current and future personnel requirements in Zimbabwe. The belief which I strongly support is that there is a need to have a team of multi-skilled personnel in companies and organisations.
Time is running out for organisations that suffer from functional fixedness. Such companies need to open up to the reality of numerous changes and demands in the working environment that requires a different approach.
A lot of research has been carried out in the area of multi-skilling. Statistically, previous researchers demonstrated that benefits of multi-skilling would be a potential between five to 20% labour cost saving, a 35% reduction in required total hires, a 47% increase in average employment duration for workers per project, and an increase in learning potential for multi-skilled workers (Burleson, 1998).
The results also indicate that multi-skilling can increase the flexibility of job assignment, overall productivity and continuity of work, while reducing the idle time between trade interfaces.
At its 98th Session in June 2009, the International Labour Conference adopted the Global Jobs Pact to guide governments in pursuing a jobs-led recovery. The Global Jobs Pact acknowledged the key role of training and employment services in both immediate crisis response and longer-term development. The Global Jobs Pact also encouraged countries to invest in training in order to:
l prepare displaced workers for different kinds of jobs expected in the post-crisis recovery;
l use the downtime to invest in upgrading skills of employees and thus improve both their employability and employers’ productivity; and
l target training to avoid skill constraints in implementing stimulus programmes.
There is nothing wrong with specialists, only that circumstances have changed which require robust and relevant correspending business and labour adjustments.
Like the majority believe, specialist positions are important and very crucial in the scheme of work in an organisation. They are needed for any organisation to be the best in what they do as they provide the much needed expertise to customers.
However, too much emphasis on specialists or experts is detrimental to the growth and survival of any organisation.
When work demand shifts, most specialists find it difficult to adjust and assume new roles and responsibilities. My observation, which is backed by a number of researches, indicates that during restructuring, downsizing and re-engineering processes, specialists or experts are the first victims.
What are the reasons?
Simply put, many of them think they are too special to assume other areas of responsibilities. They think that by assuming other job responsibilities or tasks, they would kill their profession in the process.
As a result, anything outside their area of vocation is alien and not suitable for work.
The above thinking and mentality needs to be corrected. This is the reason why some experts or specialists fail to assume positions of leadership apart from their proffessions. They can be engineers, medical doctors, technicians, accountants, information technology specialists, lawyers, but as long as they fail to learn something of some professions, they remain locked in their professional hideout, which no longer has many employer takers.
Multi-skilling does not equate one to a jack of all trades and master of none. What I am proposing is a scenario where employees have training and skills in more than one area of a discipline.
For example, in a manufacturing environment, multi-skilled workers may receive training in all aspects of building a product, as well as the ability to perform quality inspections and despatching. Such accommodations allow a firm to move workers where they are needed from one moment to another.
The philosophy in the workplace nowadays is no longer about concentrating only on one’s own tasks, but it is also about adding value to other functions and skills.
Therefore, a multi-skilled employee has a set of competencies that allow them to work on areas and in departments other than their own expertise. This flexibility is a key strength for a business as employees learn to go beyond their immediate role and become flexible and responsive to business needs. This business strategy requires commitment and patience. This genuine commitment requires training and personal resilience.
Implementing multi-skilling entails increased supervision until the employee or group of employees are up to speed, possibly resulting in reduced productivity during training period.
In other words, multi-skilling is extremely beneficial to organisations that have to cope with fast-paced and reactive environments.
Effective multi-skilling enhances efficiency, competitiveness, quality, production and competencies.
All in all, having multi-skilled employees gives an organisation the ability to adapt to changes in market conditions and increases in demands.
This flexibility allows companies to adopt a consistent business approach which will positively affect productivity.
A company with multi-skilled employees has a flexible workforce which provides the employer with the ability to schedule and arrange workers to best suit the needs of the business.
Workers are able to fill in for absent employees and work in any area of the business that requires increased manpower at any time and for any duration. This allows the business to maintain production levels under circumstances that would otherwise leave workers idle or profits left on the table.
A business with a multi-skilled labour force can operate with a reduced number of employees necessary to conduct business. Employees who are skilled in only one area of the business may sit idle while waiting for work to become available. A multi-skilled workforce moves with the workload instead of waiting for the work to come to them. This results in fewer idle working hours which reduce the cost to the business.
Multi-skilled employees are not threatened by obsolescence when new technology changes the method of production, as workers used to learning new skills consistently can adapt to changes in production.
The common belief is that a multi-skilled workforce can avoid retrenchment and can lead to increased productivity for the organisation in a time of increased severity which can directly impact the company’s bottom line.
Some would argue of course that there was always a need to be multi-skilled, but the current economic turmoil and unstable business environment has brought the necessity to the forefront.
Possession of an additional skill goes a long way in opening new channels and opportunities for professionals, particularly at a time when their particular skill might not be needed by the organisation for its business.
From the perspective of the employee, multi-tasking would allow them to become diversified and maintain high levels of motivation and enthusiasm. I believe also that it is a healthy trend from the perspective of the company since it allows the company to bring about cost cutting measures in various forms and more importantly an individual does not become indispensable for the company or rather a company need not depend on a particular person for doing a specialised job in which that person is an expert.
Such a workforce would be self-managed and flexible according to the requirements of the company. It would also allow the employees to get involved in the various aspects of the functioning and work of their company, allowing them to be more involved in the performance of their firm and contributing in preventing lay-offs as well.
Multi-skilling is not so much about a particular level or category of employees. It is about a mindset. If an employee enhances his or her skill sets, albeit in a phased manner, he will be far more valuable to his company and the company will be a more potent force in the market.
Multi-skilling needs to be nurtured and sold to employees. It should not be thrust randomly.
Also, it is important to factor in the aptitude and appetite of the workforce. It should be seen as a continuing commitment from the organisation and get reflected in the career path programmes.
Organisations should carefully evaluate the capability or capacity of such talent before exposing them to multi-faceted roles. Pure concentration on return on investment may backfire if the existing employee is given an arena outside of his or her capability or scope of growth.
Research has proved that employees who are motivated to perform multi-tasking or given a choice for job rotation, are more efficient and motivated compared to those who are not provided such a chance.
By employing tactics such as multi-tasking and job rotation, an employee would be more connected and involved with the company and would prefer to stay in the same. Hence, multi-tasking combined with other techniques such as job rotation, encouragement and a good working ambience would definitely help in employee retention.
In this day and age it is important that employees at each level or functions have multiple skills so as not to become redundant or stagnant.
Kwaramba is principal executive consultant for Capacity Consultancy Group. He is a leadership, organisation development, strategic planning, human resources and labour relations expert. These New Perspectives articles are co-ordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, president of Zimbabwe Economics Society. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and cell number +263 772 382 852.