Reskilling, upskilling, cross-training: Which strategy do I need?

How can we do more with less? 

This question is going to come up a lot over the coming months as organizations adapt to the next normal. Operational agility will be essential for business survival. As budgets tighten and disruption continues, managers must be ready and willing to shift employee roles to focus on business priorities. Adopting practices that put the right people in the right places at the right times helps you maximize business results and limit unnecessary expenses. 

Organizations in a variety of industries have started to prioritize frontline agility. For example …

  • Grocery stores are ramping up their click-and-collect operations by shifting specialty department staff into fulfillment roles
  • Banks are improving their online and telephone customer service results by reassigning branch employees to work-from-home contact center roles
  • Pharmaceutical salespeople are servicing increased lead flow by taking on additional product lines

Training is an essential part of operational agility. But you have to have the right systems in place to help employees adapt by developing their knowledge and skills. This concept of rapid employee development is often associated with three terms: upskilling, cross-training or reskilling

Do they all mean the same thing? If not, how do they relate to each other? And how can you leverage these concepts to “do more with less” in your business?

First, let’s clarify each term.

  • Upskilling: providing training to improve a person’s performance in their current role
  • Cross-Training: providing training to help a person take on additional work related to their current role
  • Reskilling: providing training to help a person shift into a new role or adjust to significant changes in their current job

Next, let’s apply each term to an example from the list we referenced earlier.

  • Grocery store associates working in click-and-collect roles in addition to their department positions is an example of cross-training
  • Bank employees moving from branch roles into contact center positions full-time is an example of reskilling
  • Pharmaceutical salespeople learning on how to sell additional products is an example of upskilling

While it’s important to be accurate and consistent with professional terminology, what really matters is the outcome—your ability to help employees develop quickly so they can be safe and productive in the modern workplace—not what you call the program. The different terms can help you focus on the specific scenarios where rapid skill development is required (role addition, role change, role expansion). The tactics required to support employees in each scenario are the same. 

  • Personalized training: It costs $4,129 to hire a new employee. You can reduce this cost and get people ready to go faster by leveraging what employees already know (and what they know how to do) . But this requires a personalized approach. When you assess existing knowledge and skill, you can provide the exact training each employee needs to get started in a new role or accelerate their capability in their existing job.
  • Performance support: No one becomes an expert right away. It takes time to develop critical job skills. And you typically can’t wait for someone to reach expert status before they have to start doing the job. Performance support is an essential part of skill development. Employees need a quick-access place to go for on-demand information. They also need a reliable way to ask questions and get help when problems arise in the flow of work. 
  • Reinforcement: A new role or extra responsibilities can become overwhelming without the right preparation. After all, people can only remember so much information while they’re adapting to workplace changes. This is why reinforcement is a required part of meaningful skill development. Employees need regular opportunities to practice and apply their knowledge while receiving structured, timely feedback. 
  • Coaching: Managers are the most important player in employee skill development. They’re present in the operation with employees every day, observing performance and providing feedback. They also influence how people do their jobs through activities, like scheduling, prioritization and resource allocation. Manager coaching must be included as a long-term component of any skill development effort. 


Upskilling, cross-training and reskilling efforts help employees prepare to do their best work under different circumstances. However, if you have the mechanisms (and mindset) to deliver one of these programs using the listed tactics, you’re ready to tackle all three concepts.

Rapid skill development has quickly become an essential part of business agility. If you expect your employees to keep up with ongoing workplace changes, you have to provide the right support along the way. Download our comprehensive guide to frontline resilience for practical tips on how to develop your cross-training strategy. You can also learn more about Axonify’s ability to balance future-focused skill development with everyday business priorities

Upskilling. Cross-training. Reskilling. Three different concepts. One powerful approach to “doing more with less.” 

Be safe. Be well. And be kind to the frontline. 

JD Dillon became an expert on frontline training and enablement over two decades working in operations and talent development with dynamic organizations, including Disney, Kaplan and AMC. A respected author and speaker in the workplace learning community, JD also continues to apply his passion for helping frontline employees around the world do their best work every day in his role as Axonify's Chief Learning Architect.

Let’s work together to drive frontline performance in all the right ways.