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

How can we do more with less?

This question is becoming increasingly important as organizations adapt to the new normal. Operational agility is 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:

  • Grocers are shifting front-end cashiers into fulfillment roles due to the increased use of self-service checkout and online ordering.
  • Banks are creating hybrid roles in which employees split their time between supporting customers in the brand and from home as contact center agents.
  • Pharmaceutical salespeople are servicing increased lead flow by taking on additional product lines.

As noted by the World Economic Forum, disciplines like upskilling and reskilling will be essential in the post-COVID future. But what does that actually mean?

Cross-training, reskilling and upskilling – A breakdown

call center employee going through upskilling training

Training is an essential part of operational agility. But you have to have the right systems in place to help employees adapt by learning new skills and acquiring useful knowledge. 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

Upskilling is providing training to improve a person’s performance in their current role. Pharmaceutical salespeople learning how to sell additional products is an example of upskilling.

Upskilling may be ideal:

  • If the company is looking to close skills gaps
  • If an individual is struggling with performance or proficiency in their existing job role
  • If the organization is introducing new product or service lines that team members must become familiar with

Reskilling

Reskilling isproviding training to help a person shift into a new role or adjust to significant changes in their current job. Bank employees moving from branch roles into contact center positions full-time is an example of reskilling.

Reskilling may be ideal:

  • If an individual is seeking a new career path or a different job within the organization
  • If an individual is on track for a promotion or additional responsibilities
  • If job roles are being consolidated due to downsizing or to streamline operations

Cross-training

Cross-training is providing training to help a person take on additional work related to their current role. Grocery store associates working in click-and-collect roles in addition to their department positions is an example of cross-training.

Cross-training may be ideal:

  • If an individual is taking on new responsibilities within the same job role
  • If a labor shortage or prolonged absence necessitates a more agile workforce where employees can fill different positions as needed
  • If an individual is on track for a more senior-level position that will require a basic knowledge of business-wide operations

Upskilling and reskilling — How to choose the right method

While cross-training is pretty straightforward, there’s a lot of confusion surrounding upskilling vs. reskilling. The differences can be nuanced, and the names themselves can be misleading. After all, the name “upskilling” seems to suggest learning skills for upward mobility, but that’s actually a better description of reskilling.

To break down the differences in simple terms:

  • Upskilling is about sharpening skills for an existing role.
  • Reskilling is about imparting additional skills for a new or expanded role.

So if you’re not sure whether you’re upskilling or reskilling, ask yourself: What is the ultimate goal?

The value of upskilling, reskilling and cross-training

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.

Axonify uses AI-driven, adaptive algorithms to assess learners’ strengths and shortcomings and customize all training materials for every individual participant. This results in a more engaging learning experience and more valuable information delivered.

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 training 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.

Doing more with less

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 training 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.

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.