You wish to staff the Human Resources function within your organization. It is critical that you have both the depth and breadth of knowledge and skills required. Staffing, Development, Performance Management, Rewards Management and Employee Relations are sub-functions within HR and each has its own body of knowledge and skills. How the function is organized and staffed will determine if what is needed for HR to perform well is in place.
There are two dimensions to the knowledge and skill possessed by the human capital pool in the organization:
- breadth and
Specialists tend to have very deep knowledge and skill while Generalists tend to have broader skill and knowledge. Specialists know a lot about a single sub-function while Generalists know a little about multiple sub-functions. So like the person completing a jigsaw puzzle one must know what shape must the pieces have to cover the area. Staffing Compensation with all Specialists ensures incumbents are able to respond appropriately to Compensation problems. But they can be like the person with a tool box containing only a hammer… everything to be “fixed” must be treated as a nail. Generalists may be able to determine what the nature of a problem is, due to a broader range of knowledge, but may also lack the depth to be able to cope with it.
An example of how issues need to be dealt with would be an organization that does an employee attitudes survey and finds that employees feel they are somewhat underpaid. The obvious reflex response is to treat this as a Compensation issue, so the Generalist reviewing the survey results would call that department. But what if a deeper dive into the results is performed by going back to employees and asking them “underpaid for what?” If the response is that they are underpaid for the role they are playing in the organization it still seems like a Compensation issue. But if the response is that they are underpaid for what they are capable of doing the remedy lies outside Compensation’s wheelhouse. Based on the more substantive insight gained by the further exploration the Generalist will probably seek assistance from Specialists responsible for career management and employee utilization. So the Generalist’s breadth, fueled by sound evidence as to the cause of discontent, enables the person to be a traffic manager and to route the intelligence to the right party. But the Specialist role is also critical, since once the nature of an issue is discovered it still needs someone with the expertise to deal with it.
Cross-functional training can be an invaluable remedy for an employee’s knowledge and skill being only narrow or only deep. This does not mean every HR staff member has to have total breadth and total depth. That would take too long, be too expensive and be overkill. So a balance must be achieved. All Generalists would enable HR to diagnose the nature of an issue but lack the expertise to deal with it and all Specialists would result in tunnel vision and an inflated “we can handle any issue” arrogance. But how do the two breeds of practitioner talk to each other, if they lack overlapping knowledge? A third type of person is needed to remedy the Tower Of Babble condition. Perhaps referred to as “Integrators” these staff members have a knowledge and skill base that reaches across and down into multiple sub-functions. Cross-training people in both Compensation and Benefits not only enables them to adopt a total rewards perspective but also enables them to consider strategies that trade off between the two types of rewards and that achieve an optimal balance. Cross-training Staffing professionals and Development professionals enables incumbents to recognize alternative strategies:
- hire minimally qualified candidate (who may be less expensive) and invest in development, or
- hire fully-qualified candidates (who may be more expensive) but save what development would have cost.
The overall cost may be the same so the strategy should be based on the most expedient and effective approach.
Using a Human Resources function was been for illustrative purposes. The same principles apply to all functions. And for most organizations these principles apply across functions. Project Managers that supervise specialists from multiple disciplines must have an understanding of how to integrate the work of the staff. A Project Manager can be an accomplished Engineer and participate in deciding technical issues or a knowledgeable Administrator that leaves technical details to the Engineers and focuses on other issues. But to be successful there must be an adequate understanding of both technical and administrative issues. Often technical specialists want to make a product as good as it can possibly be, even though that makes it overly expensive in order to enjoy commercial success. But the financial folks may stop short of adequacy in pursuit of cost control. Obviously CEOs cannot know everything about everything so at this level it is obvious that integrating the work of Specialists across functions/units is a critical competence of management personnel. And within functions/units there must also be adequate perspective when identifying issues and dealing with them. You need enough breadth and depth within the talent pool but you also need to invest in the capacity to integrate knowledge. Cross-training is like Education… if you think it is expensive try costing out the alternatives.