It's summertime, when the multi-skilling is easy

'Often, you don't know how good people will be at a job till they try it'
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This is a column dedicated to managers trying to keep the business going while everyone else has cleared off on holiday.

This is a column dedicated to managers trying to keep the business going while everyone else has cleared off on holiday.

Most of us at some stage of our lives have had to do it: find ways of keeping output up - in the case of a newspaper the space still has to be filled - with half the usual staff. At this moment, in offices and factories across Europe managers are trying to find ways of coping with the fact that the one person who really knows how to reprogram the computer model (or whatever) is off until the end of the month.

This is very much a European problem, for Americans count themselves lucky if they get more than two weeks' holiday a year, and Japanese often will not take the miserly 10 days' holiday allowance they are allocated. It is also a relatively new problem. Until about 10 years ago, staffing levels were generally sufficiently high to allow some slack in the system: when people went on holiday there were other people around who could step in.

Now there aren't. Nor can one shut a white-collar "factory" like a call-centre in the same way you can shut down a car assembly plant - some towns used to have a "fair fortnight" when all the factories shut and everyone had their holiday. So, instead, managers all over the land are patching, excusing and worrying.

But a problem, as management consultants (irritatingly) tell us, is also an opportunity. It is actually possible to use the pressure of the holiday period to learn things useful in running the business through the year. Companies do two things to cope with holidays - they prioritise, and they improvise. So they put off aspects of work that are not time-critical and they find ways of cutting corners on the work that has to be done. While most of these could not be sustained as a long-term policy, all you need is to pick up a few useful short-cuts that help streamline the business, and the experience has been worthwhile. (Tip: usually the gains do not come from finding ways of doing things faster, but rather from finding out they do not need to be done at all.)

A second area concerns outsourcing: when key staff are away, businesses have to look outside to get urgent tasks done. Often they discover the outsourced supplier is better or cheaper than the in-house expert. Or at the very least, they find a useful way of meeting peaks of demand through the year by feeding in outside competencies.

A variant of this is the use of part-time labour. This falls into several categories, all of which have implications beyond the holiday period. For example mature part-timers have become one of the fastest-growing groups of employees: people in their fifties and sixties who want to boost their incomes and continue to experience the social aspects of going out to work, but neither want nor need to commit themselves full-time. As demographic pressures mount, this group of workers will become increasingly important, and learning how to use them in an appropriate way will become a key aspect of maintaining a competitive advantage.

At the other end of the age range are interns: many companies use interns to fill-in for full-time staff during holidays. This practice is, in one sense, slave-labour, for interns are often students either badly-paid or not paid, but are prepared to work for the experience and the brand-name for their CVs. But if companies think of interns simply as a way of filling-in, they are missing an enormously important trick. Interns provide the best recruiting field, for both sides have experience of each other. The company knows a lot about the competence and self-starting abilities of the intern; the intern knows whether this is a place where he or she wants to work. It is not only an efficient way of recruiting; it is also a safe one. Risk for both sides is minimised.

Running any business lean helps long-term staff development. The theatrical world abounds with tales about the understudy being discovered when the lead falls ill. In the business world the opportunities are less dramatic, but making sure the "understudy" can run the department for a couple of weeks means making sure he or she is trained to do so. So any on-the-job training is supported by the pre-opportunity variety. Again, management gets to know the abilities of the stand-in - frequently discovering the number two is as good as or better than the number one.

This leads to the final point: multi-skilling. One of the great trends in the management of human capital is training and encouraging people to be able to do lots of different things. But often even trained people get the opportunity to do different things only when someone else is on holiday. So the holiday period is crucial: wise businesses try to multi-skill their workers, but frequently workers test-drive their new skills only in holidays.

Human capital is becoming more important in every business: this is one of the functions of the IT revolution. But people are complicated. Often you don't know how good they will be at a job until they have tried it; nor do they know whether they will enjoy that job, even if they can do it. So the whole business of marshalling and developing human talent requires experimentation. What better time than those lazy, hazy days of summer?

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