In the first class of business school, my accounting prof said “you guys will go a mile wide and an inch deep” regarding the amount of material we would cover and how detailed we would get. We slogged through 2 years and upon graduation, most of us moved onto pretty specialized fields in finance, consulting, marketing or operations. Ever since then, we had developed careers and areas of expertise and have become known for them.
Fast forward a few years and nearly every week, I get a bunch of email inviting me to attend conferences, which range thematically from customer experience to emerging technology to marketing trends. Some of them are more button-down events where I get an opportunity to plug the work we do, while others are more broad-ranging and are about creativity and ideas. (Anyone know why these ones tend to be acronyms? TED, SXSW, PFSK, etc.)
Along with the conference invitations, I also get email about training around specific topics that are frequently becoming relevant to my day-to-day work. Some courses are extremely specific, such as negotiation workshops, convincing clients of the value of X, Y, or Z or ones that are more technical in nature. At some point, I am sure to need each and every one of these so it’s hard to pass them up. But will I need them more than this specific project I’m working on?
Given that every company has limited resources and time, how to pick “extra-workicular” activities that interest employees and employers alike? (This of course, assumes that the employees in question are competent at their current roles.)
My preference would be on the helping people become broader, more lateral thinkers. Here’s why:
- The way businesses engage with customers nowadays changes so quickly, it takes new ways to do so effectively. This requires thinking that isn’t encumbered with one-track processes that can’t make course-corrections when required. Look at Dell’s Idea Storm or Starbucks’ My Idea.
- Sometimes the elegant solution is one outside your immediate field. What does a hospital emergency room staff have to do with Ferrari’s Formula One pit crew? They learned how to optimize their movements by studying the Ferrari One pit crew teams in action.
- It develops a workforce that can successfully transition to other parts of your business which evens out resourcing a lot. This is particularly true in service-based businesses where demand can spike and you suddenly have to hire instead of re-allocating people to other tasks. I like working in teams that are cross-trained and can cover for each other in a pinch without any hiccups.
- For the employee, it helps prevent boredom and becoming obsolete. One of the most popular programs coming out of b-school were 2-year rotational programs which cycled people through four 6-month gigs that gave you exposure into the business and flexibility to try new things without being over-committed.
Letting employees branch out and pursue broader interests will help you retain your staff, regardless of how big a company you are. If you’re in a startup, it’s essential to have well-rounded jack-of-all-trades people. If you’re a 100,000 person multi-national, it’s important to keep people interested and equip them to fill needs wherever they may be. And for all companies, it enables lateral thinking to adapt your business to ever changing customer needs.