Can a Corporate Reserve Corps Be a Solution to Business Disruption?

Across industries, businesses have learned an important lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic: many different workers are essential to the continuation of their business. Before the crisis, however, efforts to coordinate knowledge transfer and management, while well intended, fell dramatically short of preparing leaders for times of business uncertainty. Research demonstrates this clearly. According to North Highland’s 2020 Beacon report, 72% of business leaders cite knowledge and skills as their most prevalent barrier to addressing top strategic priorities.

The days of identifying essential workers and retraining or cross-training a select few to replicate their knowledge and work are gone. The COVID-19 crisis has taught us that single points of redundancy are not enough. Organizations that want to ensure business continuity must create a multi-level knowledge transfer that ensures deep bench strength and capability. Underlying this shift is a deeper appreciation for the fact that business continuity planning should be more than just a baseline “check the box” program. Uncertainty around the possible resurgence of COVID-19 requires business continuity to be the new cornerstone of corporate cultures – and ongoing reskilling, development, and sharing of knowledge to be a core cultural value.

Where to start

How does an organization create the type of continuity mindset that prepares the entire workforce for the unexpected?

Enter the corporate reserve corps.

Many organizations with sound disaster preparedness plans have created strategies that require individuals to serve dual roles in the organization. A primary role is tied to the duties and responsibilities they have been hired for, and a secondary role is reserved for crises and the unexpected. It is time for organizations to expand this thinking beyond a targeted disaster response and introduce continuous reskilling instead. This creates business continuity by producing widespread, actionable knowledge of the intricacies of the business across its various functions.

Those serving in America’s military reserves spend the majority of time in their “day jobs,” and corporate reserves would function in a similar fashion. Corporate reserve corps members would continue to meet the requirements of their primary role, but they would provide additional service to the business through regular training that builds their skillsets and knowledge in the event of a crisis. By selecting and training a group of people to serve in the reserve corps, companies would create redundancy of roles and information in a way that prepares them for the next disruption.    

Bringing the reserve corps to life

Three components are key to implementing a corporate reserve corps.

First, an effective shift in mindset requires a top-down approach. Leadership must demonstrate their commitment to the strategy of learning adjacent roles through funding programs designed to produce intentional and ongoing reskilling and cross-training. Bold actions like this make a statement about leadership’s expectations for cross-function awareness and build the kind of behaviors that solidify business continuity as a foundational corporate value. Our research explains why it is critical to engrain the importance of business continuity in employees: 93% of business leaders agree that involving employees in change initiatives leads to higher levels of adoption around the program.

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The second area of support is through human resources leadership that prioritizes the design and implementation of programs that require individuals to sign up for responsibilities and leverage their skills and knowledge. It is critical that workers have a secondary skillset that they regularly practice so they can activate in times of crisis. School districts, for example, do a good job of investing in – and protecting – consistent professional development. Businesses need to follow suit. They should start by recruiting high performing individuals with a deep commitment to the organization and/or strong interest in reskilling and professional growth. The first “recruiting class” could be based on manager recommendations to cultivate a sense of pride in participating in the reserve corps. Subsequent recruiting rounds can continue to expand the corps’ ranks.

The third element of creating an effective reserve corps is rewards and accountability. Military reserve corps programs attract their members in part through enticing benefits that include college loans and additional salary. However, there is also a high level of accountability for these payments. Regular participation is demanded, for example. A corporate reserve corps cannot be a voluntary commitment, but it should not go unrewarded, either. The balance of benefits and expectations of participation must be clearly understood and diligently managed to ensure that the program is a mutually beneficial arrangement.

For the business, the benefits are broader than business continuity. Individuals who are cross-trained become savvy to other areas of the business, impacting how they think and network, and enhancing their ability to create solutions and products from an enterprise-wide perspective.

Beyond the obvious professional development benefits for individual participants, companies should also design recognitions for employees who have made notable contributions to the organization through their participation in the reserve corps. This might include spot bonuses, company-wide recognition in e-newsletters, awards, or other perks.

Prepare now for the next disruption

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting governmental actions remind us that outlier events do happen. They are a matter of when, not if. Developing cross-functional skills for corporate reserve corps members ensures a broad understanding of the business, protects against gaps in knowledge transfer, and drives business transformation. It is imperative that businesses build and support programs for ongoing reskilling, development, and knowledge sharing. During times of uncertainty, organizations with a workforce that can lead with confidence, knowledge, and efficiency will achieve stability and maintain business continuity, creating a path towards long term success and growth post-crisis.

Dr. Kelli Klindtworth, Ed. D, is a principal at North Highland with more than 17 years of professional experience. Her consulting experience includes a focus on cultural transformation, employee engagement, change management and organizational effectiveness.

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