Many IT leaders admire a versatile employee. After all, someone who can fill multiple roles, especially in an era when skilled talent is in short supply, can be a highly valuable asset.
A problem arises, however, when a multi-skilled staffer is in such high demand across the organization that it conflicts with their primary job duties. “It's common in modern IT shops to find top performers holding multiple roles in the organization,” says Matt Mead, CTO at SPR Consulting, which bills itself as a technology modernization firm. “However, it's critical that these top performers have the time, passion and ability to perform the multiple roles,” he adds.
IT leaders “should absolutely” consider asking their top performers to wear multiple hats to serve their organization to the fullest, states Ryan Rackley, a partner with global technology research and advisory company ISG.
On the other hand, it's possible to take the concept too far, since holding multiple formal job titles poses challenges to both the organization and its employees since it may create confusion over who's responsible for what task, observes Dana Daher, senior research analyst in the CIO practice at Info-Tech Research Group. “However, allowing top IT performers to have multiple competencies, capabilities, or roles within a job can be a key ingredient to success within an organization,” she says.
Depending on the organization, it's entirely possible that certain IT roles can be performed on a part-time basis, Mead says. “Assigning multiple roles to IT top performers is a technique that can be used temporarily, such as to fill a critical role due to attrition or used permanently for roles that can be done on a part-time basis.”
Besides the obvious benefit of broadening and deepening its talent pool, an organization that allows proficient team members play multiple roles stands to gain increased efficiency and productivity. “As they operate, that individual begins to make connections that would have otherwise required intense levels of collaboration between teammates,” Rackley says. “Not only does this benefit the organization directly, but it gives the thirsty top performer the opportunity to simultaneously experience various elements of the operation.”
A potential disadvantage of assigning multiple roles to top performers is failing to give the individual sufficient time to accomplish all the assigned tasks. This oversight can have a ripple negative effect on others in the organization and create a less than ideal work environment, Mead notes. “Additionally, from an organization-culture perspective, the perception of roles being hoarded at the top level may also give the sense that upward mobility is being restricted to a favored few.”
Rackley believes that leaders should be “ruthlessly pragmatic” when considering a consolidation of responsibilities. “There's no magic wand that makes one person capable of performing where there were previously four people,” she says.
When consolidating responsibilities to individual staff members, there should first be an open dialogue with the entire team to explain that a certain amount of future work will now be delegated to specific individuals, and that objective performance measures will be applied to the designated employees. “Sorting the work in this way results in clearly defined outcomes that are acceptable to the employee and the organization, which will help ensure expectations are met and the employee does not become overloaded,” Rackley says.
IT leaders must be cautious when assigning multiple roles to employees since the decision will require the selected individuals to multitask. This can be a good thing, but only if handled judiciously and compassionately. If improperly handled, multitasking can lead to burnout and a decrease the work quality, Daher cautioned. “It's important to prioritize roles, clarify accountabilities, and ensure the directions of the roles are clear,” she says. Additionally, without strong governance in place, multitasking individuals may make unauthorized and possibly damaging decisions, mistakenly believing they're accountable for things that they are not.
An IT leader may be tempted to allow a top performer to hold multiple jobs within the organization, but it should never be a long-term solution, due to negative impact on role clarity and overall employee engagement, warned Julie Rysenga, principal of IT consulting firm 3LS Consulting.
Rysenga believes that the pitfalls of allowing a top team performer to hold multiple posts far outweigh any benefits. Role clarity, she explained, has been shown to be an important ingredient in overall employee engagement. “Role clarity, achieved through the job description, provides the guardrails around which employee performance can be reviewed and managed,” Rysenga says. “Allowing someone to hold multiple jobs decreases overall role clarity both for the individual and for the other individuals on the team.”