Lessons from Allentown: Single-Skilled Staff

By David Alan Rech of Scribe Inc.


When considering the training and work assignments of employees, a tension exists between specialisation and generalisation. On one hand, it is clear that having well-rounded staff members improves publications. On the other hand, a person who specialises in one thing tends to be fast at the tasks she undertakes.

Given the price pressure in this economy, it may seem best to have your staff engaged in single tasks that each person performs quickly. Since 2004, Scribe has been gathering data on internal performance, which is augmented by what we learn from Well-Formed Document Workflow (WFDW) clients and our recent experiences in our Allentown office. The data lead us to conclude that a narrowly focused staff does not lead to more efficiency and is bad for the overall health of the company. Developing a staff with multiple competencies and a full understanding of the publishing process leads to greater efficiency and is better for business.

Certainly, teaching people additional skills takes time (and costs money). People need time and lots of practice to develop new skills, you have to devote other staff members’ time to check their work and provide training and feedback, and you have to be willing to put up with some failures. Corporate executives and finance people often view these short-term expenses as unnecessary overhead. However, in a cost-benefit analysis over the long haul, the benefits of developing an educated, nimble staff far outweigh the costs.

We base this conclusion on some interesting data. One given is that any individual task will take longer when an inexperienced person performs the work compared to an experienced person. This is especially true with editorial tasks such as copyediting and proofreading, where a person in training will invest up to three times the effort compared to our benchmark. If, however, you examine the overall workflow, there are two corresponding savings that lead to overall efficiency. When a person who is cross-trained is working on a project, the corresponding task times go down. For example, if an editor who is trained in typesetting copyedits a book, the time for typesetting will be lower than if the editorial work is performed by a person who lacks typesetting competence. This efficiency is increased when using the WFDW because editorial decisions about the handling of elements are informed by sensitivity to the process needed to typeset the book. A similar effect can be found when typesetters are informed about the rules of editing and have strong familiarity with style guides: a much lower rate of alterations and corrections follow from proofreading than in books typeset by those who lack that knowledge. Obviously, it takes time (and therefore money) to make and check corrections, so catching them early or avoiding them altogether will reduce the overall effort to publish a book. Lastly, if you have people who are competent in tasks other than those they usually perform, you can often avoid certain types of expenses. In one recent example, a single image did not meet the specifications of a project. Instead of having to send the image to a specialist, the editor merely corrected the image herself. This avoided the need to find and engage another person, the management and communication associated with that, and the potential negative impact on the production schedule.

We also see an interesting effect of cross-training when new versions of software or technologies are implemented. When you have people who are engaged in regular training and who have a larger context from which to draw, they become more adept at shifting programs or adapting to new technologies. At Scribe, and for many of the subscribers of the WFDW, the rollout times for new software versions are imperceptible. This means that the cost of new software implementation is virtually limited to the cost of the software and equipment. Other than the time to install new software and brief times necessary to gain familiarity, we have detected no added cost to projects. Due to the usual increases in computer speed and the efficiency of programs, we usually see an immediate gain on projects in which new versions are implemented. Another noticeable savings can be seen in support for software. People who are engaged in regular training and education require less support to properly use software, and you have a larger pool of people discovering shortcuts or faster procedures to do work.

This leads to our final and perhaps most important conclusion. The act of continuous training and skills development leads to an environment of learning and collegiality. Though immeasurable, cooperation between staff members, the willingness to challenge and be challenged, and the openness this fosters lead to continuous improvement and a desire to assume new roles. For Scribe, our ability to create and maintain an efficient, reality-based, intuitive, and continuously developing publishing process is the result.

When weighing specialisation and generalisation, therefore, you must keep the big picture in mind. In one way, Scribe strives to get the best of both worlds by cross-training and cultivating an environment of collaborative learning. We recognise that no one possesses all the knowledge and skill required to publish books and journals and that individuals gravitate toward and are good at a few things. We recommend laying the foundation for collaboration by building the process around a well-rounded staff who employ their specialised skills when needed.