As a leader, what are the constants you can always count on? You know the elevator will always stop on every floor on the morning you’re in a hurry. You know your secret deli around the corner will always have the best turkey sandwich. And you’ll always have to battle turnover.
Whether it’s people retiring or taking a new position elsewhere, employee turnover forces organizations to confront the issue of knowledge transfer — passing along key information to a replacement. That information may include where to get the best sandwiches near the office, but more critically it’s the business-essential, experience-based knowledge that your organization can’t afford to lose.
Dorothy Leonard, chief adviser at Leonard-Barton Group and a co-author of “Critical Knowledge Transfer: Tools for Managing Your Company’s Deep Smarts,” says that once these “deep smarts” go out the door, companies that haven’t previously extracted them are at a severe disadvantage. “The secret sauce of the company can be walking out of the door because of the know-how in key employees’ heads,” she says.
Leonard spoke with us recently about a proven knowledge transfer process, and her predictions about the future of knowledge transfer.
Identify the knowledge you need to transfer
As Leonard puts it, an expert needs to pass information along to a “nextpert” when they’re leaving an organization. What’s the best way to facilitate this process, and guarantee that valuable information isn’t lost when employees move on?
First, Leonard says, identify what information needs to be passed to the nextpert. What’s critical to your business? “Any knowledge transfer program really has to be tied into the business needs of the company,” she says. “Focus in on just that critical knowledge, and not knowledge that’s going to have a half-life.”
In other words, don’t get bogged down in smaller details. Specific factors are bound to change over time, such as information on equipment or individual clients. Instead, prioritize sharing experts' skills and organizational knowledge.
When assisting organizations with knowledge transfer, Leonard and her team collect this information from experts, then consult with others at the company to validate what should be considered critical knowledge. They rank various items for factors such as how critical the knowledge is to the organization, how urgent it is to transfer and how difficult it would be to transfer it. Then they create a visual map of the knowledge itself to help focus their learning plan.
Interview and observe
The length of time a nextpert needs to spend with an expert will vary, and Leonard says much of the work falls onto the shoulders of the nextpert. It’s important to help nextperts on their interview and observation skills so they have a better understanding of how to extract information. You can also assign coaches to facilitate knowledge exchanges.
However, interviews are only part of the process. Nextperts also observe the experts in action and partner with them on joint projects so they can learn by doing. All the while, the nextperts should take time to reflect on what they’re learning to avoid misunderstandings.
The future of knowledge transfer practices
Knowledge transfer is continually evolving, and Leonard says her team has been working on a process called "knowledge cascades" that they’re particularly excited about. “Once the nextpert is done learning, knowledge should be passed along to others in the organization,” she says. You can do that by requiring your nextperts to create what she calls “knowledge transfer deliverables” that share their learnings throughout the organization.
Those deliverables could be a wiki full of information, a training session on a key process, databases, videos or animated diagrams.
“You’re taking the knowledge and know-how of this expert and you’re not just passing it to one or two people — you’re cascading that down through the organization,” Leonard says.
However, knowledge transfer isn’t just about educating more junior members of your team; Leonard notes that team building lets knowledge transfer in both directions.
She recommends that organizations create teams that bridge generational gaps. Put employees with the most experience on the same teams as digital natives. The more senior team members should have business-critical, experience-based knowledge that they can pass along to junior members. On the other side of the table, younger employees can share tech tricks and training.
When you put employees with different experiences together, “you’re more likely to get some innovation,” she says.