As a leader, what are the constants you can always count on? You know that someone will forget they’re on mute on your morning check-in. You know that you’ll scramble to put on your mask when someone else ventures into the office. And you’ll always have to battle turnover.
What is knowledge transferring?
Knowledge transfer is the process of documenting and sharing organizational knowledge and communicating this knowledge to new hires once tenured employees leave. It is not the same, however, as new hire training. The scope goes beyond training because the end goal should be a single source of institutional knowledge that all employees can refer to – both new and experienced.
Knowledge transfer is important because
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 which coworker to go to for movie recs, but more critically it’s the business-essential, experience-based knowledge that your organization can’t afford to lose. Knowledge loss happens even more easily when working remotely because you’re not always able to turn around and tap someone on the shoulder for help whenever you need it. They might not be online, they might be housing vital information in their hard drive, their internet may be unstable, etc. There are a slew of potential hurdles.
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. Failure to formalize a knowledge sharing process goes further to negatively impact your onboarding process. And onboarding is particularly important in a remote/hybrid work world.
[Related article: 3 Remote Onboarding Tips for a Better Employee Onboarding Experience]
The ins & outs of the knowledge transfer process
Leonard spoke with us about a proven knowledge transfer process, and her predictions about the future of knowledge transfer.
We’ll cover the following:
- How to identify the knowledge you need to transfer
- The importance of identifying and preparing your experts to pass on their expertise
- Considerations to account for in a virtual knowledge transfer process
- The future of knowledge transfer practices
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 on just that critical knowledge, and not knowledge that’s going to have a half-life.” What Leonard is specifying is what’s often referred to as explicit vs. tacit knowledge, or knowledge that is easily shared through writing or speaking vs. that which is not. Check out this article to learn more about these types of knowledge.
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.
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.
On the flip side, experts themselves also need to be equipped to pass on their knowledge. This requires that you first identify who your internal experts are. Think about who is often asked to contribute their expertise and make it easy for them to share their knowledge. Create a standardized knowledge transfer plan and assign experts to facilitate knowledge exchanges.
Adapt to a virtual environment
To support virtual knowledge transferring, the key is to document, document, document. Whether an expert-nextpert pair is sharing knowledge via call or through a shared project/activity, make sure to document. Whether it’s as a written document or a recorded audio file, save all relevant materials in a shared location so that nextperts can refer back to them and potentially use them for the next person.
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.
Now that you have the key elements of a knowledge transfer process, it’s time to get started! Use the checklist below as you design your knowledge transfer process, and share it with relevant stakeholders.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in August 2019, and has been revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness in May 2021.