Knowledge Transfer Strategies & Options

Much of the knowledge that is most critical to an organization resides in the heads of employees. When they leave, so does that knowledge. This is particularly troublesome today with an estimated 25-35 percent of the workforce due to retire in the next few years. Some industries and companies have already been hard hit and expect to loose as much as 50 percent of top talent. The downturn in the economy over the last few years has slowed the exit but done nothing to eliminate or minimize the problem. In fact, in many ways it's only exacerbated the problem. Rather than a stair-stepped exodus, we now face a mass exodus that offers much greater potential for harm.

The need for effective ways to transfer knowledge in short time frames is critical. Although there are a variety of options and strategies to choose from, decisions around “which to employ when” can often be challenging. There are many things to consider when choosing the right vehicle or combination of vehicles and the complexity of the challenge continues to grow. This paper was developed to give you a big picture view of potential solutions and strategies and get you started on the path to building a platform that's right for your organization.

Understanding Your Options

In order to map out the best way forward, let's look at a typical situation and the different ways organizations are handling it today.

John Smith is a 35-year veteran and key employee who is scheduled to retire in 9 months. Much of what he knows or knows how to do has not been made explicit, it resides inside his head. There are others in the organization with bits of pieces of John's knowledge, but no one with the complete picture or depth of knowledge that John has. You have limited resources and a ticking clock. What do you do?

There are several ways companies typically deal with an impending knowledge loss like this one.

  1. Do nothing and hope for the best (hope is not a strategy)
  2. Hire the SME back as a consultant (rarely cost effective and only prolongs the problem)
  3. Hire someone new who has the knowledge (good in theory, but outsiders typically lack the organizational knowledge important to getting work done and are unlikely to be able to perform at the same level – at least not quickly)
  4. Have the SME “write down everything they know about x and y”(unstructured and unfacilitated 'knowledge dumps' rarely result in quality information)
  5. Have the SME work directly with potential replacement and others on the team in a mentoring capacity (great concept but only effective if structured and focused and provides critical learning experiences; it is also time intensive)
  6. Restructure the job giving various tasks to others in the organization (still doesn't solve the problem of knowledge transfer)
  7. Redesign the work to make the SME's job primarily one of Knowledge Transfer (great in concept, but suffers from the same problems as #5).
  8. Capture critical knowledge via facilitated interviews (one of the better solutions but comes with it's own complexity and challenges). More on this in Part III – Capturing Critical Knowledge Via Facilitated Interviews.

Identify which knowledge is most critical

Any of these approaches (except maybe #1) is a step in the right direction, if for no other reason that it means the organization has at least recognized the problem. Recognition is an important first step, but it too is more complicated than it appears.

Recognition is the first step. Step 2 is a clear understanding of the problem. Clear understanding of the problem involves being able to identify the knowledge in your organization that's most critical. The reality is you can't, nor should you try to, transfer knowledge from every seasoned employee who's about to retire.

Not all knowledge is of equal value to your organization. In order to get strategic value and maximum return on your investment, you must begin by clearly identifying what's most important. Details on how to do this are included in Part II of this series: Identifying and Prioritizing Critical Knowledge.

Take a strategic approach

In order to get maximum return on your investment, it is essential that knowledge capture and knowledge transfer initiatives tie directly to larger organizational strategies and initiatives. There should be linkage in two ways: 1) knowledge determined as critical is directly tied to strategic objectives and 2) knowledge transfer itself is strategically structured utilizing a variety of tools, approaches and media that synergistically work together to achieve strategic objectives.

The most sustainable approach is an organic one supported by a variety of organic processes and an overarching strategically-focused methodology. By organic, I mean one that evolves naturally. Knowledge Transfer becomes a natural end result of not only training and more formal KT processes but of day-to-day work and communication. In other words, it becomes a part of the culture and happens naturally. In order to “get there”, specific cultural elements must be identified and behavioral aspects included in methods and processes. At the end of the day, knowledge transfer is about people and without proper attention to these people aspects, it is likely to fail.

Knowledge Transfer must also be “owned” and managed just like any other critical strategy. Results should be measured and participants held accountable for meeting goals and objectives.

The challenge is formidable, but it is doable. And the results are well worth the effort. This document and others in the series are designed to help you understand your options and choose the course of action that's right for you.

Critical Questions to Help You Get Started

It is important to ask the right questions at each step along the way. As you start to formulate your strategy and what will you need, consider these questions.

  1. What methods do we have for identifying the knowledge that's most important to our organization's survival and growth?
  2. Once we identify the critical knowledge, how will we identify and evaluate where we are most at risk? Where is the knowledge? Who's head is it in? What's the risk of their leaving or of us losing access to that knowledge
  3. Once we identify the critical knowledge and where it resides, how will we identify the best means of capturing and transferring it?
  4. What are our options and how do we evaluate options and choose the one(s) that are right for us?
  5. Once we decide on an option, what resources should we use to implement? Should we try to do it internally or hire outside consultants?
  6. How do we ensure all KT initiatives are working synergistically toward a common goal?
  7. How will we measure results?

Other documents in this series address items 1, 2, 6 and 7. Let's take a look at 3-5.


Overview of Knowledge Transfer Vehicles

There are many vehicles organizations can use to help transfer knowledge. Some will work better in one organization than in another. Some may not be appropriate for specific types of content. The challenge is to identify 'which ones to use when' and to develop an overall strategy that employs a variety of vehicles in concert.

Strategy When to Use
Mentoring and Apprenticeships
Formal arrangements where an experienced person works directly with a novice or less experienced person to pass along knowledge and skill.
  • Where there is ample time for knowledge growth (mentoring is not a short term solution)
  • Where there are meaningful learning opportunities. (A common problem with Mentoring and Apprenticeships is being able to provide the kinds of problem situations where critical learning develops).
  • Where the SME not only knows the subject area but is also a good teacher / communicator
  • Where the SME has time and motivation to be a mentor

Collaborative Work Spaces (Discussion Forums, Communities of Practice, etc.)
Groups of individuals share knowledge over time about a common work practice or subject area.

  • Where the right people (those with the critical knowledge) actively participate
  • Where unstructured knowledge meets the need (Community knowledge is typically in parts and pieces and requires the learner to draw out specific 'how to')
  • Where discussion and dynamic knowledge exchange is part of the culture
Job Aids or Work Instruction
Structured tools that help people perform tasks accurately. They include things such as checklists, flow diagrams, reference tables, decision tree diagrams, etc.
  • As quick reference materials that accompany more substantial learning programs and tools

Expert Interviews
Sessions where one or more people who are considered experts in a particular subject, program, policy, or process meet with others to share knowledge.

Expert interviews are typically facilitated by people skilled in capturing and packaging implicit knowledge.

Expert Interviews may be done in groups or one-on-one with a subject matter expert (SME).

  • Where time and bandwidth are issues (not enough time for training and mentoring)
  • Structured Knowledge Harvest with SME
    Where deep unarticulated knowledge is held by one or two key people
  • Where knowledge is deep, complex and not easy to articulate
  • Group Facilitated Discussion
    - Where group dynamics help produce better results
    - Where you don't need to go deep into a specific domain
    - Where knowledge is implicit and participants have an idea of “what they know”
Lessons Learned Debriefings
Tools like After Action Reviews provide a structure for reflecting upon an event and identifying what worked and what didn't work, then capturing these lessons learned so that others can also learn from the experience.
  • For collecting knowledge after an event (crisis or completion of a project for example).
  • Where the organization's culture encourages and supports this type of reflection and discussion – i.e. “mistakes are OK, they give us opportunities to learn and grow.”
On-the-Job Training
Most organizations use some form of on-the-job training where an experienced employee teaches a new person how to perform job tasks. This can be a flexible unstructured, learn-as-you-go process or a more structured program with written training materials, schedules and measures.
  • When the focus is steady-state operations. (OJT runs the same risks as Mentoring in that the new person often doesn't get an opportunity to experience the non-steady state events where some of the most important learning occurs).
Training encompasses a large variety of activities designed to facilitate the development of skills and competencies. Methodologies can include classroom instruction, simulations, role-plays, computer or web-based instruction, and small and large group exercises. It can be instructor-led or self-directed in nature.
  • When there is ample to time to plan and deliver training over time. (As with Mentoring, training is not an appropriate tool when you're time constrained).
  • When there are budget and resources to develop the type of training that matches the learner's work schedule and learning style.
Work Profiling
Work Profiling provides a structure for employees to self-document critical information about their job. Work Profiles are similar to a job desription, but much more dynamic and actionable. Work profiles typically include the results and deliverables produced in the job, the tasks and subtasks that produce the results and the tools and resources used in the process.
  • When used in concert with other HR and KM programs and tools
  • As a complement to or “starter” process for a more in-depth Knowledge Harvest.
    When the organization has limited resources but wants to move forward with knowledge capture and knowledge transfer activities.

Keep your focus on the end result

Each of the vehicles outlined above has a place, but it's important to keep in mind that these are merely tools. It's easy to focus on the tool and loose sight of what it is you need the tool to do – help ensure people in your organization have the skills and knowledge they need to perform optimally. When you keep your focus on the end result, and take a strategic approach where the tools work in concert, the challenge is less formidable and the return on investment much greater.

In Part II of this series, we go into detail on how to Identify and Prioritize Critical Knowledge.