Success Labs President Devin Lemoine’s father worked at a paper mill for decades, developing knowledge of the process so deep that he could taste the paper and instantly know what needed to be adjusted. And after 41 years of overnight work, he moved to the day shift so he could teach new employees the art of making paper.
It was an example of a company making a smart decision about transferring knowledge, a vital part of long-term business success that is often neglected. In fact, a Raytheon Professional Services survey found that 61 percent of training and development/learning leaders said their organizations are ineffective at transferring knowledge from employees leaving their positions to their incoming replacements. “Companies often fail to identify and transfer this type of knowledge, which can have long-term effects on an organization’s capacity for effective action and competitiveness,” says Lemoine, who presented on the topic at the recent SHRM national conference in New Orleans.
In that presentation, Lemoine shared her advice on how to make sure your organization effectively passes along valuable information to the employees who need it most. Here’s what she had to say.
Make It Part of Your Culture
Knowledge transfer is the process of intentionally passing along expertise, wisdom and skills from one person on your team to another.
There are two types of knowledge: explicit and tacit. Explicit knowledge is recorded in documents, drawings, procedures and other formal ways. Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is information in someone’s mind, such as experiences, hunches, instinct and personal insight. That means it’s much more difficult to pass along.
And unless you actively encourage people to share it, they have little incentive to do so. Lemoine says companies often reward results but fail to think about rewarding employees who are diligent about taking the time to document what they do and what they know.
In contrast, successful organizations carve out time and resources for the knowledge transfer (KT) process, to the benefit of their long-term bottom line. Research shows that effective organizations dedicate more resources to knowledge transfer than ineffective companies do, and use coaching and mentor networks twice as often. Work shadowing and coaching were the top two tools used by these effective organizations.
When developing a KT program, Lemoine says it’s important to assess whether your company culture supports the sharing of knowledge or limits employees’ desire to share information. For example, companies shaped by the idea that knowledge is power can motivate people to hoard information, since they may feel vulnerable and less valuable within the organization when they share, she says. “This knowledge hoarding can affect the entire organization, a single department or an individual employee.”
Develop a Structured Process
In the Raytheon survey, learning leaders from ineffective organizations cited the lack of a structured KT approach as their greatest challenge almost three times as often in comparison with those from effective organizations.
The first step in developing a structured knowledge transfer program is to create a written plan. “Having a plan to follow helps assure that the knowledge teacher and the knowledge learner will focus on what is needed to transfer the knowledge,” Lemoine says.
The document should specify how to capture the knowledge to be transferred and how to transfer it using appropriate and effective methods. It should also spell out how to monitor progress and outline goals, actions and accomplishments. Specific action steps and due dates help keep the transfer on a timely track.
During the planning process, consider using tool a called a knowledge transfer matrix, created by consultant Steve Trautman, to identify different areas of knowledge that exist in your company, department or team. Each area of knowledge is a different silo, and these make up the column headers on your matrix. Once critical knowledge areas or silos are identified, employees can be rated on their level of knowledge and expertise. When the matrix is complete, it becomes easy to see gaps in unit or departmental knowledge, which experts may be at risk for burnout and which employees may be underutilized.
Adopt Tools That Support Knowledge Transfer
Once these risks and needs are discovered, the effort must be made to add tools that support the KT process. Many KT tools and solutions are low cost or no cost, but they do require the time and commitment of expert knowledge holders.
Lemoine recommends keeping it simple and doable. Better to have two or three tools or processes and do them well than to try to do 10 things and fatigue the expert knowledge holders and the learners. In addition to work shadowing, coaching and mentor networks, other tools and activities include storytelling and lessons-learned sessions, short e-learning pieces and online knowledge repositories.
Track and Measure Your Success
It’s also important to track progress, measure success and continue to address risks and needs as they emerge. Measuring success assessing of the skill and comfort level of learners and the capability of the unit or organization after the KT process is underway. Qualitatively, are we seeing learning accomplishments — people increasing their knowledge, skills and ability to successfully execute? Quantitatively, are we seeing results in process improvements and production?
Lemoine says to also revisit your KT plan regularly to make tweaks as needed. Keeping your plan updated will help ensure it remains effective even as your organization and workforce continue to evolve.
Your company’s ability to remain competitive depends on keeping the flow of knowledge in your organization — and a well-formed knowledge transfer plan will help you achieve that all-important goal.
Success Labs is a leadership-development and management consulting firm in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For more than 25 years, our expert team of consultants has worked with hundreds of companies to explore their business potential and improve their company and cultural performance. Contact us to get proactive about your people strategy.