When an important member of your team decides to leave, one of your most urgent priorities is knowledge transfer. You know the feeling: this team member possesses critical knowledge, and if that information leaves with them, the repercussions will be felt throughout the organization. For many, the departure of a critical employee triggers a scramble of meetings to capture as much knowledge as possible before they go.
If that scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone: many organizations struggle to formalize knowledge transfer processes before the point of departure. But even beyond employee exits, there are plenty of reasons to develop a knowledge transfer strategy. Consider how a strong knowledge sharing process might impact your onboarding and intern programs, or employees transferring to a new role.
A knowledge transfer program gives you a strong foundation for growing and developing team members and streamlining personnel changes. And the good news is that it doesn’t have to be complicated: a solid, step-by-step strategy is all you need to gather knowledge and transfer it to those who need it.
It’s time to formalize your knowledge transfer process—here’s how to execute an effective knowledge transfer plan.
What is knowledge transfer?
Let’s start with a quick 101: knowledge transfer is a systematic and purposeful strategy for capturing critical knowledge from key personnel to store and share within an organization for maximum efficiency. Maximum efficiency is just a fancy way of saying that your organization will get a gold star in key people processes like:
- Supporting a current employee as they transition to a new role within the organization
- Shortening ramp-up times for new hires or interns in their roles
- Ensuring that key knowledge from a departing employee is stored and shared with future team members
In order to achieve those outcomes, it’s important to set clear goals for your knowledge transfer plan from the outset. These goals will help guide the process and avoid any duplication and frustration that could send your plan off course.
Here are a few questions to consider as you set goals for knowledge transfer:
- In what areas or positions do you face the most potential knowledge loss? Who are the key people that possess this knowledge?
- How much knowledge needs to be captured? What information is critical and what can be learned in other ways?
- How will critical knowledge be captured and transferred to those who need it? Develop a plan of action based on the goals you’ve identified above.
What to include in knowledge transfer
Knowledge transfer is about more than preparing for a key employee’s eventual departure. Instead, it’s about creating a proactive plan for sharing knowledge today in order to build a more collaborative, aligned and informed workforce.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why the traditional one-hour exit interview or water cooler debriefing no longer suffices as effective knowledge transfer. Instead, it is a purposeful and ongoing strategy with measurable results.
When it comes to learning, you’ll often hear about two kinds of knowledge: tacit and explicit. Both types of knowledge are involved in knowledge transfer plans, so let’s break down what each type means:
Tacit knowledge vs. explicit knowledge
Explicit knowledge is knowledge that is easily shared and transferred through writing or speaking. It is information that can easily be picked up from talking to someone, reading a book, or looking something up online.
Tacit knowledge is knowledge that is hard to transfer or pass along through writing or verbalization. It is developed through a person’s experiences, observations, and insights, and it requires shared activities to transfer or impart that knowledge.
While both types of knowledge play a role in knowledge transfer, the most important (and difficult!) type to capture is tacit knowledge, because it requires more effort and interaction to acquire.
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How to execute a knowledge transfer plan
The knowledge transfer process can be daunting at first. There’s usually quite a bit of information to capture, and plenty of questions about the best way to go about doing that. Knowing where to start when developing a knowledge transfer process is essential.
An effective knowledge transfer process usually looks something like this:
- Identify from whom in the organization you need to gather knowledge
- Have them share that information in a way that you can capture
- Execute the transfer
- Measure and evaluate the knowledge transferred
We promised a solid, step-by-step strategy, so let’s dive a bit deeper into each element of a knowledge transfer plan:
1. Identify the knowledge that you need to gather
This is the first phase of the process, and arguably the most important. Here, you’ll need to determine from whom you’re collecting knowledge and what information you need to capture.
Start by asking yourself a few questions:
- Who are the “go-to” people in the organization?
- What do only they know how to do?
- If they left today, would anyone know how to do what they do?
- When they’re away, what tasks pile up because only they know how to do it?
- What does the team rely on them for?
Once you’ve answered these questions, you should have come up with a list of names and the activities and tasks you need to learn more about. Now it’s time to capture that knowledge and share and store it efficiently.
2. Obtain the necessary knowledge
Remember: just say no to the hours-long information dump. We’re going to get more creative here than simply conducting a one-time interview to capture knowledge. Instead, you want to create a sustainable system for mapping out the knowledge in your organization, then filling in the captured knowledge accordingly.
For example, you could start to capture knowledge and organize it by building a matrix or spreadsheet that breaks down the following information:
- The individual from whom you are collecting knowledge
- The critical tasks this individual oversees and their importance level
- The availability of this information (i.e., does anyone else in the organization know or have access to it?)
- The impact level of others not having this information causes
- The resources that are needed to share the information with others
If spreadsheets aren’t your thing, there’s now plenty of technology to support capturing and sharing large amounts of information. Once you’ve gathered and stored all of the information, it’s time to choose the most effective, efficient delivery method for your organization and goals.
3. Execute and share the knowledge transfer plan
Easier said than done, right? Sure, but if you’re following a step-by-step approach, this part will be simpler than you think. This step is all about sharing the right information with the right people, the right way. There are several knowledge transfer methods that are pretty universally viewed as best practices, often used in combination with one another.
Here are some effective ways to knowledge transfer within your organization:
Short or long-term mentorship is an effective way to disseminate information between two people. Mentorship is particularly effective in transferring tacit knowledge from the person whose knowledge you’re capturing and the individual who needs to learn it.
Use guided experience when there is a hands-on element required for certain job functions and activities. The person with first-hand knowledge works to share and show it to the individual who is learning the function.
Who says virtual reality is just for gamers? Simulation is now a staple in organizational training, and knowledge transfer is no exception. We’ve created simulated training experiences ourselves: from 3D animations to immersive virtual and augmented reality training experiences, modern technology provides hands-on experience in a controlled environment.
Similar to mentoring, work shadowing asks the individual acquiring the knowledge to shadow the person who has the knowledge. This is an observation-based method that has learners experience the functions and activities of the role and learn the ropes through observation.
Paired work puts together two employees who are both learning a new function or activity. It allows them to work back and forth to bounce ideas off of one another and practice learning together. Often, these pairs will be working off of shared explicit knowledge to learn tacit knowledge together through trial and error.
Community of practice
Communities of practice cut across traditional organizational boundaries and include people who do not share the same job function, but overlap in a particular area of interest. These collaborative learning groups allow individuals to share knowledge over a longer period of time and exchange information with one another. Traditionally, these groups met in person, but now many communities of practice have migrated to digital platforms, like social media platforms (think Facebook groups) or digital workplace collaboration tools (think Slack).
eLearning and instructor-led training
When you need to transfer knowledge to a larger group of people, designing an eLearning or instructor-led course is a more efficient and standardized approach. eLearning removes traditional communication barriers and creates an on-demand resource for employees to access at their moment of need. Over time, eLearning courses will build a knowledge bank for your organization that houses key processes and information.
For skills that benefit from a face-to-face approach, instructor-led training (ILT) allows you to reach many individuals at once without sacrificing the human element.
4. Measure and evaluate
What does a successful knowledge transfer plan look like? Because each organization’s goals are unique, there’s no universal benchmark that indicates success. One organization might be completing a knowledge transfer because a majority of their workforce will be retiring in the next five years. Another might be starting an internship program and looking to build a comprehensive onboarding packet for new interns.
While there’s no magic formula for measuring the success of your knowledge transfer plan, you can start by returning to the original goals you set for the program. Did you meet the goals you set out to achieve? Evaluating and measuring the knowledge transfer process against your goals will quickly illuminate any gaps and allow for a shift in the plan moving forward. Remember that reviewing the effectiveness of knowledge transfer practices is a continuous endeavor, and you’ll revise and evolve it as your organization grows over time.
Whether you’re looking to build an up-to-date knowledge repository or shorten ramp-up time for new hires, a strong knowledge transfer strategy is your secret to success. It requires time and preparation to get it right, but the resulting strategy will give everyone in your organization access to a wealth of knowledge for years to come.