Knowledge transfer sounds like a simple, natural act. After all, people have been sharing and transferring information to each other since they started walking the planet — and they’ve managed to make it this far.
However, a Google search on the topic produces about 30 million results, which indicates a lot of people are keen to know more. And many companies are struggling to do it not only effectively but also quickly.
The shift in workforce demographics in almost every industry has created a demand for transferring knowledge from older to younger workers at a rapid pace.
One of the reasons organizations are struggling is because much of the knowledge is fairly complex. Think about it: What do you need to know to build a trustful relationship with a new customer?
How about the knowledge it takes to perform a technical task, such as bringing a high-pressure well online after it has been shut off for a period of time? On closer inspection, much of what we need to know is not as routine or clear-cut as it may seem.
Another key challenge is people tend to hold on to their hard-earned knowledge. There are many reasons for this, some understandable, others not so much. Managing expectations and dealing with employee behaviour are some of the more difficult aspects of knowledge transfer.
To make things even more difficult, people with expertise often don’t know how they know what they know. As experts, they have developed ways to create and grow their knowledge through pattern recognition and through other complex neurological processes.
Because of this, they often require some help to draw out their knowledge in a way that others can make sense of it.
Traditional knowledge transfer methods, such as formal training, job rotation and transfer, mentoring and apprenticeship, deal effectively with many of these challenges. However, they are costly and time-consuming, and range in effectiveness depending on a person’s learning preferences, which is why companies have sought other ways to share and transfer their most critical knowledge.
Advances in knowledge management and collaboration tools and techniques have created a plethora of methods for knowledge transfer to choose from. Which method to use and when depends on the type of knowledge needed and the context for its application.
2 types of knowledge
There are two main types of knowledge that determine the methods used for transfer. One is explicit or specific knowledge. This is knowledge that can be readily articulated, codified, accessed and verbalized. It can move easily and quickly.
The other type is tacit knowledge or expertise. This is difficult to describe and document. Dialogue, stories and thoughtful elicitation are typically required to share and transfer this deeper knowledge.
Therefore, it takes more time and effort to move it. When it comes to knowledge transfer, context is king.
The other critical factor when choosing a knowledge transfer method is the environment in which the knowledge was created and where it will be used. The pace and tempo of the operating environment, regulatory factors and changes and the culture of the organization play a major role in adapting knowledge to fit in different contexts.
An effective way to factor in context is for the receiver to describe the internal and external drivers relating to the work at hand, the culture and other local conditions where and when the knowledge will be applied.
A subtle, but highly impactful, consideration in knowledge transfer is how the receiver asks for knowledge.
Potential sources of knowledge are much more inclined to make the time to share and transfer what they know if the person asking for help does so in earnest, and is not just looking for someone else to do her work.
It is also helpful for sources to consider what is needed to make sense of the knowledge they want to transfer. Sense-making enables the receiver to adapt the knowledge to his situation.
Providing the following goes a long way to enable effective transfer:
Application: A description of the knowledge and how it came about through its application. This should include what was done, why it was done, where it works, when to use it and level of effort.
Impact: An explanation of how performance was impacted by the application of the knowledge, and why it made a difference.
Key learning or advice: A description of what was learned in, and from, the application of the knowledge. What’s the one thing that stands out that should be repeated the next time the knowledge is applied? What’s the advice for someone who wants to adopt the knowledge?
Contact information: The name of the source of the knowledge and how best to contact her.
Of course, providing this information via documentation or conversation takes time and effort from the source of the knowledge.
This creates a barrier in many organizations where the expectation is for people to “Get ‘er done.”
Unless people are being explicitly rewarded to transfer their knowledge, this will always be viewed as discretionary, non-critical work.
In these situations, a highly effective approach is facilitated knowledge transfer. This involves the help of an experienced knowledge management practitioner to elicit and harvest the knowledge from those who have it, and help move it to those who need it.
Regardless of the method or approach used to transfer knowledge, organizations need to decide upfront if it is worth the effort to do it right.
They need to commit to make the time to save the time they are likely already spending to re-learn or re-create the knowledge they already have.
Kent A. Greenes is a consultant and knowledge management expert at knowledge management firm Greenes Consulting, based in Green Valley, Ariz. For more information, please visit www.greenesconsulting.com.
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