Knowledge transfer and succession planning (Toughest HR question)

Failing to document organizational knowledge can be catastrophic
By Brian Kreissl
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/28/2011

Question: How do you conduct proper knowledge transfer for succession planning purposes?

Answer: While we all like to think we bring something special to our jobs, the truth is no one is completely indispensable. Notwithstanding the cult of personality that seems to pervade the reputations of senior leaders, organizational life generally goes on even after the departure of a highly respected and influential senior executive (an exception might be a very hands-on founder of a small entrepreneurial startup).

A true leader recognizes a big part of her role is to help groom one or more successors so there’s someone to fill the vacuum when she gets promoted, makes a lateral career move or leaves the organization. This is never more important than when the leader in question is nearing retirement.

While the end of mandatory retirement in Canada adds a layer of complexity — employers can no longer assume someone will retire by a certain age — it’s important to conduct proper succession planning for every leadership and key role within an organization, whether the incumbent is 75 or 35. This is because leaders can move on, or be hit by the proverbial bus, at any time in their careers.

Knowledge transfer must be part of any effective succession planning initiative because failing to properly document organizational knowledge can be catastrophic when that knowledge walks out the door.

Even if a manager is seeking a promotion within an organization, it’s advantageous for that person to share her knowledge so someone else can eventually step into her shoes. Jealously guarding knowledge and keeping it to oneself is never helpful to an organization, the leader in question or her eventual successor.

Human nature being what it is, however, people tend to keep knowledge and information to themselves. Therefore, some leaders need to be gently reminded of this fact and encouraged to do more with respect to knowledge-sharing, mentoring and developing their successors. Ideally, managers and executives should be held accountable for developing others.

Instilling a culture of information-sharing is obviously helpful. On the other hand, if the culture is very dog-eat-dog, employees will feel they have to constantly compete against each other. This doesn’t facilitate openness or the sharing of knowledge and information.

A more collaborative, team-based environment is more conducive to the sharing of knowledge. This can be achieved through effective change management, targeted organizational communications, appropriate competency frameworks and the right compensation structures.

Beyond these cultural considerations, however, there are a number of things an organization can implement to facilitate the documentation, transfer and capture of knowledge:

Coaching and mentoring: Leaders should be encouraged to share their knowledge and insight with others through the establishment of formal coaching, training and internship programs. This is particularly important in the case of senior leaders who may be thinking of retiring in the not-too-distant future.

Knowledge management: This need not be as fancy as it sounds. Knowledge management is really just any system designed to capture the knowledge that exists within an organization. The difficult part is getting people to continually update the information.

Organizational wikis: This is just another application of the concept of knowledge management. Projects or departments are each given an entry in an organizational wiki. Similar to Wikipedia, employees are encouraged to keep information current so it can then be accessed by anyone within the organization.

Process documentation: If every department is required to keep detailed, current and accurate process documentation on file, the job of training new (or newly promoted) employees becomes much simpler.

Social media: Some organizations have rolled out internal social media networks, with information on each worker’s experience, educational background and interests included on her personal profile page. This facilitates a quick and easy search of “who knows what” and “who worked on what.” It’s helpful for knowledge transfer because, even though a departing employee may be a fountain of knowledge, he will seldom be the only person who could provide information and context around a particular project or process.

Email: Provided she is willing to be contacted, allowing a former leader to keep her company PDA and email address for six months to one year after retirement can be extremely helpful to employees who need to ask a quick question. It can also be helpful in directing messages from external contacts to the appropriate parties internally.

Consulting assignments: With increasing longevity and changed attitudes towards aging and retirement, many retiring leaders and managers may be thrilled to have an opportunity to offer their services as consultants for a few hours per month. This allows for the training, mentoring and coaching phase to extend beyond a leader’s official retirement date.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at For more information, visit

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