Using technology for knowledge and skill transfer

Most organizational knowledge is held in the minds of employees, and until recently it has been extremely difficult to tap into this knowledge, capture it, and share it among staff. Traditional approaches have not been effective in this regard, but new technologies are offering interesting solutions.

Many companies are already successfully using technology for sharing knowledge and for transferring skill from top performers to other employees. Many more companies are rethinking their training strategies.

In the not-so-distant past, knowledge and skill transfer had been largely limited to classroom training, where the instructors would be the experts in their subjects. For example, sales training would typically be delivered by a seasoned salesperson by way of a lecture. This approach has many limitations in terms of knowledge transfer and skill transfer.

Two common problems associated with this approach to knowledge transfer are the limited knowledge base of the trainer, who cannot possibly have all the answers to all the questions. The second is the poor timing of information delivery, which is not provided when the trainees need it but is rather dumped on them all at once.

Similarly, with respect to skill transfer, employees are typically not given the opportunity to practice the skills and once the lecture is over, employees do not have the coaching available when they are faced with challenging situations.

Knowledge transfer
In response to these limitations, technology is being effectively employed in the sphere of knowledge transfer. Currently, most efforts take the form of information sharing, as well as information storing and retrieval. For example, there are literally thousands of Internet discussion groups on a wide variety of subjects. As a member of a discussion group, one can post questions and receive answers or suggestions from other members or one can learn by simply monitoring the discussion.

Internet portals represent an extension of this mode of knowledge transfer by providing a knowledge management component. Portals integrate the most relevant information in a single point of access, and can allow employees to easily find answers to business questions, and share knowledge with other employees, partners, suppliers and customers. Portals are an effective way to locate, catalogue, transfer and maintain knowledge: answers and solutions are captured into a knowledge base, so other employees can reuse them in the future.

Procter & Gamble has introduced an intranet site designed to encourage greater employee collaboration and innovation, which can be reached by 18,000 employees in R&D, engineering, purchasing and other departments. As well, a number of consulting firms have created formal learning networks in which employees with different areas of expertise exchange ideas and practices.

Another example of how the skills of experienced or top performers can be passed on to others through the use of technology is e-mentoring. Like the more traditional forms of mentoring, junior employees can ask questions of their mentors, acquire career relevant knowledge and receive feedback through the use of e-mail. This approach is quite time-effective and, consequently, mentors are able to have a great number of mentoring relationships.

The use of technology provides numerous benefits with respect to knowledge transfer, for example information is available when needed with a very broad knowledge base, but it does not have to be limited to that.

Skill transfer
Companies are beginning to apply technology for the purpose of skill transfer. Skill transfer is different from knowledge transfer: it requires practice and proper feedback. Having the skill to play in the NBA takes more than just the knowledge of the game rules. No amount of watching basketball on TV will be sufficient to develop the skills of a professional player.

The basic idea is to harvest the know-how of the top 10 per cent of performers, for example, and pass it on to the rest of the employees. Every organization has a few “stars,” and these individuals are a strategic resource in more than one way. Certainly their skills have value, allowing them to achieve high performance, but their skills can have much more value for the organization if they can extend this know-how to all other employees.

Consider the case of General Electric Mortgage Insurance, one of the largest companies insuring against defaults on mortgages. With approximately 8,000 delinquent loans a year, GE was concerned that only a handful of its representatives were excellent at making decisions regarding whether or not foreclosure should be initiated or if a loan can be “cured.” In an attempt to transfer this skill to all representatives, GE examined how its top performers made decisions and developed a computer program that allowed other representatives to make decisions like the top performers. The program helped GE avoid 1,600 foreclosures in its first year and saved the company an estimate $12.5 million.

The use of technology for skill transfer can involve computer-based simulations, where the users can acquire key skills, even interpersonal skills such as customer service and management skills, through practice.

The philosophy behind a computer simulation is to recreate some aspect of the trainees’ job in a safe and controlled environment and to allow trainees to deal with the challenges firsthand by making a series of choices. As trainees progress through the situation, they receive feedback on their performance and learn what they did correctly or incorrectly.

Computer-based simulations allow users to practice relevant skills by repeatedly going through the scenario as many times as necessary to internalize the skill.
In simulations of interpersonal skills, users learn not only “what” to say, but also “how” to say it, “when” to say it, “what not to say” and what sort of “responses to expect” from the other party.

To build multi-level simulations for teaching interpersonal skills, companies collect stories of common on-the-job challenges and script them in the form of interactive scenarios. Top performers act as consultants during the design process by providing appropriate “lines of dialogue” and realistic reactions of the characters in the story. Top performers can also be used as virtual coaches by having short video clips of advice provided by them incorporated into the simulation.

Once the interactive scenarios are developed, video clips are produced and the package is assembled to run from a CD, the local network, or even the Internet. The availability of digital cameras and user-friendly software make the creation of simulations relatively easy and cost effective. Once created simulations can be used over and over with as many employees as necessary. Thus, the technology permits organizations to leverage the skill of high-performers by turning them into virtual trainers and coaches without removing them from the jobs they do best.

Implications for HR professionals
To capitalize on the benefits of new technologies for skill transfer, the role of HR professionals, particularly those involved in training will need to change. Technology will require organizations to re-think the role of training professionals. Their function will become more like facilitators, responsible for the transfer of the skills from top performers to others through the use of technology.

New technology will also require trainers to become experts in adult learning and course design, instead of becoming experts in the subject matter. The most successful training professionals will become specialists in extracting the knowledge and skills from top performers and transferring it to others in the organization with maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

Igor Kotlyar is a vice-president at Upward Motion Inc., which develops technologies for assessment and training. He can be reached at [email protected]. Alan Saks is a professor of human resources management at York University in Toronto and the author of three HR textbooks.

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