Knowledge Transfer ‘A game of two halves’

Knowledge Transfer Image

The same question gets asked by many different customers and colleagues in Learning & Development; “how do we ensure Knowledge Transfer (KT) is taken seriously by the business and how do we measure whether we are meeting our targets?” – Why is this such a topical question for technical organisations, and what are smart companies doing about this dilemma?

When you look at a definition of KT, Cambridge University has a really interesting view; they refer to KT as a ‘Contact Sport’ – mutually beneficial collaboration between universities, industry and the public sector, to transfer new ideas both from business to academia and vice-versa; this highlights how KT is a much wider issue than it is perhaps viewed in business. Typically KT, in a business environment, is related to the dilemma around an ageing population, many companies are faced with a number of employees exiting at any given time who have significant knowledge around products, processes and customer requirements, with little or no plans in the organisation around how this knowledge is transferred deeper into the organisation. Organisations should also consider the knowledge coming in from new graduates and apprentices who are adding to the knowledge ‘gene pool’ within industry, as well as them learning from ‘current practice’. Both issues should be on the agenda for ‘transfer’ purposes.

It could be argued that successful KT creates a differentiator for an organisation in their chosen markets, establishing them as a business that is able to capture and share knowledge which benefits not only the customer but the employees too. It also helps employees feel more engaged with their organisation, as well as creating a greater depth of understanding of how the organisation currently works and perhaps how it needs to work in the future. Having efficient content management systems to record and store processes and procedures will surely support a smooth transfer of information between the two parties, but even if an organisation does have some smart software to hold the information, how do you get the knowledge out of someone’s head in the first place?

For example, during a recent discussion with a new apprentice, he expressed his own challenge of; ‘how do you learn from someone who is 30 years older than you, done the job for more than 20 years (a certain way) and is generally a busy person for most of the day?’ When discussing what prevents him from just asking questions and watching his colleague (surely that’s how we learn?), he replied that a lack of confidence often prevents him just stopping his colleague and asking ‘why do you do it that way?’ How does the engineer with 20 years’ experience in his role, who still has performance targets to meet, transfer his knowledge to this rather unconfident apprentice? This is where we could go back to the Cambridge University comment about Knowledge Transfer being a ‘Contact Sport’ or my definition; ‘A Game of Two Halves‘– KT is about the apprentice taking knowledge form the experienced engineer, and also the engineer using it as an opportunity to learn new methods, such as those influenced by the digital revolution of the last 15 years. How they do this can be both formal and informal – e.g. via the content management system, or simply stopping to take time to talk a colleague through why and how we complete a certain task.

This is where the L&D function can support KT – ensure that the employees have opportunities to have ‘contact points’ on a regular basis to absorb knowledge around a key process, technical skill or industry standards. Encouraging the habit in meetings of note taking, and sharing these in a common place will support this objective; implementing this and similar strategies will help ensure that KT is an underlying factor in supporting a culture of openness and active innovation. Whilst structured, formal Knowledge Management Systems do have a place to capture core processes and procedures, not all organisations will have access to this technology and KT is a challenge for all organisations irrelevant of their size or technical sophistication. Getting the right information, to the right people at the right time is critical to a business’ long term success.

One idea used in an organisation I am familiar with is around creating a community of ‘specialists and experts’. These identified employees are formally selected and ‘tagged’ (they wear a specific coloured lanyard in the office) as experts and specialists with high levels of knowledge around process, systems and customer intimacy on key projects. Part of their time is allocated to ‘transferring knowledge’ throughout the year; they have an activity code to book their ‘transfer activity’ time too. It’s intended to be a measurable target to help support the deployment of deep technical knowledge to a new set of employees starting out on their learning journeys. Does this work? It’s too early to tell at the moment, however the organisation’s intention is clear– sharing knowledge and supporting the transfer of that knowledge to the future workforce is high on the priority list and measuring the impact of this selected group of employees is key to understanding how to facilitate this in the best way.

To summarise; if much of a company’s worth is the knowledge in ‘people’s heads’, the role of the L&D function is to support activities to encourage the ‘contact sport of KT’. Whether it is via a Knowledge Management System, a database of key notes for others to view, interactive sessions between the’ apprentice’ and the experienced employee over lunch, or via a sophisticated network of ‘specialists and experts’, encouraging ‘contact’ is at the heart of the solution.