Launching a Knowledge Transfer System

A step-by-step approach to building a knowledge transfer plan that protects your company from the fallout of knowledge loss.

by RC Victorino May 19, 2020

If your lead engineer gave her two weeks’ notice, would you panic?

For many companies, the answer is yes. Losing a key member of their team would be crippling because of the unique knowledge that person holds inside their head.

This is one of the reasons why companies push hard for documentation — to avoid the fallout when a team member leaves. Teams that maintain a knowledge management system (like an internal wiki) are better prepared to handle the loss of colleagues and the addition of new employees.

But personnel change isn’t the only source of critical knowledge loss.

Information silos exist in most companies, particularly those with multiple departments and teams.

These silos can make cross-departmental communication a challenge. Your sales team, for example, may not know where to look — or whom to ask — for API documentation for a potential partner.

These delays and miscommunication can halt projects and harm business.

A knowledge transfer system empowers your team to easily share knowledge throughout your organization, eliminating miscommunication and communication delays.

What is knowledge transfer?

Knowledge transfer is a method for sharing knowledge from one area or person in your business to another.

While both documentation and knowledge management are a part of it, knowledge transfer is more about identifying team members’ skills and converting those skills into organizational knowledge that can be easily shared and used.

Why is knowledge transfer necessary?

Knowledge transfer establishes a culture of collaboration and innovation. It gives your team the context they need to tackle problems and create holistic solutions. To explain further, let’s define the two types of knowledge associated with knowledge transfer.

Types of knowledge

Explicit knowledge is easily shared through written or verbal communication. The steps your engineer should take to submit a pull request is an example of explicit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge is hard to transfer or pass along through communication. It includes real-time decision making, such as knowing what problems to look out for, when to ask for help, and how to apply creative solutions. This knowledge is developed through experiences, observations, and insights. As a result, it can be incredibly challenging to capture, store, and transfer.

A knowledge management system (like a team wiki) contains explicit knowledge.

A knowledge transfer system, on the other hand, helps you transform tacit knowledge into explicit form (a process known as externalization) — so that information can be easily shared. Externalization is one of four modes of the SECI model of knowledge dimensions. The others are socialization (tacit to tacit), combination (explicit to explicit), and internalization (explicit to tacit).

With an effective knowledge-transfer plan in place, your company will have a process to collect, store, and share all your critical information.

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Creating an effective knowledge transfer process

There are three methods of transferring knowledge:

  1. Writing (e.g., wikis and blogs)
  2. Verbal (e.g., podcasts, conversations)
  3. Showing (e.g., demonstrations, mentoring)

A lot of factors impact the method by which your team shares knowledge, including:

  1. Access to technology/resources (e.g., you may not have the bandwidth for a mentorship program)
  2. Learning preferences of those receiving the knowledge (e.g., visual vs. audio vs. hands-on)
  3. The type of knowledge to be shared (e.g., documentation is often not enough to convey the full scope of tacit knowledge)

Below we break down the five elements that should go inside your knowledge transfer plan. As you create your plan, be sure to account for each method of knowledge transfer.

But before you create your plan, ask yourself why you want to complete a knowledge transfer. Is it to improve efficiency in your company? Is it to capture knowledge from team members you know are leaving soon? Is it to improve your onboarding process?

Your motivation for your knowledge transfer will help streamline the process and make it easier for you to measure the success of your strategy.

1. Collect your critical knowledge

Establishing a knowledge transfer plan is a daunting task. We recommend focusing on your most critical knowledge first (rather than having everyone across your organization document their expertise).

To do this, each team should hold at least one (if not several) brainstorming sessions where they identify the common problems and tasks they encounter.

Then, each team member provides his or her solution to these problems. A team lead documents these solutions, chooses which are most relevant to the org, and moves on to step 2 below.

If you prefer to include fewer people in the process, you can, instead, seek knowledge from the most critical people in your organization.

Ask yourself:

  • Who are the go-to people in your company?
  • What do only they know how to do?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you should have a list of critical team members and the activities and tasks you need to learn more about. You can interview these experts to collect their unique expertise.

2. Store that knowledge in a centralized place

The biggest takeaway from this step is choosing where you store your shared knowledge.

Documenting all the knowledge you’ve collected in countless Google Docs is not going to help you create a sustainable system for information sharing. Document editors like Google Docs are not designed for knowledge management.

An effective knowledge transfer strategy requires the use of a documentation tool specifically designed to work as a knowledge base or internal wiki.

Some of the features to look for in your documentation tool include:

  • Fast and comprehensive search capabilities.
  • Authorship (each document should have a single owner, so teammates know who to seek out for questions or input).
  • Integrations with other tools. For example, Slab integrates with tools like InVision, Vimeo, and Airtable, making it easy to embed spreadsheets, videos, and designs in one centralized place. This is a great way to adapt shared knowledge to every learning style.

3. Share and transfer that knowledge across your org

Storing your knowledge in a team wiki is a great step toward preventing knowledge loss. Your wiki makes information easily accessible and editable.

But it’s often not enough, for three reasons:

  1. You can’t always rely on employees to reference your wiki
  2. Reading is not the best learning method for everyone
  3. No matter how thorough the documentation, some knowledge is best conveyed through other methods (refer back to our section on tacit knowledge)

A successful knowledge transfer includes a plan for how employees share their expertise beyond documentation. Below are several sharing strategies your company can employ as part of your transfer plan.

  • Mentorship or work shadowing. This is when a knowledge expert takes someone else under their wings to share their expertise. It combines visual and hands-on learning. Mentorship is typically a more involved process than work shadowing.
  • Guided experience. The knowledge expert works hands-on on a project, showing his/her process to the individual learning the function. This strategy requires less investment by the expert. It also assumes the learner can acquire this knowledge without the added support of a mentor relationship.
  • Fire drills. Individuals work on a new task or function — without a mentor. Think of it as sink-or-swim.
  • Cross-org sharing. This is where workers share their knowledge with colleagues, who may not share the same job function but overlap in a particular area of interest (for example, a customer support rep shares his process for responding to a complaint with your head of lifecycle marketing).

4. Measure the success of your knowledge transfer

You want to know that the resources you invested in your knowledge transfer plan were worth it. Unfortunately, there is no universal benchmark for measuring success. Every company will have a different reason for conducting a knowledge transfer plan.

Measure success by revisiting the initial reason for conducting your transfer plan. Did you want to create a robust knowledge repository that your company will maintain? Did you want to capture the knowledge of key team members you know are going to leave or retire soon? Did you want to create a seamless onboarding experience?

Ask yourself if you achieved the initial purpose of your transfer.

If the answer is yes, then consider your plan a success.

5. Create new knowledge

The most effective knowledge transfer plans are sustainable. How do you know you have a sustainable knowledge transfer plan? The answer is when your teammates apply their new learnings into a process that makes that information easily accessible across your org.

Some members of your team will do this instinctively. Others may hoard their knowledge.

Documenting your knowledge transfer process will help employees understand the steps to take to share their knowledge with colleagues. But knowledge sharing will only be sustainable if it becomes a part of your company culture. That’s why you must overcome knowledge hoarding and empower your team to share their expertise willingly.

Your knowledge transfer system gives you the peace of mind that your company can handle the challenges of personnel changes and growth. Knowledge transfer encourages your team not only to pursue new knowledge — but to share it with their colleagues.

The more accessible your critical knowledge, the more successful your company will be.

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