A step-by-step approach to building a knowledge transfer plan that protects your company from the fallout of knowledge loss.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are three methods of transferring knowledge:
A lot of factors impact the method by which your team shares knowledge, including:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.