Peer learning and knowledge sharing

Knowledge transfer: Keeping critical know-how within the organization

Knowledge transfer is how organizations get the critical skills, insights, and ways of doing things from employees who may be leaving the organization to those who are sticking around. In this article we break down what knowledge transfer is, why it's important, and how to work out a plan for it in your company.

Ryan Carruthers

Published on 

December 22, 2021

Updated on 

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Your employees feel that something is being hidden that is critical to your organization: information. According to Gallup’s research, two-thirds of employees surveyed don’t feel that knowledge, information, and ideas are shared freely in your organization. 

But without knowledge transferring between your employees, you run the risk of losing valuable wisdom and information. 

What is knowledge transfer?

Knowledge transfer is a way of sharing information or ideas within your organization. It’s a formal process that helps keep skills in your company. Part of the process involves a demonstration of learning—more specifically, applying something you’ve learned in a different context. 

For example, suppose a customer success representative shadows an account executive during a sales call. While shadowing, the customer success representative notes how the account executive listens to the prospect’s concerns and answers their questions in such a way that it persuades them that they need their solution. When going back to their day-to-day the customer success representative applies some of the techniques they learned while working with customers. In doing so, they successfully upsell existing customers. 

In this example, the customer success employee applied what they learned in a different context. 

According to researchers at Yale University, this is the “hallmark of true learning.”

Knowledge transfer is vital to organizational agility. By agility, we borrow Gallup’s definition

In their The Real Future of Work: Agility Issue report:

“...employees’ capacity to gather and disseminate information about changes in the environment, and respond to that information quickly and expediently.”

According to Gallup, many organizations don’t make use of knowledge transfer best practices. Instead, they found that companies often fall short in cooperation and knowledge sharing that would help them maintain agility in today’s fast-changing world. 

Knowledge transfer can be very nebulous. One way to visualize knowledge transfer more clearly is the Triangle of Wisdom. What this shows is the different levels of information sharing and retention. The goal is to reach wisdom, that is, tacit knowledge that can be used for strategic planning, coaching, and mentoring. 

The goal of knowledge transfer is to get wisdom shared between employees.

What’s the difference between knowledge transfer and knowledge sharing?

Knowledge transfer and knowledge sharing are not interchangeable, though they are related. 

The transfer of knowledge in a workplace setting refers to the method used to pass along critical skills and information from experienced employees to another part of the organization such as new hires or those who will replace retiring employees. Knowledge transfer is mainly used to train employees and keep information within the organization, such as succession planning

Knowledge sharing has a less narrow focus. It is used to pass along insights, learning or ideas to other employees. The goal is to encourage innovation among employees and enhance cross-team collaboration. This is done through various knowledge sharing activities like peer learning groups where employees discuss ideas and projects or flash mentoring where employees engage in mentoring sessions in a ‘speed-dating-style.’

Why is knowledge transfer important?

All employees leave your company at some point. 

Whether they move on to other opportunities or they retire, you will have some level of turnover. When that happens, they will take their wisdom and knowledge with them, and your organization will lose it unless you’ve been purposeful about knowledge transfer. 

Without a plan for knowledge transfer, employees who take over for those departing will need to relearn everything. 

How to create a knowledge transfer plan: 3 steps

No one wants to lose valuable knowledge and insight. Creating knowledge transfer systems can help you retain the information in your organization. Here are three steps you can take to develop your own knowledge transfer plan. 

Pinpoint what knowledge your organization needs to keep

Start by discerning what knowledge is key for your organization. 

  • What gives you a competitive edge? 
  • Do you have specific intellectual property or a complex process that only a few employees understand? 
  • Is it insight into customers' pain points? 
  • A certain process that makes your teams more efficient? 

At this stage, you want to distinguish between tacit and explicit knowledge. 

  • Tacit knowledge includes shortcuts or things you learn on the job that helps you perform better. 
  • Explicit knowledge is what would be listed in the job description.  

You can identify these skills by talking to the employee who’s leaving. Get them to list out all the skills they’re taking with them out of the organization. Then review that list and divide it into tacit and explicit knowledge. 

Keep in mind that the valuable information you want to transfer to a replacement is tacit. These can be key to helping other employees perform the job to the same level it is currently being done. The next step in an effective knowledge transfer plan is to implant that critical information into a new employee.

Build a strategy to upskill the team member taking on that role

This is the step where you delve into what knowledge the replacing employee brings to the job and what skills they need to acquire. The outcome is that you can upskill or reskill the replacement with the skills the employee is leaving with. 

A great way to determine what they need to learn by asking them or conducting a skills gap analysis. This video does a great job walking you through the steps.

After you’ve completed a skill analysis, employ Bloom’s Taxonomy to outline what skills the employee should have once they take on the new role. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a term borrowed from the education space where instructors would list what skills students would have upon completion of the course. Think of it as a syllabus with learning outcomes. 

Once you know what skills they need you can work out a way to close the gap. To do this, pair them up with the employee who is leaving. Get them to participate in several knowledge sharing sessions where the employee who is going walks them through the most critical parts of their job. 

Let the employee who is leaving know that for this short period before they leave they will need to be a good peer mentor to their replacement. 

These knowledge transfer sessions can be a key part of the onboarding and training process

Document the tacit and explicit knowledge

When the new employee is up to speed, make sure to document what they learned to pass on to future employees. This can be done by creating extra procedure documents that guide other employees through the steps of job tasks. 

Working with subject matter experts to document what they know is a critical best practice of an organizational culture that values in-house training. It’s much more convenient and affordable if employees can teach one another instead of having to bring in consultants or trainers.

Doing this will make you more resilient to future turnover or personnel changes. 

Bonus: Do these key activities to support knowledge transfer before it’s too late

Having a knowledge transfer strategy in place before any of your employees leaves is one of the best ways to preserve valuable information. You can’t predict how your employees will opt to go. Some may be cooperative in transferring knowledge to their replacement. While others may quit and leave the same day or be uncooperative with the knowledge transfer process. 

So, avoid a situation where you’re scrambling to capture the knowledge of employees who are leaving. Rather, be preemptive by using some of these activities:

  • Peer mentoring activities - Peer mentoring can be great knowledge transferring opportunity. These experiences pair two employees from the same or similar levels in your company. It can also be used as a group mentoring experience. Peer mentoring has the added advantage that each employee understands of the challenges the other faces in the organization. This knowledge can help them empathize with each other and offer extra advice or support. 
  • Have senior leaders mentor more junior ones - Traditional mentoring is still one of the best ways to transfer knowledge among your skilled employees. In these experiences, a mentor can share their knowledge, experience, and advice with the mentee. 
  • Mentoring circles - When you have more than one employee you want to transfer the knowledge to, you can create mentoring circles to allow information passing. In a mentoring circle, the mentees often have something in common, for example, they may all be new hires. This activity can also help enhance connection and collaboration among your employees. 

Knowledge transfer isn’t something that is often passed along without a plan. It takes some effort and encouragement to make it successful. But your organization needs to retain as much of the knowledge and wisdom your employees have as you can. Because you cannot predict the circumstances in which one of your skilled workers may leave, it’s essential to plan and capture the key knowledge before this happens.

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