Knowledge sharing

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous communications: which is ideal for knowledge transfer?

Synchronous or asynchronous communications? Which is best for getting your team to share critical knowledge with one another? This article breaks down the answer.

Mostafa Dastras

May 25, 2022

Knowledge transfer is a tricky area for organizations. The main question is “how can you transfer organizational knowledge?” How can you possibly take the knowledge in some people’s minds, with all its delicacies and complexities, and pour it into the others’ minds?

The most viable solution to this problem seems to be “effective communication.” For thousands of years, human beings have relied on effective communication to transfer critical life skills and manage social knowledge in order to survive. Our complex communication skills have given us an upper hand over other species in knowledge transfer both in accuracy and velocity. 

Today, at an organizational level, the survival metaphor seems to ring true. Effective communication is critical for accurate and fast knowledge transfer and ultimately for organizational survival. 

In this article, I’ll explain synchronous and asynchronous communication methods and how you should take advantage of them in your knowledge transfer system.

What is knowledge transfer?

Knowledge Transfer” is a practical method for transitioning knowledge from one part of your business to another. 

It might seem quite easy and straightforward on the surface, but as you delve into details, you’d notice that knowledge transfer is de facto complicated. In knowledge management, knowledge is not limited to information, that’s why it’s not basically enough to solely rely on training programs in your knowledge transfer strategy. 

In fact, knowledge is categorized in two distinct groups: explicit knowledge and implicit (or tacit) knowledge. An effective knowledge transfer strategy considers methods for transferring both: 

1. Explicit knowledge 

Explicit knowledge is any knowledge that can be easily codified, meaning that it's easy to capture, store in a database, and then share with others. Some examples of explicit knowledge include information found in databases, memos, standard operating procedures, videos, etc.

2. Tacit knowledge

Tacit knowledge (which is sometimes referred to as implicit or tribal knowledge) is the knowledge that is inside people's heads but is difficult to explain. Typically referred to as know-how, this type of knowledge can be intuitive and is largely experience-based. As an example, think about your ability to breathe. While it's something many of us are able to do with ease, explaining how to actually do it is another matter. Tacit knowledge is more difficult to transfer and demand a more complex knowledge transfer strategy. 

The difference between explicit and tacit knowledge

 

Knowledge transfer strategy

A suitable knowledge transfer strategy should be able to transfer both explicit and implicit knowledge to your team members. 

A typical knowledge transfer strategy contains five steps: 

Step 1: Identify & Collect Knowledge

The first step would be identifying the knowledge that’s necessary for your organization and finding ways to collect them. Some practices for identifying knowledge are: brainstorming ideas, running training surveys, learning new skills, utilizing free learning resources, inviting in experts or consultants, seeking solutions to problems, and designing new projects. 

You also need to promote a culture of knowledge generation in your company. Some steps you can take are: encouraging team communication and collaboration, bringing up company issues and asking for contributions from others, documenting the results of discussions and producing reports and summaries for later analysis, mentoring and developing staff, etc. 

Step 2: Capture & Store Knowledge

Encouraging a culture of knowledge sharing could be fruitless without the right means to capture and document this knowledge. You need to make sure nothing slips through the cracks. You also need to make sure that the knowledge identified and collected in the previous step is openly accessible to your team members. 

With the right knowledge management tools, you make this information readily accessible to anyone on your team that needs it. That means less delay in information changing hands, better organization, and a huge increase in efficiency. Having a knowledge base in place will help you manage both tacit knowledge as well as explicit knowledge that’s being generated in your company. 

Step 3: Transfer & Share Knowledge

Once you have your knowledge stores ready, it’s time to do the actual knowledge transfer. You need a system that circulates this knowledge to other people and departments in your organization. 

This system typically includes these steps: 

  • A clearly outlined process document for how knowledge is to be shared in your company.
  • A document management and sharing tool (like Google Drive or Flippingbook) that organizes the knowledge and potentially automates knowledge sharing.
  • Communication facilities (like Slack) that facilitate collaboration and communication.
  • A dedicated person or persons to circulate the knowledge to the appropriate department(s).
  • A follow-up process to confirm that the information was delivered to the right people in the right way at the right time.

Step 4: Apply Knowledge & Measure Results

How do you know your knowledge transfer strategy is working? By making sure that the knowledge transferred is applied in your organization and has tangible results. You need to encourage different departments of your organization to take advantage of the new knowledge available to them and report results. 

For example, if your sales team has an issue with following up with leads that have dropped out of a particular stage in your sales cycle, you need to encourage your sales team to take advantage of the new solutions in your knowledge base, and report on the results they’ll get. 

You also need to document and track the results to figure out if your new knowledge is useful or not. Keep track of the important key performance indicators (KPI) throughout the whole process of applying the knowledge and always try to refine your knowledge based on how well they’re performing. 

Step 5: Create New Knowledge

An effective knowledge transfer strategy makes it easy to create new knowledge. This could be done in the form of tinkering with your top performing knowledge and applying them in other areas of your organization, or in the form of reforming your under-performing knowledge to increase their efficiency.

Having a knowledge transfer system ensures that your business is never stagnant when it comes to new ideas and problem-solving.

The Role of Communication in Knowledge Transfer

You might have noticed that communication is the main catalyst in all knowledge transfer stages. Without proper communication, it’s impossible to brainstorm and identify knowledge opportunities, capture and store this knowledge, make it accessible to your organization and encourage its application, collect end results and analyze them, and find opportunities for creating new knowledge. 

One could say that communication is the main purpose of knowledge transfer since in most cases knowledge already exists (inside or outside of an organization) and only needs to be communicated. 

Communication methods: synchronous and asynchronous 

Communication methods could be categorized into two distinctive groups: synchronous and asynchronous. The main difference between them is the time lapse between responses. A synchronous communication happens in real time without any significant time span between the responses of the people communicating. A typical in-person conversation with your co-worker is a good example of synchronous communication. Some other examples include: 

  1. Phone conversations
  2. Meetings (physical or virtual)
  3. Instant messaging (Eg.Slack)
  4. Chatbots
  5. Webinars
  6. Casual coffee chats

Asynchronous communication, on the other hand, has significant time lapses between each response of the people communicating. Email is the typical example. Contrary to an in-person chat during which participants are expected to exchange responses in real time without no significant time lapses, in an email conversation, people can take their time from minutes to days, weeks, or months, to respond to each message. 

Some examples of asynchronous communication methods include: 

  1. Email
  2. Text messages
  3. Recorded video or voice messages
  4. Project management tools
  5. Assigned tasks and comments in documents
  6. Mail 

Synchronous and asynchronous use cases:

The main distinction between synchronous and asynchronous communications is the time lapse between each message. Synchronous communication happens at the moment while asynchronous communication is stretched over a period of time. This difference gives each communication method its own pros and cons, and potential use cases. 

For example, since synchronous communications happen in real time, they seem to be ideal for: 

  1. Emergency and time-sensitive situations 
  2. Deep and engaging team interactions such as brainstorming ideas
  3. Getting real time feedback and avoiding confusion and misunderstanding in teaching complex concepts
  4. Interviewing potential candidates 

Asynchronous communication, on the other hand, gives participants more time to reflect on their responses. This makes them ideal for: 

  1. Communicating and sharing possible solutions for a focus-intensive task such as troubleshooting a technical issue, or content management and production 
  2. Communications that happen in different time zones
  3. Facilitating the learning process by documenting and managing information 

Each communication method could be beneficial for different aspects and phases of your knowledge transfer strategy. Here are some ideas: 

Synchronous knowledge transfer: 

When you’re casually discussing an issue with your coworkers, or having meetings to discuss your project plans, or holding workshops on latest marketing strategies for your marketing teams, you’re in fact taking advantage of synchronous communications. 

Knowing the potential of synchronous communications for knowledge transfer can increase their efficiency. Here are some ideas:   

Identifying and collecting knowledge:

When identifying and collecting knowledge throughout your organization (the first step in your knowledge management strategy, remember?), synchronous communication seems to be a good choice. It’s necessary to have numerous chats with different people, seek their personal ideas about critical issues and questions, hold meetings, discussions, video conferences, or workshops, invite subject matter experts, etc. 

The ultimate goal here is identifying and collecting all the knowledge that’s necessary for achieving organizational goals. Synchronous communication is ideal for sharing undocumented and unorganized information in a friendly manner. 

New employee onboarding:

Employee onboarding is defined as a “collection of processes involved in fully integrating a new hire into an organization.” This contains helping new employees learn the necessary knowledge and absorb their new workplace culture and values. An effective knowledge transfer strategy should take employee onboarding seriously. 

Although it’s quite standard to provide new employees with the necessary information sources to go through on their own (an asynchronous communication example), it’s necessary to hold in-person onboarding sessions for them in order to get them into the flow of their new work environment. Synchronous communications such as meetings and workshops, mentoring sessions, Q&A sessions, and interviews with managers are useful for employee onboarding. 

   

Sharing tacit knowledge:

Tacit knowledge is difficult to explain. It is also more difficult to learn as well because of its unorganized nature. Since tacit knowledge is difficult to organize and transfer, it demands a great deal of interactions between the people involved. So the best way to transfer tacit knowledge is interacting in the actual context that it should be used.

Since synchronous communications happen in time and encourage real-time interactions, they are more suitable for transferring tacit knowledge. Holding meetings and seminars, mentoring, and organizing Q&A sessions with experts are some of the synchronous communication methods you can use to transfer tacit knowledge.  

Asynchronous knowledge transfer:

Transferring knowledge asynchronously has many benefits. And not just for remote teams but for in-house teams as well. In some cases, it’s just easier (and more effective) to use asynchronous communications methods to transfer knowledge. Here are some of these cases:

Ideal for remote teams: 

Over the past year a lot of businesses have had no choice but to go remote and hire more remote employees. Remote teams are typically asynchronous: employees use the opportunity to self-organize their time and work in their own preferred time table. This makes it difficult for remote teams to prioritize synchronous communication. 

In this scenario, asynchronous communication is more effective, especially when it comes to knowledge transfer which is cognitively more demanding. For example, a recorded video explaining company policies and general workplace expectations is easier and more effective than holding live meetings. Or it’s much easier for your remote team to collaborate on developing documents for a project’s requirements and expectations on a collaboration or task management tool rather than hold live sessions for doing so. 

Facilitating synchronous efforts 

In many cases, asynchronous communication could be used to increase the effectiveness of a synchronous communication channel. For example, after a meeting with your new employees to explain company policies, you might need to make some learning material (videos, pamphlets, case studies, notes, etc.) available through asynchronous communication channels for later reference. Or you might need to send them some follow-up emails to remind them of the next meetings or any unexpected changes. 

Having recorded knowledge available for later use makes the learning process easy as well. People can go through new material multiple times and learn them at their own speed. 

Knowledge at fingertips: internal knowledge base: 

Asynchronous communication has a more structured nature compared to synchronous communication, and can be used to organize knowledge for later reference. Recorded videos and courses, email memorandums, and file sharing through your team management and communication software are some ways to organize and communicate knowledge with team members.

In this sense, an internal knowledge base is the epitome of asynchronous knowledge communication. Its value lies in the fact that your team members have access to a large knowledge hub on cloud storage, and can collaborate with each other to expand it. 

You can include almost any kind of material in your knowledge base. Videos and images, reports, documents, charts, onboarding material, sales scripts and case studies, contact lists, editorial calendar, content templates, guidelines, company updates, etc. And you can determine who can have viewing and editorial access to your material.       

So which one is ideal for knowledge transfer?

I think you had the answer all along. There’s no particular communication method that would be ideal for all aspects and areas of knowledge transfer. Contrary to what most people believe, synchronous communication is not necessarily more effective in knowledge transfer. In-person meetings and live conversations might be effective for transferring implicit knowledge, but in some cases, it’s easier and more effective to use asynchronous communication for the knowledge that could be structured (i.e the explicit knowledge). People would have more freedom to go through the material and learn it at their own pace.  

The more important question to answer when it comes to communication methods is “how can you communicate the organizational knowledge more effectively?” You need to find out what works best for your organization and your team. 

Find out your team’s communication preferences and provide tools and resources to empower them. Encourage a culture of communication and idea sharing among team members. Have a communication plan that makes clear what should be communicated, and when, how, and to whom it should be communicated. Improve your team’s communication and collaboration skills. And most importantly, make sure that the knowledge you procure is used in your organization and the results are reported for further analysis.   


Author bio: 

Mostafa Dastras has written for some companies such as HubSpot, WordStream, SmartInsights, LeadPages and MarketingProfs. Over the past years his clients have primarily relied on him for increasing organic traffic and generating leads through outreach campaigns. Visit his blog, LiveaBusinessLife, or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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