Knowledge transfer and knowledge management

Peter MerrittBusinessLeave a Comment

Mining and safeguarding your organization’s most important asset - before it walks out the door.

“Knowledge is power”; yep, we’ve all heard it, and a few may even know its origin*1. But when highly skilled subject matter experts, (engineers, system developers, clerks and – yes – even managers) leave their organizations, either forever or on internal transfer, they take with them years of hard-earned, experience-based knowledge - much of it undocumented and often irreplaceable. Organizations can thereby lose a good part of their competitive advantage for no good reason.

The tsunami of “baby-boomer” retirements has created the most visible, urgent need to transfer such knowledge to the next generation. But there is also an ongoing torrent of acquisitions, layoffs, and successions—not to mention commonplace promotions and transfers—all of which involve the loss of essential expertise. And with the introduction of more and more complex systems, this problem cannot be wished-away. What is needed is a coherent Knowledge Transfer (KT) or Knowledge Management process.

A brilliant plan - that’s what we need…

There are innumerable books around based on original research, interviews with top managers, and a wide range of corporate examples. Whilst it may take a while to find the one which suits your organisation best, be you General Motors or a General Store, they can provide a variety of practical options for identifying your firm’s KT treasures and how to store and transfer that intelligence from experts to successors. A good KT process will enable managers to:

  • Determine the seriousness of their knowledge risk/loss by identifying the KT essential to their business (“…So, what exactly does Old XXXXX do now? And why, how, when...?”). My first boss called this the ‘under a bus test’, when change happens suddenly to a critical link!
  • Utilize proven techniques for transferring and storing knowledge – especially when its loss is sudden or imminent! “Hey, old XXXXX in Client Management won the lottery last night…”
  • Identify and implement long-term transfer program ‘apprenticeships’, including individual learning plans for successors. And remember, this year’s successor is also going to leave at some point, so a long-term strategy is vital.
  • Assess the success of their knowledge transfer initiatives by testing (“…Apes do read philosophy, Otto. They just don’t understand it…” *2). If you can do it the first time while the expert is still available, perhaps playing the role of a new recipient of the KT, that is a good way to ensure the quality of your KT process.
  • Remember eggs, basket – if the KT is so damned vital, why does only one person in the organisation know…?
  • Make Improvements – “Well, we’ve always done it that way....”. But when was the last time somebody asked why? There are differences in cost as well as process between something needing to be done and how it is accomplished. There may now be tools & techniques which perhaps weren’t invented when this started. Newbies and successors can and should challenge the existing order. But beware change for change’s sake – the desire of a new manager/guru wanting to leave their mark is the same as that which drove their ancestors to carve on caves, rocks, trees, or each other. And the higher the bod, the greater the risk – ask RBS…

Techniques & tools

Whilst it is true that, in future, AI systems may well be able to analyse systems and ‘reverse-engineer’ quite complex programs and formulae, this does not (yet) apply to most computer systems and certainly not process and paper-based, pre-system architectures. And always bear in mind that while getting Old XXXXX to just write stuff down is better than nothing, what about other tools which are now easily to hand:

  • Videoing talks/lectures, 1:1 KT sessions – nothing like getting stuff from the horses’ mouth, and it is then available long after the horse has bolted. Plus the interviewee may be both more forthcoming and give better emphasis to key elements when speaking (it’s why ‘Oral History’ projects are now so important across the globe).
  • Ensure that the KT library is kept up-to-date with key changes (especially true with computer systems, but also affects processes – like your data backup passwords, or company fire drill?!).

Above all, persevere - if it’s hard to get the awkward old, ah, ‘expert’ to record things in a coherent manner, try attaching a ‘shadow’ to follow what they do, make notes and – perhaps in a review session – then ask pertinent questions to fill-in those old, terrible gaps which everyone brought up on DOS and CICS systems knows by heart… And whilst ‘agile’ approaches can succeed in many areas (‘just-in-time’ analysis), sometimes there isn’t enough time – it’s why they teach all drivers how to do an emergency stop as well as steer normally; you cannot ‘just figure it out’ on the rare occasion it is required!

In any event, religiously backing up terabytes of data is really only half the battle - without the knowledge of how it’s used, it is only going to be of interest to your company’s successors, or future archaeologists! You have been warned.

*1 - The original phrase "scientia potentia est" is a Latin aphorism commonly attributed to Sir Francis Bacon – for more, see here.

*2- One of my favourite film quotes... see here.

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About the Author

Peter Merritt

Senior Consultant


Peter is one of our senior consultants and has many years of programming and software consultancy to call upon, having ‘seen the light’ and changed careers from the Public Sector back in the early 1980s when computers less powerful than your watch filled a room! More about Peter.


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