Knowledge Transfer: Why It’s Important and How to Use It

Kristen Craft
February 7, 2020
Knowledge Transfer: Why It's Important and How to Use It

The former British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, is famously quoted as saying,

“The more extensive a man’s knowledge of what has been done, the greater will be his power of knowing what to do.”

Looking at knowledge from an organization’s perspective, Disraeli’s words demonstrate how employees are (or are not) empowered to act. Specifically, the way in which we transfer and receive knowledge can directly impact the company’s success. The more an employee knows, the more likely he or she is to make the right choices.

Think of commercial airline pilots. They go through rigorous training before they’re allowed to co-pilot a commercial flight. They then have to log a particular amount of flight time before they can pilot their first flight with passengers on-board.

If a red warning light starts to flash mid-flight, how does a pilot know what to do? What if it’s their first flight – how could they possibly know what to do?

Thankfully, pilots don’t have to memorize every possible solution for all the possible in-flight emergencies. Once they’ve identified the problem, they generally use documentation, either paper-based or electronic, to go through the process step-by-step to solve the problem.

The crucial point in this case is the transfer of knowledge from the plane designers to the in-flight manual to the pilot so that he can execute and keep the plane in the air.

Why is knowledge transfer so important?

If you’re a pilot, knowledge transfer can literally be life-saving. While your business might not directly save people’s lives, it’s critical to the health of your business that you’re able to get the right information to the right person at the right time.

What if the only two employees who were part of the creation process for your product leave in close succession? Where did the knowledge they had about the programming, coding and software go?

What if the only interaction your sales and product teams have is during a few minutes at lunch – how do the sales people know when you’ve launched a new feature or when there are bugs affecting the server?

It’s important that your organization finds a way to counter these potential issues, before they occur, ideally. Unfortunately, there are factors that make that more difficult than it already is.

Multi-generation collaboration introduces new complexities

Research by CIPD suggests that the workforce will soon encompass five generations: Veterans (born between 1939 and 1947), Baby Boomers (1948 and 1963), Generation X (1964 and 1978), Millennials (1979 and 1999), and Generation Z (post-2000).

Why is this a problem, you might ask? As we’ve previously explored, there are stark contrasts between the beliefs and expectations of different generations. For example, the lure of a high salary and a steady career trajectory is no longer of the utmost importance for Millennials; these goals have been replaced by a desire for continuous learning and flexible working arrangements. These differences can impact an organization’s alignment and ability to share  knowledge.

With Millennials expected to change jobs at least four times by the age of 32 and over 10,000 experienced Baby Boomers leaving their roles in the US everyday, it’s no surprise that companies are feeling the squeeze when it comes to knowledge transfer.

How to implement effective knowledge transfer in your organization

Document new projects and processes

This isn’t something that will happen overnight, and it’s more of culture change than a policy that you can implement. Departmental silos will often create walls that impede knowledge transfer between teams. While this is a problem that is difficult to overcome, you can still nurture a culture of sharing to make sure that teams know how to transfer knowledge and when it’s be appropriate. This will often stem from employees simply understanding their position in a process.

For example, imagine the stages involved during a construction project like building a house. There will be various specialists involved at different stages of the project, starting with architects, and including scaffolders, bricklayers, plumbers, electricians, plasterers, carpenters, and more.

If a plasterer isn’t sure of their place in the process or when they’re required, they might start plastering walls and boarding up the house before the electrician has put in the wiring. At some point, the knowledge that the plasterer needed has not been transferred from the project lead or management team.

Had the plasterer discussed the current state of the building with the electrician before starting work, the error would have been avoided.

Your team is similar. Whenever you embark on a new project or initiative, encourage people to document the process and dependencies. Dependencies refer to steps that need to occur in order for others to move ahead with subsequent steps. Documenting new projects will increase your team’s familiarity with documentation, helping to create a culture of knowledge transfer.

Use the rules of three

There are a few good rules of thumb that can help you determine when something should be documented. One focuses on the number of steps in a process, and the other focuses on how often you need certain information.

The Three Step Rule: Think about all the processes you use on your team. It may prove helpful to go department by department as you’re coming up with your list of processes. Now pinpoint all the processes that have three or more steps. Create a suggestion in Tettra for each 3+ step process, and assign an owner when you make the Tettra suggestion. Assigning an owner will help ensure the work actually gets done!

The Three Repetitions Rule: At Tettra, we believe that if you’re repeating yourself over and over, you should have written it down the first time. Whether it’s your product roadmap, the way you process a refund, or your company values, write down anything that you’ve had to say three times or more. If you’ve already repeated it (when onboarding a new person, for example, or planning feature launches with your marketing team,) you’re likely to need that info again in the future.

Encourage experienced employees to show their work

In the book ‘Show Your Work,’ Jane Bozarth outlines a strategy for more intentional knowledge management. Her strategy hinges on people making their work visible with the intention of transferring the tacit knowledge embedded in how the work gets done.

The “working out loud” strategy involves techniques like narrating your thoughts and processes as you carry out the work. For example, this is quite a common practice in medicine when a doctor talks junior doctors through an operation or conducts an assessment on a dummy patient.

Alternatively, you can capture your work by recording it or writing it down after you’ve completed it. By sharing enough information about how you complete tasks, other employees can begin to recognize and acquire the knowledge that is being transferred.

An effective way to store this knowledge (and to share it more easily) is through the use of a knowledge management platform. We built Tettra in the way we did because we believe it’s easier to organize and share collective knowledge within a unified system. As we’ve heard from thousands of customers and users, sharing knowledge throughout the organization enables everyone to make better decisions.

Foster trust and openness

The more you create a culture of openness, the more willing people will be to share the knowledge they have. Take time, on your next company offsite perhaps, to discuss what it means to embrace openness and trust. Consider highlighting transparency as a cultural value. These small acts can send an important signal to  employees about the value you place on knowledge sharing and transfer.