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Knowledge Transfer: Whose Knowledge Matters Most?

Knowledge Transfer: Whose Knowledge Matters Most?

By: William J. Rothwell, President, Rothwell & Associates, Inc. and Professor, Penn State University

Many so-called knowledge management programs have been abolished in recent years, most often because senior leaders select the wrong people to lead them.

Research indicates that, when people face a practical work problem on the job that exceeds their ability to solve, they do not immediately turn to a computer program for a solution; rather, they turn to those physically closest to them to ask for help. Low tech and social networking solutions tend to work better in knowledge transfer than robust, and expensive, computer programs.

But whose knowledge is worth transferring? And what are some practical ways to transfer knowledge?

Whose Knowledge to Transfer?
While it may be a firmly held belief in US culture that all people deserve equal opportunity that does not mean that everyone possesses knowledge or talent to the same degree.

Some people are good workers who also meet objectively-determined criteria for promotion. They are usually called High Potentials (HiPos or HiPots). They have been the focus of traditional succession planning and talent management programs.

Fewer organizations focus on another kind of talented person. Individuals who are good workers but possess special, practical knowledge, skills or attitudes of critical business value are called High Professionals (HiPros). While not necessarily promotable, they are the in-house experts–the “go to people”– for issues of special import in the organization.

One way to pinpoint them is by using expert-finding software that analyzes all emails according to who is asked the most questions on special topics by others. HiPros possess critical knowledge about technical competencies and work processes.

Practical Ways to Transfer Knowledge
Here are a few examples of practical ways to transfer knowledge:

  • Employee Mentoring: Mentoring can be informal or formal. In an informal effort, individuals are encouraged to approach knowledgeable people to solicit advice and coaching. In a formal effort, the organization plays matchmaker by pairing up less experienced, knowledgeable people with those who are more experienced and knowledgeable.
  • Critical incidents: Ask veteran workers to describe the most difficult situations they ever encountered on the job, what they did about them, and what made those situations so difficult. Then examine patterns across the incidents to isolate the most important lessons to transfer based on the experience of those possessing that experience. Then turn those incidents into training exercises for teams of novices. After they have struggled with answers, tell them what actually happened in the situation and what was learned from it.
  • Job shadowing: Organizations can formalize job shadowing by arranging to have inexperienced people follow around those who are more experienced and have special wisdom to pass on about what they do. Some organizations have formalized job shadowing by establishing planned programs in which individuals can apply to shadow in-house experts. A committee reviews and approves the applications.
  • Brown bag lunches: Spring for lunch at company expense. Bring in 3 or 4 of the most experienced workers and have them describe the most difficult situations they have ever faced and what they did to solve them.
  • Communities of practice: Ask experienced workers to document, online or in face-to-face discussions, the most difficult lessons they have learned, what they did and what coaching advice they would give to others who confront the same or similar situations.
  • The DACUM process: Short for developing a curriculum, DACUM is an approach to work analysis. It involves calling experienced workers into a room and asking them to describe how they do their work. When those workers are the in-house experts, the so-called “go to people” for various problems or issues, the resulting work analysis captures how they uniquely approach what they do.

My research, described in my book, Invaluable Knowledge (2011), has revealed 25 ways that organizations can use to transfer knowledge from HiPros to others. Yet fewer than 40 percent of US companies make any effort whatsoever to capture special knowledge from their HiPros before they leave for retirement or for greener pastures at other employers.

As hiring trends evolve, Baby Boomers will begin to retire in Western countries as employee turnover rises in explosive-growth Eastern countries. Thus, it is apparent that there is more to succession planning and talent management than the mere preparation of people for promotion.

Author Bio:
William J. Rothwell, Ph.D., SPHR is President of Rothwell & Associates, Inc. and is also Professor of Workforce Education and Development on the University Park campus of The Pennsylvania State University. He has authored, coauthored, edited or co-edited 300 books, book chapters, and articles including 70 books. His most recent books are Invaluable Knowledge: Securing Your Company’s Technical Expertise (Amacom, 2011), Effective Succession Planning, 4th ed. (Amacom, 2010), and Competency-Based Training Basics: A Complete How-To Guide (ASTD, 2010). He can be reached at wjr9@psu.edu.