Knowledge transfer is commonly thought of when senior members of a team leave, and the organization wants to capture their experience to pass on to new hires or simply record it to have on hand. But there are so many other reasons to capture knowledge. Think of onboarding new hires, summer interns, or having an employee transfer departments. All of these instances require knowledge transfer to some degree. How much and what kind of knowledge will depend on the goals of the desired outcome.

Take, for example, Jim. Jim is from field training and is making a move to Director of Training and overseeing all field trainers. While it’s still within his department, there is a natural ramp-up time to learn all of the job functions the new role will require of him. Having the necessary knowledge captured and stored somewhere that is easily accessible will reduce Jim’s ramp-up time and allow a smooth transition.

By having a solid, step-by-step strategy to obtain knowledge, the actual transfer of it to relevant parties will be smoother and easier to complete. Let’s dive into what knowledge transfer is and is not.

What is knowledge transfer? (And what it’s not.)

Knowledge transfer is a systematic and purposeful strategy for capturing critical knowledge from key personnel to store and share with within an organization for maximum efficiency. Maximum efficiency for your team could mean:

  • Supporting a current employee as they transition to a new role within an organization
  • Shorter ramp-up times for new hires or interns in their roles
  • Ensuring that tacit knowledge from a retiring employee is used in the future

To ensure that these efficiencies are met, clear goals for a knowledge transfer plan should be outlined from the outset to ensure success and minimize duplication and frustration.

Consider the following goals for your knowledge transfer plan as adapted from this knowledge transfer guide:

  • Identify key positions and people where potential knowledge loss is most imminent
  • Assess how critical the knowledge loss will be and how much of it needs to be captured
  • Develop a plan of action to ensure the capture of that critical knowledge and a plan of action to transfer it

Knowledge transfer is not standing around the water cooler or having a one-time meeting to chat about the role, functions, etc. It is a purposeful and ongoing strategy with measurable results.

What is tacit knowledge vs. explicit knowledge?

There are two types of knowledge commonly referenced when it comes to learning: tacit and explicit.

Tacit knowledge is the knowledge that is hard to transfer or pass along through writing or verbalization. It is developed through a person’s experiences, observations, and insights, and requires shared activities with another to transfer or impart that knowledge.

Explicit knowledge is the knowledge that is easily shared and transferred through writing or speaking. It is information that can easily be picked up from talking to someone, reading a book, or looking something up online.

Each type of knowledge is involved in corporate knowledge transfer plans, but the hardest and most important type to capture is tacit knowledge, because it is knowledge that is picked up and learned over time, and not easily read in a book, document, or website.

Where to Begin with a Knowledge Transfer Process

Knowing where to start when developing a knowledge transfer process is essential from the beginning. A knowledge transfer process may look something like this:

  1. Identify who in the organization you need to gather knowledge from
  2. Have them share that information and be able to capture it
  3. Execute the plan
  4. Measure and evaluate the knowledge transferred

Depending on the size of your organization and the number of individuals you want to capture information from, you may have a few more steps and substeps to your process.

1. Identify whose knowledge in the organization you need to gather.

This is the first phase to the entire process and the most important. Determining who you’re collecting knowledge from and what information you need to capture is the basis for the whole process.

Begin by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Who are the “go-to” people in the organization?
  • What do only they know how to do?
  • If they left today, would anyone know how to do what they do?
  • When they are gone on vacation, what gets piled up because only that individual knows how it works?
  • What does the team rely on them for?

Once you’ve answered these questions and have individual names and outlines for the activities and tasks you need to acquire, it’s time to capture that knowledge and share and store it efficiently.

2. Obtain the necessary knowledge.

As mentioned earlier, only sitting down and having an hour-long discussion and assuming you will be able to memorize information isn’t the best way to ensure knowledge transfer in the long run. That may be a nice way to begin as you gather information from step one, but you will need to be able to record it for later use.

The easiest way to start to capture knowledge and organize it is to build a matrix or spreadsheet that breaks down the following information:

  • The individual who you are collecting knowledge from
  • The critical tasks this individual oversees and their importance level
  • The availability of this information (i.e., does anyone else in the organization know or have access to it?)
  • The impact level of others not having this information causes
  • The resources that are needed to share the information with others

Once this information is gathered and stored, it’s time to decide the delivery method that is most effective and efficient for your organization and goals.

3. Execute and share the knowledge transfer plan.

We understand that this part can be easier said than done, which is why we’re giving you a high-level overview of ways to transfer the captured knowledge. The practices below are common ways of transferring knowledge, often seen in combination with one another:

Mentorship – Knowledge can be successfully transferred when the individual whose experience you’re capturing works one-on-one with the person the organization is learning it.

Guided experience – This is used when there is hands-on experience required for certain job functions and activities. The person with first-hand knowledge works to share and show it to the individual in the process of learning the function.

Simulation – Technology has allowed simulations to become a primary and efficient way to transfer knowledge. We’ve seen (and created) several videos and training courses with 3D animations to simulate specific job functions and tasks. It’s a great way to provide “hands-on” experience in a controlled environment.

Work shadowing – Similar to mentoring, work shadowing takes the individual learning the knowledge and has them shadow the person who they are learning from. They observe them going through the functions and activities of their role and learn its ins-and-outs through observation.

Paired work – This is when employees are paired up with one another to learn a function or activity that is being passed on to them. It allows them to work back and forth to bounce ideas off of one another and practice learning together.

Community of practice – Communities of practice cut across traditional organizational boundaries and include people who do not share the same job function, but overlap in a particular area of interest. These groups allow them to share knowledge over a longer period and exchange information with one another.

4. Measure and evaluate.

The success of a knowledge transfer plan will look different for every organization because goals will vary for each plan based on a company’s industry and needs.

One organization may be completing a knowledge transfer program because a majority of their workforce will be retiring in the next five years. Another group may be starting an internship program and want to gather information on required entry-level tasks in each department and complete an onboarding packet for new interns.

Evaluating and measuring knowledge transfer against goals outlined will quickly identify gaps in the strategy and allow for a shift in the plan moving forward.

Knowledge transfer is no easy task and is not something completed overnight, but with careful preparation and clear goals, it can be accomplished and set your organization up for success in the long term.

Whether you’re looking to capture the knowledge of your retiring workforce or shorten ramp-up time for new hires, by identifying whose knowledge you’re capturing, what knowledge you need, sharing the necessary knowledge and then measuring the results against defined goals, you’re on your way to success.