COMPANY: A global Fortune 500 software developer and supporter of information infrastructures
INDUSTRY: High Tech
BUSINESS CHALLENGES: Consistency; Managing Change; KT with Off-Shored Teams; Flexibility to Load Level; Productivity
Introduction: A 40-person team of technical writers working for a multinational software developer creates software documentation such as Help files, user guides, and error messages for the company’s products. Half of the technical writing team is spread across the U.S. and the other half is in India. The time difference across the geographies presents an opportunity for the team to deliver content on demand and be productive around the clock.
In 2011, company leadership asked this team to increase productivity and decrease rework in their writing process by using a new and consistent model called “structured authoring”. To set the stage for future rounds of technical writing, this writing team needed to adopt other new skills—consistent methods of researching differences between old and new software versions.
- The technical writing team had been struggling with consistency—particularly between the approach of writers located in the U.S. and India—and in critical areas such as developer relations, project estimation, and document design.
- The team was having difficulty being nimble enough to move work back and forth between various writers as the need arose, compromising the ability to load level and keep everyone consistently busy.
- The team’s traditional approach to technical writing, which entailed writing unique documents for each need, was causing a high degree of rework and lowering productivity.
- Many workers on the team had skill shortages in key areas needed to adopt the new approach, and formal classroom training alone was insufficient to carry the team to the desired end.
Initial Company Response: To implement the change to the new writing approach, the team began in the traditional manner by running formal training. The problem with traditional classroom training alone is that typically an employee takes a class at one point in time but then implements what they learned over weeks or months after the course is finished. Both management and the writers could see that traditional training would be insufficient to drive them toward a consistent use of structured authoring and the other skills needed, because traditional training failed to answer these central questions:
Key Challenges The Steve Trautman Co. Needed to Solve:
- How can the company teach a geographically and culturally diverse team to adopt the new writing approach in a consistent way without the financial and opportunity costs of putting their best people on planes and flying them to India for weeks at a time?
- What really are the new skill expectations for each person on the technical writing team?
- How can the company provide their employees the relevant, real-time, on-the-job guidance (including specialized tacit knowledge) that formal classroom learning and online training can’t typically provide?
- How will management know that their most critical knowledge and skills gaps are being addressed first?
- How will management ensure accountability and know when their workforce risks in this team have been reduced?
STRATEGY: Use The Steve Trautman Co.’s proven 3-step Knowledge Transfer Solution to clarify what specific knowledge & skills need to be transferred by whom, to whom, and in what priority to implement the new writing approach. And, to provide the accountability structure to easily test and track that the critical knowledge has been transferred, risks have been mitigated, and team members are now independently and consistently applying the new approach.
APPLICATION: Our 3-step Knowledge Transfer Solution
STEP 1: The developer used The Steve Trautman Co.’s (STC) workforce risk assessment tool, the Knowledge Silo Matrix (KSM), to pinpoint the writing team’s knowledge and skills gaps, prioritize these in terms of workforce risks, and identify on-the-job mentors and apprentices in each high risk knowledge silo.
- Using a process of management discussion and employee peer interviews to complete the KSM, STC identified 33 distinct knowledge “silos” within the technical writing job role (figure 1).
- Each writing team member was then rated in each knowledge silo according to their skill level—“apprentices” (color-coded yellow), “independent workers” (coded green), and the best of these, the “mentor” (coded purple).
- With silos and ratings in place, the KSM immediately revealed to management that 7 of the 33 silos were at high risk, because the writing team lacked sufficient bench strength in those silos to implement and sustain the new writing approach (see red silos in figure 1).
- The KSM also provided the basis to discuss associated workforce risks—using such criteria as the criticality of each silo, where each mentor was located, and retirement expectations.
- With the company’s off-shore teams at a great distance, top priority was to develop a complete set of mentors in India (one for each silo) who were consistent with their counterpart mentors in the U.S. (learn more)
STEP 2: The company then wrote date-driven Skill Development Plans (SDP) for each at-risk silo in the team. Through the SDP, apprentices could know their skill gaps and drive their own learning, mentors could see clear priorities for what to teach to whom and which knowledge tests to apply, and managers could track skill level status to provide accountability for reducing risk.
- A master SDP was written for each silo that broke out the individual skills required to do the work in that silo. (A skill is defined as something someone can say “go do” and can be explained to an apprentice in about an hour.) Then a customized SDP was written for each writing team apprentice showing which skills the employee was committed to learn (figure 2).
- Customized SDPs not only provided an inventory of skills to be learned, but were ordered in terms of risk mitigation priority and a date was affixed by which the apprentice should have learned each skill.
- The SDP also listed resources available to the apprentice (e.g. the mentor for each skill, online documentation, samples, workshops, etc.) and the “test questions” needed to confirm that the right knowledge had been effectively transferred.
- These test questions are quick, verbal assessments that reveal the wisdom and tacit knowledge needed to use a skill on the job (e.g. “How do you know who to talk to or when you are in over your head in this area?”). The mentor chooses which test questions to apply from a set of 20 that STC has refined over the decades. The test questions are one of STC’s most valuable contributions to knowledge transfer—they give the process teeth via a metric for whether critical knowledge has transferred.
- The company’s knowledge transfer process ownerthe person responsible for keeping the project moving and coordinating efforts between managers, mentors, and apprentices—tracked progress by monitoring two dates on the SDP: the date the apprentice is targeting to complete their knowledge acquisition in a silo and the actual date they completed the knowledge transfer. With this, the process owner could see which employees were scheduled to change status in which month (e.g. moving from apprentice status to independent worker status or independent worker status to mentor status). She could then predict when she would have a new mentor in a given silo to alleviate the workload on the few mentors who initially started the project. Since apprentices were updating their customized SDPs regularly, tracking was easy because the process owner simply had to review individual SDPs in a shared folder.
STEP 3: The Steve Trautman Co. then led a Knowledge Transfer Workshop (KTW) at the developer’s offices in India that taught mentors and apprentices 15 proven techniques for quick knowledge transfer on-the-job. Using KTW techniques, mentors and apprentices did not need to be in the same location and mentors did not have to be naturally gifted teachers or “people persons” to succeed. And most important, the techniques showed the mentor how to prioritize and conduct on-the-job training sessions while the mentor maintained a regular workload.
- With the KTW’s, mentors and apprentices began knowledge transfer sessions, and the project managers and process owner then drove toward completion by requiring regular status updates and accountability to the plan.
1. The knowledge transfer framework is in place and fully in use, with observable progress made each month.
2. Risks are being reduced: Initially, there were no technical writing team members in India who had the knowledge and skills to be standard bearers for the new, right way to do things—resulting in poor multinational consistency and jeopardizing productivity with the new writing platform. Within its first two quarters of use, our 3-step knowledge transfer process enabled the software developer to move 5 Indian workers to standard bearing mentor status, mitigating the company’ risk in its most critical knowledge silos and increasing ramp up speed and productivity on its new writing platform.
3. Employees are growing skill sets: Within the first two quarters of use, our 3-step knowledge transfer process advanced 13 technical writing team members from apprentice status (learners) to being able to work independently on the job using critical new skills required for the new writing platform. This has decreased the amount rework in the writing team and enabled better change management throughout the shift to the new system. After another two quarters, the developer predicts that 75 people will have moved up a knowledge level and will be measurably applying their new skills on the job.
“Now that we’re using knowledge transfer, if somebody asks, ‘What’s the average time required for someone to move from not knowing to being able to use a skill on the job?’ I can do some easy math and give it to them. That makes us both better managers.” —THE SOFTWARE DEVELOPER’S KNOWLEDGE TRANSFER PROCESS OWNER ON TRACKING AVERAGE LEARNING TIME FOR A GIVEN JOB SKILL
4. Consistency is being achieved: the team’s standard bearers in India now match the approach of the standard bearers in the U.S.—skill for skill—and their in-country peers are aligning their knowledge accordingly as well. Costly potential inconsistencies have been caught and avoided.
5. Long-term benefit for hiring and onboarding: A master SDP for the company’s technical writing job role now stands as both a skill set that informs future hiring and a ready-made orientation plan, saving onboarding time and money. This tool can also identify new hires who are lagging behind the normal learning time for a certain knowledge silo, giving early detection to potential capability problems or a bad hire.
“Our onboarding of new employees is definitely faster now because we are doing formal mentoring, and there are target completion dates, and everything has been divided into bite size skills. So it’s more efficient AND it’s more comprehensive.” —THE SOFTWARE DEVELOPER’S KNOWLEDGE TRANSFER PROCESS OWNER ON THE SPEED OF ONBOARDING ITS TECHNICAL WRITING TEAM RELATIVE TO OTHER NEW HIRES.
6. Long term benefit for future change management: By having two mentors consistent with each other—one in the U.S. and one in India—for every knowledge silo of their multinational writing team, the developer has increased not only the speed but also the volume of people they can onboard in either nation. The developer has also assimilated a culture of knowledge transfer so that they now can accommodate future changes to work processes while maintaining consistency between nations.
The Change Management Communication Brief – A clear template was given the group to prepare for successful knowledge transfer. It is broken into 3 key areas: Business Issues, Messaging, and FAQ. This document helps leaders think through the best way to support and communicate the changes required to make the knowledge transfer project a success.
A Clear Target for Time Spent on Knowledge Transfer—The project’s process owner set a group target that participants would spend 10% of their time each week on knowledge transfer and 90% on their regular work. Apprentices and mentors were given the flexibility to move their personal target per quarter after discussing with their manager whether an adjustment was needed. This combination of clarity and empowerment helped participants to feel committed and led to more consistent progress. Knowledge transfer responsibilities were also tied to functional job roles (for mentors) and developmental goals (for apprentices)—meaning knowledge transfer completion became included in an employee’s bonus plan.
Excellent Status Report Format —In addition to creating an excellent weekly status report, the project’s persistent process owner also used a simple graph to track apprentices’ knowledge transfer progress by direct manager—to safeguard against managers who failed to establish accountability—and by mentor to ensure no single mentor was being overloaded.
The Obstacle-Clearing Project Manager—A knowledge transfer process owner should exhibit good management by dedicated follow through, removing obstacles for his or her team, and ensuring measurement.
At-a-Glance Risk Reduction Dashboard for Senior Executives—Updating the KSM with knowledge transfer completion dates from individual SDPs resulted in an easy-to-read, colored coded and dated dashboard for senior leadership. Adding this to their existing health-of-business dashboard metrics, senior executives were able to quickly see each month which high priority talent risks (red) in their workforce had been reduced (green), and when remaining risks would be mitigated.
Team Book Club & Discussion Group reading Teach What You Know: A Practical Leader’s Guide to Knowledge Transfer Using Peer Mentoring by Steve Trautman
- Follow the process—each KSM silo will likely represent only 20 -100 related job skills even though many people assume it will be more complex than that. (learn more)
- Knowledge transfer tools help enable the smooth transition of leadership changes (learn more)
- Establish a duplicate set of mentors within remote teams for more manageable knowledge transfer and better future on-boarding (learn more)
- When mentors are in short supply and knowledge transfer speed is essential, use “skill mentors” and “group mentoring” to alleviate the heavy workload on regular silo mentors. (learn more)