Recently, a client of my knowledge transfer consulting firm was expressing his frustration with having to routinely fly his division’s experienced technical employees out to other domestic offices, off-shore, or to outsource partner locations to train new hires and solve technical problems. “It is the only way,” the CTO said, “to ensure that hands-on, business-critical knowledge gets transferred.” So I asked him a few simple questions:

ME: Who goes on these trips?

CLIENT: Well, there’s no standard. We tend to send whoever is willing to go and can get away.

ME: How long do they typically stay there, away from their other daily work?

CLIENT: As long as they can handle it.

ME: And how much is this costing you?

CLIENT: WAY too much! We’re a global company. But we need one of ours there on the ground to put out fires and get people up to speed. So what else can we do?

There is something else you can do rather than put your best, busiest people on planes for long periods of time to “go sort things out” and “train” newbies or let them “shadow” your people until something is learned. Here’s my philosophy: never approve travel for the sake of training unless there is an hour-by-hour plan to use the time wisely.

At my firm we recommend your experts and their designated apprentices prepare a customized Skill Development Plan (SDP) before someone flies off to transfer knowledge. If you fill out the plan, here is what you get:

  • A complete, clear list of what the apprentice (learner) needs to learn how to do as a result of the visit. If you don’t already know what the apprentice needs to learn, you are going to waste time figuring it out.
  • Identification of which skills can be learned before the expert travels, either over the phone or through self-study. You might even find that no travel is required because ALL of the knowledge can be transferred over the phone.
  • The prioritized sequence in which the skills will be learned once the expert arrives. Often there are meetings to be scheduled or labs to be booked, and having a customized plan in advance makes that all the more efficient.
  • A list of resources that are available for the apprentice to study in advance and/or use after the trip. These resources could include documentation, training manuals, samples, templates, wikis, contact names, formal training classes, etc. The expert catalogues available resources in advance of the travel, then after the trip considers whether some new resources should be generated.
  • Assurance that the “right” expert is actually doing the teaching. Sometimes the person who is available to travel is NOT the best person to be teaching. To avoid replicating wrong or inconsistent knowledge, management should designate someone as the expert (the mentor) who is setting the standard for that specific work. With a proper Skill Development Plan, the person who is traveling will teach skills for which he or she is designated the expert and then recruit other experts to teach (perhaps over the phone) other skills in the plan as appropriate.
  • A knowledge “test” to ensure the apprentice has learned a skill on the plan that is consistent with the expert’s standard. We recommend a set of 20 verbal “test questions” that demonstrate whether the right knowledge has been absorbed and the apprentice is ready to work independently. If travel is required and a week is scheduled for it, no one should take it for granted that every day will be needed to complete the training. If the training process goes smoothly and the apprentice is passing the test questions easily, perhaps the duration of the trip can be shortened to reduce costs.

Summary: Manage your talent risks and save money by investing the time to put a plan in place. Make priorities for knowledge transfer clear—down to the task level. Having a structured, prioritized plan in place from the get-go will allow knowledge to be transferred quickly and clearly between your technical experts and their designated apprentices, setting them both up for success. If you get this right, your expert employees can spend less time and money traveling, and your knowledge transfer results are going to be much more dependable.