Before continuing in this blog series, let’s answer a simple but important question: Why does an organization need a knowledge transfer strategy—why should we care enough to dedicate time and energy to this work?

A knowledge transfer strategy could easily be a subset of an organization’s overall talent management strategy. I think it should be called out separately because knowledge transfer is so pervasive and it can be either wildly productive or a sloppy mess. The reason knowledge transfer is more often a mess is because few leaders ever stopped to think about how many ways an organization can approach knowledge transfer as a critical component of their talent planning; it just never crossed their minds. I also think they take knowledge transfer for granted because it isn’t perceived as a new idea. Organizations have become comfortable relying on an ad hoc approach for so long. Finally, while I think there is plenty of agreement at the executive level on the importance knowledge transfer, there is very little alignment on what it means to make it a high priority.

I was recently on a call with an IT exec of a blue chip who said, “I think we need to make knowledge transfer a very high priority. I tell my people that I want them to be “all in.” But, they are the ones who have to decide what they’ll do day to day.” While I was glad to hear his enthusiasm, I had to tell him that the point he’s missing—and the point that can be answered with a knowledge transfer strategy—is that he needs to define “all in” for his team members in very specific ways. Don’t leave your people to guess what you mean by “high priority” and “all in.” Answer where knowledge transfer work ranks compared to other tasks. By the end of this series, I’ll show you how.


Build A Knowledge Transfer Strategy Because Acquiring, Moving and Maintaining Unique Knowledge is Critical to Performance

Another reason knowledge transfer deserves its own strategic plan is because your knowledge transfer systems, whether formal or ad hoc, are already how people learn their jobs. Numerous studies show that 70% – 80% of knowledge acquisition happens on the job regardless of how much formal training or schooling has been available. In the absence of a strategy and a tactical plan, your workforce’s skill acquisition, and ultimately its productivity, will typically face a variety of problems:

  • Lack of alignment between executives: Your knowledge transfer strategy can ensure that the big guys are being specific about their business expectations, strategic priorities, and the required tradeoffs—or else executives and business units can end up working at cross purposes. And, since executives have limited time to review detailed plans, they should provide guideposts that will direct their organization’s knowledge transfer efforts even when the executives aren’t present.
  • Unclear expectations between partners and collaborators: As organizations outsource and operate with joint ventures, knowledge can reside in a variety of locations and ownership can get blurry. Your knowledge transfer strategy can encourage agreement and reduce confusion.
  • Employees learning the wrong skills or in the wrong priority: Your knowledge transfer strategy will prioritize which processes, tools, and technologies will take center stage for a team or workforce over the next 1-3 years, so the direction is clear.
  • Employees learning from the wrong expert: Since most learning happens on the job, that often means learning from an individual. You don’t want this individual to be whichever random worker had a free moment that day. Your knowledge transfer strategy should guide the elevation of experts in given job roles who set standards and guide employee development at the front line.
  • Lack of connection to known systems and processes: Knowledge transfer is already happening in your organization, but rarely is it acknowledged in performance reviews or set up as a task in a project plan. Your knowledge transfer strategy can bring this important process out from the shadows.

Here is an example:

A manager from one of our multinational manufacturing clients was asked to define the talent problems faced by his team and develop a logical solution using knowledge transfer. The business need and urgency were clear—major projects were coming online with no one to lead them and, given the manufacturer’s specialized work, the needed talent had to be developed not hired in. The proof of concept for the knowledge transfer solution was clear from the pilot we’d just finished. Still, the young manager could not get the attention of any higher-ups to play along to the point of executing the program wide scale. This wasn’t a budget issue. They had already invested in the solution. The problem was in prioritizing the knowledge transfer work relative to the team’s more immediate project work. It was a classic “pay me now or pay me later” situation.

So the question was: WHY couldn’t such a logical, proven solution to urgent problem move up on the priority list? My team looked into this further and found the answer was cultural and operations-based: the company’s utilization and compensation model rewarded short-term thinking versus long-term investment. It literally made any time spent on knowledge transfer cost mentors within the organization’s workforce on their performance reviews because company goals were entirely short-sighted. It made the knowledge transfer problem unsolvable in their current structure and culture.

This situation was one of the reasons the client decided to pop up a level in their thinking and develop a knowledge transfer strategy. They realized that they needed to set a clear plan from the top-down to address cultural and structural issues. They couldn’t be successful if their utilization and compensation model was actively inhibiting their experts from sharing their knowledge and experience internally.

The solution was simple on the surface. Senior management needed to provide budget so that experts could bill some of their time against an employee development budget. The trouble was that this budget didn’t exist at first and had to be allocated. Once the senior execs reviewed the need for additional project managers and clearly understood the ramifications of their current model, they made the necessary changes for targeted regions around the world.

In future posts, I’ll say more about the issues we addressed and clarified in this client’s knowledge transfer strategy work. In the end, building this strategy was a critical exercise that had wide-ranging implications for their employees around the world.

Now I’d like to hear from you: What talent management or knowledge transfer issues are you facing in your organizations? Do you have a strategy for addressing them?