By Steve Trautman December 21, 2011

Are We Speaking the Same Language? Knowledge Transfer Terminology Defined

Posted by Steve Trautman on Dec 21, 2011 10:13:54 AM

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder and art is art because the artist said so, the language we use to try to describe the work we do is often subjective. For example, if I say the word mentoring what image comes to mind? A white haired person in a tie talking amiably about the future prospects of a young colleague with freshly cut hair and a ready smile? Or is it two twenty-somethings sitting next to each other, one explaining what she learned last month to the other who just started yesterday. Or is it a teacher in a classroom giving feedback to another teacher? I could keep going but you get the idea.

In this post, I want to write up definitions for common terminology used around the concept of knowledge transfer. I’ll cite others who’ve also provided this knowledge transfer language where I can and I’ll encourage all of you to provide your own take on these terms so that we can work toward a shared understanding.


Knowledge Transfer: Knowledge transfer is more than just on-the-job training. It is also replicating the expertise, wisdom, and tacit knowledge of critical professionals in the heads and hands of their co-workers. The field of knowledge transfer focuses on this question: what can we as professionals do to identify the vital, high priority knowledge and makes its transfer happen faster, with less stress, and more predictability and consistency?

Peer Mentoring: We have used this term for nearly 20 years to refer to on the job knowledge transfer between two co-workers.

All Other Mentoring: I’m not even going to take a stab at defining all the other ways this term is used. Mentoring relationships are so unique that I simply recommend that if you are in one, take time at the outset of the relationship to clarify roles and expectations so that at least the two people in the relationship are clear on what they mean by the term.

Unique Knowledge: Many teams have workers who are the only one who knows how to do a particular task. Unique knowledge is the skills and know-how required to complete that work.

Tacit Knowledge: A concept defined by Michael Polanyi. Tacit knowledge is the knowledge that is stored in people’s head and related to their experiences. It is often called informal knowledge or even wisdom. In my company we refer to it as the “secret sauce” that often makes experienced people really good at their jobs.

Learning Transfer: At the Fort Hill Company, they say that “learning transfer is the process of putting learning to work in a way that improves performance.” When they say “learning” they primarily mean formal training in the classroom setting. Learning transfer is a way of making sure that the time students spend in the classroom has real results once they get back to work. This is different from knowledge transfer because the classroom learning may be applied by the student but is not necessarily duplicated with other workers.

Knowledge Management: KM-Forum says that, “Knowledge Management is the collection of processes that govern the creation, dissemination, and utilization of knowledge.” They go on to say that it isn’t just a “technology thing,” but in practice it seems to be deeply connected to technology. Knowledge management usually refers to a database that is a repository for stored and searchable information. It differs from knowledge transfer because knowledge management typically does not plan for what critical knowledge needs to get transferred to whom by when, nor does it measure whether a new worker can now act on that knowledge. In practice it focuses on comprehensive, accessible storage of content. Many see knowledge management and knowledge transfer as complimentary functions.

Subject Matter Expert (SME), Mentor, Guru, Go-to Person, Rock Star, Buddy, Genius, Etc.: These terms all mean the same thing to me. These people are the workers with the knowledge that should be transferred to others.

Apprentice, Mentee, Protégé, Rookie, Newbie, Etc.: These terms are all variations of the same role. These people are the workers who learn from the experts.

Knowledge Transfer in the U.K.: In the U.K., this term has a somewhat more specific meaning. Knowledge transfer is the sharing of information between universities and industry.

Succession Planning: Succession planning is a process whereby an organization ensures that employees are recruited and developed to fill each key role within the company. In practice, it almost always focuses on a narrow band of executives at the top of the org chart. In reality, it should also include all technical experts with critical and unique knowledge.

SUMMARY: It helps those of us working in the field of knowledge transfer and those applying its tools to their business situation to be clear with our terms. As you have read through these definitions, you may have some opinions you’d like to share or additional words you’d like defined. Please comment at the bottom of the blog, and I’ll follow up with updates as it makes sense.

Topics: Knowledge Transfer Definition, Terms & Roles, Common KT Misconceptions

Steve Trautman

Steve Trautman

Steve Trautman is corporate America’s leading talent risk management and knowledge transfer expert. With two decades of application inside blue chips and Fortune 1000s, his pioneering work in the field of talent risk management and related knowledge transfer tools are now the nationally-recognized gold standard. He is known for a high energy style that combines humor, street smarts, and board room wisdom.

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