By Steve Trautman April 9, 2013

Mitigating Risks to Implementing Your Knowledge Transfer Strategy

KT Strategy Series, 8 of 9

Posted by Steve Trautman on Apr 9, 2013 10:20:27 AM

Identifying knowledge transfer implementation risks - business man w binoculars In our knowledge transfer strategy blog series so far, I’ve outlined the steps needed to define your organization’s knowledge transfer challenges, history, and expectations, and to write a cost-benefit analysis. Now your strategy should include a few basic guidelines for knowledge transfer implementation, such as a general timeline and clear definition of key roles. For example, these roles may be:

  • the executive who will own the implementation plan (we call this the KT Sponsor);
  • the manager who will own the communication and change management role;
  • the individual responsible for ensuring that stakeholders adhere to the overall knowledge transfer process and who tracks status (we call this essential role the KT Process Owner);
  • the expert or owner of the standard for the knowledge being transferred (we call this role the Mentor);
  • the person who will serve as the liaison with HR—as knowledge transfer roles may impact things like performance reviews and job assignments
  • any outside vendors or consultants who are helping with your talent strategy.

Now, at this stage in writing your knowledge transfer strategy, you should identify the implementation risks that lie ahead and plan how you’ll manage them. A knowledge transfer strategy—like any other kind of strategy—needs to clearly understand the environment in which you are operating and uncover the reasons why you’ll be successful, and even more so, the reasons why you might fail. Identify Risks to Implementing Your Knowledge Transfer Strategy Implementation risks can derail even the best strategic plan. To help you get started with this step, here are some examples of common implementation risks my knowledge transfer consulting company has seen among our clients:

  1. Policy Roadblocks Or Compensation Models that De-Incentivize Knowledge Transfer — Implementing your strategy may require some changes in policy. At one multination manufacturing client, we saw a knowledge transfer pilot fail, and when we dug deeper we learned that the compensation model for their most experienced project managers was based entirely on billable hours to their clients and profit margins on their projects. If these expert employees spent any time mentoring peers, they could actually be losing money out of their paychecks. Once the client recognized and removed this roadblock, by allowing the experts to bill some of their time against an employee development budget, knowledge transfer was able to proceed as planned.
  2. Cultures that Value Tenure Over Relevant Experience —Your strategy may require some people who used to be the top dog to find a spot lower in the pecking order. This is because any good knowledge transfer process will value experts who help set and follow the highest standards over those with who’ve simply been around longer. This means that your expert may be someone who has only been with you for six months and who might need to mentor someone who has been on the job twenty years. You’ll need to address this cultural hurdle through your communication planner, change management tools and good old leadership from your management team.
  3. Conflicting Cultures of Merged or Partner Organizations — When two companies with strong but different cultures come together through a merger or an outsourcing partnership, for example, you can expect some resistance to lining up as one unit. Whose way of doing things gets to become the new standard? Management will need to clearly communicate the reasons and rewards for changing long-standing process and cultural behaviors and help select the new standard. Don’t expect the recently merged factions to do this smoothly on their own.
  4. High Turnover or Lack of Organizational Stability — If an experienced employee expects that he’s only going to be on a project for a short amount of time, he may be reluctant to invest personally in a knowledge transfer process because he knows he’s going to move on soon. Also, in organizations with high turnover, a mentor may resist transferring knowledge because she fears her apprentices will leave soon and she’ll end up back at square one re-teaching the same material to someone new. Without establishing a personal incentive (see below), workforce instability can create some barriers.
  5. Languages Barriers – If your strategy calls for transferring knowledge among multinational teams, you may run into cases where people speak different languages. Once we had a client where 12 or 15 different languages were being spoken within a unit of just 100 employees, and people were tending to learn from whoever spoke their language as opposed to who actually knew how to do the job being learned. Your strategy should insist on thoughtfully choosing your experts with this cultural and language backdrop in mind.
  6. People Who Have Invested in Another Solution — You may run into resistance if key players have invested in a prior solution to solve your talent problem, such as a different form of knowledge transfer, a rotational program, or competing homegrown solutions. Your strategy should address the role of these prior solutions, including “lessons learned” in the historical context section and, here, a clear declaration of your position: We’re going to adopt the prior solution. We’re going to supplant the prior solution. We’re going to augment the prior solution. Also, some people may be invested in a talent management strategy that is incorrectly being interpreted as redundant with knowledge transfer (e.g. competency models, succession planning). Your plan should clarify how these strategies solve different talent problems and will support each other.
  7. Executive Level Barriers — Executives, by paying attention, can remove a lot of obvious barriers to knowledge transfer right off the bat. Or, they can create a barrier simply by being agnostic or ignoring issues. Executives don’t have to be actively hostile; just by their absence or failure to communicate priorities, they can create a barriers. Middle managers will think, “If he doesn’t care, I don’t care.” The strategy should clarify each division involved and which executive positions are accountable.
  8. Fiefdoms — Knowledge transfer programs are typically implemented by the executives and managers of a division, business line or unit responsible for operational goals. This is because knowledge transfer deals directly with setting the expectations for on-the-job daily work of those employees. In some cases, a division such as HR may attempt to scuttle a knowledge transfer initiative because they believe addressing talent issues is their domain or that they have the situation covered. Your strategy should clearly define every faction’s role.
  9. The Flavor-of-the-Month Attitude — Some organizations or divisions in a company can suffer from a Flavor-of-the-Month problem: they have a history littered with past initiatives that took off hot but lacked follow-through and long-term commitment, and so failed. Now there is a cultural feeling that, “This stuff never works. So we are bad at these programs, and therefore this will fail too.” The strategy should name the attitude and counter, “We recognize we’ve failed at this in the past. We’ve taken these steps to figure out why we failed. We have a plan that has a lot of checks and balances. We’re using this scorecard to make sure that at each step we’re not going sideways. We have executive level persistence and commitment, and we’re not letting our old culture and our old habits take us off track.” Then changing minds by setting, meeting, and celebrating the program’s wins.
  10. Blockers Who Don’t Value Knowledge Transfer or Believe It’s a Problem Capable of Solving —You may have known blockers who only think in the short term, who don’t believe that poor knowledge transfer is a problem worth solving, or that there is a simple methodology capable of solving it. The best way to handle this is to shine the light directly on the attitude; point to evidence from a pilot program, case studies, or other proof-of-concept and then clarify that the strategy’s new expectations for knowledge transfer are not optional.

SUMMARY: Implementing a knowledge transfer strategy is going to require change. Your strategy should not only address common implementation items such as a basic timeline and clear role definition, but also should include a section that names potential roadblocks to your plan’s implementation and how you intend to mitigate these risks. UPCOMING NEXT WEEK: We'll bring this series to a close with a summary post.

Topics: Knowledge Transfer Definition, Terms & Roles, Knowledge Transfer Strategy, Change Management

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. His clients have included Boeing, Costco, Goodyear, Aetna, Farmers Life Insurance, Bank of America, Microsoft, and Qualcomm, among others.

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