Every organization has people with unique knowledge. These are the people who know the “secret sauce” of the business. And—when one of them suddenly announces their departure from your business—you need to capture their critical knowledge before it walks out the door. For these exiting workers you need emergency knowledge transfer.
My consulting team is working on an Emergency Knowledge Transfer (EKT) project right now for a client where a key employee, who has been doing his job for more than 20 years, has decided to take a buyout package and retire in 60 days. The client is very concerned, but in reality 60 days is a luxury today. Notice of a month is much more common.
Our company’s EKT process works with as little as two-week’s notice. The trick is to raise the alarm and get to work reducing your workforce risk immediately. For this, you need a good process. In the case of our client above, we got the inquiry call on Wednesday, had our kickoff meeting with the client on Thursday, a follow up meeting on Monday, and the expert was transferring knowledge by Tuesday—less than one week from the initial client call. Here is step by step how we did it:
- Meet with the expert’s manager and get a profile on the situation.
- What is the expert’s area(s) of expertise (knowledge silo)? If there’s more than one, which is highest priority?
- What is the expert’s state of mind? We’re not worried if he’s “not good with people” or “doesn’t seem to care if he transfers his knowledge,” as I’ve heard experts described. These are normal conditions and should not be roadblocks with a good EKT process.
- Who are his apprentices? How long have they been working with the expert? What do they already know? What does the expert think of their abilities?
- What else is on his plate between now and his last day? How much time can he be expected to devote to knowledge transfer? The expert will, undoubtedly, spend the vast majority of their remaining time finishing up, cleaning up, or handing off projects to coworkers. However, consider other factors that could interfere with knowledge transfer, for example:
- Medical restrictions, treatments, and appointments;
- Business travel to customers, vendors, or project sites;
- Vacation or personal time that must be used up.
- Who (such as a manager) can ensure the expert devotes sufficient time to this emergency knowledge transfer task relative to all the other tasks?
- Call a “First Meeting” to kick off the Emergency Knowledge Transfer (EKT) effort.
- Invite the expert, the manager, the apprentice(s), and any other support people who may be involved.
- Agree on the critical knowledge silos to be transferred.
- Explain the knowledge transfer process you intend to use. In our case, we explained how we would write a master Skill Development Plan (SDP) and then customize the master plan for each apprentice according to their needs.
- Set a schedule and discuss priorities. For example, say how many hours per week the expert and apprentice(s) will meet to transfer knowledge and, in our case, execute the skill development plan. Since it is possible that they will not be able to transfer 100% of their knowledge in the limited timeframe, discuss minimums and tradeoffs that may be required to hit those minimums.
- Agree on how they will stay in touch during the limited timeframe (I recommend quick daily status reports to the manager) and how they’ll overcome obstacles.
- Interview the expert to write the master Skill Development Plan.
- Invite the expert and the apprentices (manager optional) to a 90-minute interview to list out all the skills they have that allow him to do their work so well. This includes what they write, design, monitor, lead, etc. It also includes relationships, troubleshooting, and other skills that are part of their “secret sauce.”
- Choose quick, verbal metrics to help the expert and the apprentices determine whether they have successfully transferred knowledge. We call these “test questions.” We’ve developed ones that can check for both explicit and tacit knowledge, regardless of skill type (e.g. “How to troubleshoot the three most common problems” or “The relationship between x and y”).
- Inventory the available resources that the apprentices will be able to use even after the expert is gone. Make sure to identify obsolete resources or things to avoid.
- Copy and customize this master Skill Development Plan into a personal Skill Development Plan for each apprentice.
- Choose the skills that each apprentice should learn. Sometimes this means a “divide and conquer” approach. Other times multiple apprentices learn the same skills to develop immediate redundancy (bench strength) and reduce the risk of relying on just one person.
- Prioritize the skills each will learn and put them in sequenced order so that the focus is on the highest risk skills first.
- Set due dates by which the apprentices will have learned each skill in their customized plan. d. Schedule knowledge transfer sessions between the expert and apprentices for each skill in the plans, using all available time between now and the expert’s departure.
- Apprentices should be allocated time for EKT and tasked with starting to learn the skills on their own using their customized SDP as a guide. This individual learning could be a simple as reviewing documents, reports, and samples listed as resources on their SPD.
- Prepare to transfer knowledge.
- For each skill in the plan, the mentor should spend a short time preparing to teach. Introduce a tool a called the “5 Minute Meeting Plan” that helps the expert outline a knowledge transfer session in a matter of minutes. This could be done during the first few minutes of each knowledge transfer session if the mentor is pressed for time. Apprentices can also be trained to help the expert write these outlines.
- Transfer knowledge and apply your metric (ask the test questions).
- The mentor and apprentice(s) meet for up to one hour on each skill in the plan, cover the content they outlined (peer mentoring), and prepare the apprentice to be able to answer the “test questions” to show measurable progress.
- Add the outlines that were drafted to the available resources in the master Skill Development Plan.
- Provide status reports and troubleshoot problems with the help of the manager.
- Modify and improve the master Skill Development Plan for subsequent apprentices.
- Today’s apprentices will have to quickly shoot to the role of tomorrow’s experts.
The outcome for this client will be imperfect but preferable to anything they have done in the past. Remember, knowledge transfer isn’t a magic solution. This isn’t pixie dust that we sprinkle over a tough situation to make it instantly go away. We certainly will not replace 20 years of expertise in 60 days—but we can definitely use every available moment to methodically transfer as much critical knowledge as possible. And, when the expert finally leaves, the client will also have two important artifacts in hand. They’ll have a master Skill Development Plan that shows everything the apprentices ought to have learned and the new “experts” will be clear about the relative depth of their own knowledge. Just “knowing what they don’t know” will reduce the risk of problems in the future.