The other day I checked in with a colleague at a corporation facing a major aging/changing worker crisis. We’ve been talking about this problem for years and I wondered if they had decided to take action. This organization is set to lose a ton of unique knowledge and professional wisdom over the next few years as scores of their most experienced people retire and some of their mid-career talent jumps to competitors in the improving economy. The company’s leadership knows about the problem—and yet I learned they’re still stuck in neutral. My colleague is losing hope that the problem will ever be addressed. This got me thinking about the many reasons that knowledge transfer fails within organizations. In Part I of this two-part post, here are six of the most common knowledge transfer errors I’ve seen in two decades of doing this work:
Error #1: Lack of focus on the problem, denial, or inertia. “We’ve weathered worse issues in the past. We’ll get thru this one.” “No one is leaving while the economy is bad, and besides, we can always hire retirees back as contractors.” If our businesses are running o.k. for the moment, we think we can ignore talent management and workforce knowledge problems to concentrate on more “immediate” concerns.
- We tout “people are our most important asset” but in reality de-prioritize people related issues.
- We rely on job shadowing and dumb luck to fix the problem.
- We can’t commit to a solution because of our ignorance and inertia, and problems compound.
In the end, workers leave and take their game-changing knowledge with them—and then it’s too late. New hires learn too slowly and poorly, and we’ve lost productivity and innovation to our competitors.
Error #2: Executives don’t know how to support knowledge transfer; they end up undermining their own efforts through misconceptions that distort risk assessment and planning, and they lack a viable model. Every executive I know wants to spend some of their limited time on the talent related issues, but few really know what to do.
- Many leaders don’t believe their workforce and talent problems are predictable and solvable, or they don’t know where proven solutions can be found.
- Many leaders believe there is “no system like ours”—so they think knowledge transfer rules don’t apply them and no existing model can work in their culture.
- Many leaders have a general distrust or lack of respect for “HR solutions”—so they fail to support knowledge transfer initiatives.
Instead, executives need to be presented with a clear set of options for their talent requirements so they can set expectations and hold people accountable for results—just like executives do in operations, finance, sales, quality, etc. Leaders need to improve their talent management IQ, familiarize themselves with basic knowledge transfer concepts and models, and learn their role in supporting a knowledge transfer solution.
Error #3: Ignorance of the real risks of having insufficient bench strength, and an inability to accurately pinpoint and prioritize these risks. A common problem in the planning stages of knowledge transfer is that we don’t do our due diligence to assess the risks of our knowledge and skills gaps. We fail to pinpoint where these risks lie within our workforce and to prioritize which ones are most detrimental to our growth and fiscal health. We have healthy R&D and marketing research budgets, but when it comes to researching ourselves to learn what potentially game-changing knowledge and experience we have, where it’s trapped, and where we’re about to lose it, we repeatedly come up short. Without some kind of risk management framework to prioritize risk, any knowledge transfer effort that follows will lack focus and relevancy.
SUMMARY: If you are facing a talent management or knowledge transfer problem that could reduce your workforce’s productivity and competitiveness: 1) make solving it an executive priority, 2) learn about existing knowledge transfer resources and methodologies, and 3) be sure to employ a framework through which you can pinpoint and rank your risks before planning a solution.
Up next week: the final 3 most common knowledge transfer errors