By Steve Trautman October 6, 2011

Why We’re Still Stupid (Part II): 6 Reasons Why Knowledge Transfer Fails

Posted by Steve Trautman on Oct 6, 2011 6:07:24 PM

Knowledge transfer is a field capable of mitigating many common workforce risks, such as the need for faster and better onboarding; improving consistency in similar jobs; reducing safety incidents and worker attrition; and responding to the unexpected loss of critical talent in a key role—just to name a few. But like any problem-solving measure, we as leaders need to apply our tools correctly. Last week I discussed three of the most common reasons knowledge transfer efforts typically fail within organizations. In Part II on this topic, let’s look at three additional common errors:

Error #4: Budgets are set for “training” without a clear connection to strategy.
Senior management often fails to communicate a clear set of requirements for the talent they’ll need to run the business now and several years from now. Without these talent requirements, knowledge transfer efforts are incorrectly treated as “just another training program,” rather the mitigation of real risks to an organization’s ability to execute its business strategy. Worse, ineffective systems that have become entrenched and can take a workforce in the wrong direction—such as competency modeling and some knowledge management efforts—drain resources and act as impediments to introducing knowledge transfer solutions. Without a clear link between an organization’s strategic plan and its talent goals, business leaders have little way to assess the difference between and outputs of these ineffective systems and what knowledge transfer offers.

Building a culture of knowledge transfer within an organization means more than just adding another training program. A clear business strategy (as evidenced by understandable answers to the “Big Picture” questions) can map directly to an equally clear set of workforce skills and talent requirements needed to execute on that strategy. Then a tool is needed to expose the gap between these requirements and the current and near-future state of workforce talent. With this in hand, knowledge transfer becomes the key to ensuring a ready workforce.

Error #5: Knowledge Transfer plans don’t go deep enough; plans don’t specify what knowledge to transfer, to whom and how.
One of the most common causes of failure we see is that those leading knowledge transfer efforts presume that it’s possible to overdo this. Their resulting plans are too general. “We’re just going to give our teams a knowledge overview, because that’s all we have time for.” What this statement really means is we don’t know how to be more specific and which knowledge and skills matter most.

Sometimes the reason knowledge transfer plans lack of specificity is as simple as this: neither the experts within a workforce nor the apprentices (nor their managers) know specifically what the experts are expected to teach—because there are too many options and everyone is already very busy. Experts don’t know specifically who they should be teaching—because no one seems to have time or interest in learning from them. And experts don’t know how to teach—because they haven’t been given any tools or processes to demystify the task.

Too often an organization’s knowledge transfer “solution” is ask an expert to let a colleague “shadow” him or her—then provide no other guidance. Other organizations will sit an expert down in front of video camera and say, “Start talking—tell us everything you know.” The problem in both approaches being the lack of structure and prioritization. In these cases—since many employees who are exceptional in their areas expertise are not innately exceptional at knowledge transfer—the moving of the expert’s secret sauce never occurs.

Knowledge transfer requires a specific plan of action describing what, who, how and by when.

Error #6: Managers don’t track the results of efforts, allowing pockets of persistent risk to remain and blocking measurement of ROI that could guide improvement.
We as leaders too often think: “Knowledge transfer? We are doing that already, aren’t we?”—because our companies already have a whole “knowledge management” team, or a “mentoring” program, or whatever flavor-of-the-month initiative is out there. But if knowledge isn’t freely and measurably moving around our workforce, then no—we haven’t built a learning organization and don’t have a culture of knowledge transfer. The results should be observable and track-able—or they’re probably not real.

A good knowledge transfer program should be able to show an executive, at a glance, the date by which each workforce risk will be reduced and how this will happen. A good program should also include a mechanism to test if knowledge and skills were transferred. Otherwise, actions cannot be tracked, pockets of risk are allowed to linger, and the program becomes a paper tiger.

In Summary: success in knowledge transfer requires: 1) priorities based on the workforce talent and skill requirements needed to execute a business strategy now and 3 years into the future; 2) a clear plan that details what specific knowledge and skills will be moved, to whom, how this transfer will occur (what mentoring techniques), and when this transfer will happen; and 3) knowledge transfer leaders that track efforts and hold a team accountable for steadily reducing risk.

Topics: Workforce Risk Management, Knowledge Transfer Definition, Terms & Roles, Knowledge Transfer Planning, Best Practices, 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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