Your knowledge transfer strategy—after framing your business's talent problem and providing historical context—should next state your expectation for how knowledge transfer will occur in your organization within the next 1 – 3 years. You can run cognitive exercises to help create this picture or you can look to history as a means to illuminate what paths to take and not to take—but the end result should be a clear, succinct written statement of what good knowledge transfer will and won't look like in your organization’s near future.
Summarize the Expectation in a Simple, Clear List
In the case of one client of my knowledge transfer consulting firm, we started by describing their picture of good knowledge transfer very basically—saying what it would no longer be:
- We’re no longer going rely solely on ad hoc, we’re going to treat knowledge transfer like any other task and plan for it;
- We’re no longer going to leave this work to personal preference, we’re going to decide to drive for consistency in critical areas;
- We’re no longer going to be satisfied with status quo for onboarding or cross training, we’re going to cut the ramp up to productivity in half;
- We’re no longer going to let trial and error show us if actual knowledge transfer has occurred, we’re going to measure and track progress; and
- We’re going to keep our knowledge transfer process simple, so the method is easily mastered and this work doesn’t collapse under its own weight.
All good knowledge transfer strategies will have some version of these five points. They set a clear direction of how organization’s knowledge transfer will change and perform. But looking at this list, the next question is obvious: what is it going to take to achieve that? A knowledge transfer strategy needs to include more depth to be useful.
Give Your Expectations Depth by Exploring the Possibilities and Setting Knowledge Transfer Guideposts
Add the next layer of specificity to your strategy by defining where your organization’s ideal knowledge transfer lies on a spectrum between extremes of key attributes. To do this, our consulting firm created a tool we call Knowledge Transfer Strategy Guideposts. This is a document of about 20 or so key attributes of how knowledge transfer can occur in any organization. Each Guidepost presents a sliding numbered spectrum. On the left is the extremely structured, controlled, predictable end of the spectrum for that attribute; on the right is the much looser or unrestricted end of the spectrum. The developers of your knowledge transfer strategy choose a position on the sliding scale to define that attribute of the knowledge transfer picture.
For example, some areas that your knowledge transfer strategy should define one or more guideposts for are:
- Urgency. Executives need to align on how quickly a knowledge transfer solution needs to show real results, ideally in the form of reduced talent risk. If the urgency is high—for example because you aren’t sure that in 3 years you’ll have enough experienced project managers to serve your customers and may lose business as a result—then that urgency needs to be quantified and agreed upon now. A high degree of urgency will also translate to a higher priority for the knowledge transfer effort. It may even mean that knowledge transfer affects project schedules because building for the long term health of the organization is sometimes more important than hitting a short term deadline. The strategy should provide enough guidance to help front-line managers make those trade-offs. The strategy should define the urgency and answer this question: “For which talent risks should knowledge transfer be prioritized over other work?”
- Consistency. This is an example of a topic that may or may not be important to your strategy. Either way, you should make a decision and be clear. We worked with a video game company that based its creative strategy on very limited expectations for a stable process or standards between game teams. The guidance was to agree on something within your team and go for it. Their knowledge transfer strategy rated this issue very low. That’s one end of the spectrum. On the other hand, when we presented this question during a project at Nike they decided to expect global consistency for the role in question. That means that the strategy is to have everybody behave in a similar way so that they can share resources and best practices (including paths to innovation) and expect similar results. The strategy should call out the guidelines (or selected standard-setting employees) to be followed and then answer this question: “To what degree should employees be required to follow those guidelines?”
- Degree of Rigor. Most companies have a few bad stories of “flavor of the month” systems that seemed like a good idea but didn’t get traction for one reason or another. The knowledge transfer strategy should take into account these past failures and provide executive level guidance to make sure that doesn’t happen here. If rigor is an important guidepost, then the strategy should discuss embedding knowledge transfer into existing systems like annual performance reviews or project scorecards. You might even attach the rigor to other policies, such as travel approval. What would happen if you required a Skill Development Plan showing knowledge transfer goals before approving travel by your workforce’s experienced experts to meetings with an outsource partner? Accountability is a close neighbor to rigor. A knowledge transfer strategy should get executives aligned on their expectations up front, including what they themselves will do to ensure success. The strategy should call out the level of rigor and answer this question: “In what ways will we ensure adoption of our knowledge transfer program and hold people accountable for intended outcomes?”
Each one of these areas is intended to add a layer of depth to the five main points that define your knowledge transfer expectations. In practice, each line executive or senior leader responsible for the knowledge transfer strategy should first answer these guidepost questions individually. This will expose gaps in alignment and provide fodder for a rich discussion of what knowledge transfer should look like in their organization. In my company's consulting work, we'll often find a number of executives are thinking three to five years ahead, while others on the same strategy team aren’t. After uncovering gaps, these disparities can be discussed as a group and rectified.
The end result should be a concise, written description of knowledge transfer expectations that clearly guide implementation, plus the leadership consensus to generate accountability.
SUMMARY: Define what good knowledge transfer should and should not look like in your organization. Clarify expectations by choosing key attributes and setting “guideposts” that define where on a spectrum your knowledge transfer system should fall.