I am a knowledge transfer consultant for The Steve Trautman Co. (STC) and I’ve been with the team for years. Steve asked me to write this guest blog post on a common trap that knowledge transfer clients can fall into: trying to modify our proven knowledge transfer process back into something familiar and comfortable rather than following the process that works.
I was recently facilitating an Emergency Knowledge Transfer (EKT) project for a financial services client. They have a retiring expert, Alex, with 30+ years of IT experience, who is exiting in 60 days. In a 2-hour meeting with Alex, her manager, and her replacement, Peter, we drafted an initial Skill Development Plan (SDP) and a schedule to get her started methodically and measurably transferring her most critical skills, wisdom, and tacit knowledge to Peter.
A week later the manager came back to me with a change in plans. Here is the email I received:
“We created a new list of skills to cover and a new process to transfer Alex’s knowledge. She will provide Peter the reading material for each topic ahead of time and Peter will ask questions during their daily one hour meeting. We replaced the SDP test questions column with an estimate of Alex and Peter’s comfort level, i.e., low, medium or high. I haven't seen Peter’s comfort levels yet and am going to ask him whether the process is working for him or not.”
The new “skills” were actually a list of topics like these:
- Overview of Admin Upload
- Introduction to DA, RSPW & WST
- Different AE file structures
- Key concepts of MBL business
- Explanation of data dictionary and online screens
In other words, under the time pressure of Alex’s imminent departure, the manager, expert, and apprentice reverted to a traditional, more familiar training format. They took the emphasis off learning skills (specific things that someone can say “go do”) and removed the metrics (test questions) that would have provided measurement and accountability. Unfortunately, this traditional format is vague and subjective and won’t guarantee that the expert’s “secret sauce” will get passed on to future employees.
Here was my response...
“What you’ve created is a traditional approach to knowledge transfer, i.e., teaching topics versus transferring skills. While Peter will know more, it’s unclear what he’ll be able to do with it after Alex leaves and if he will have learned the skills that made her so valuable, namely superior data analysis. The SDP we created articulated these critical skills, for example:
- Read data files to identify anomalous data
- Filter Excel spreadsheet to identify anomalous data
- Compare current face and non-forfeiture (NFO) amounts
- Determine problem significance and priority
- Identify data integrity issues
- Identify commonalities among a group of cases having the same problem
- Identify problem root causes due to illogical design
- Identify problem root causes due to missing or conflicting data”
I explained to the client that the above skills and others were now absent from their new list of overviews and introductions. Our SDP skill format makes it crystal clear to the manager, mentor, and apprentice the critical knowledge to be transferred.
I also pointed out how the SDP test questions replace subjective “comfort” with objective performance. Peter can either correctly answer five important questions about a specific skill or he cannot. If you follow our 3-step knowledge transfer program, you as a manager or as an expert can easily audit the process by asking the apprentice to answer the test questions. If he or she can answer them correctly, then you know knowledge transfer has taken place.
Last, Peter’s role is to be a knowledge intermediary, meaning he’s going to pass what Alex taught him on to someone to be named later. Our SDP skill format with its test questions makes future knowledge transfer much more efficient, effective, and consistent.
When situations like this occur, we immediately sit down with the manager and go over the points where the process is diverging. Most managers are quick to realize that they've hijacked the process and see the potential breakdown lying ahead if they continue on their path. We then work with them to return to following STC's 3-step Knowledge Transfer Solution as designed so that the expert can successfully transfer the critical knowledge and skills to the apprentice within the designated timeframe.
SUMMARY: Emergency Knowledge Transfer (EKT) will quickly move critical knowledge and skills from a departing expert to a designated peer—but you need to follow a proven knowledge transfer process. Our 3-step solution at The Steve Trautman Co. provides your team a clear path and tools for accountability. Resist the urge to tamper with the process simply to enable people to “feel more comfortable” and to fall back on old habits under the pressures of a tight timeline.