Twice today I had conversations with clients of my knowledge transfer consulting company who are struggling with the same issue. The experts in their organizations are being pulled in too many directions. “They’re triple booked!” as one of them said. I didn’t argue the point because, of course, it is true. Experts in every organization are always in high demand because they are in short supply and there are too many places where they could be deployed. Every time there is an impossible problem, a crazy deadline, a big decision, or a new initiative, their counsel is sought. Oh, and while juggling all this, they also have their “day job” to attend to as well.
I asked one senior leader a simple question about an expert we were discussing on her team: What is more important for this critical expert? Should he focus on doing the same job he’s done for the last 35 years right up until his last day. Or, should he spend part of his time preparing others to take over for him? Her answer was obvious. “Both.” Ok. Then, why is it that each time we approach this expert with plans to help him transfer his knowledge to younger peers, he points at his To Do List and his watch and says, “Sorry, I’m too busy.”
If I were the expert, I think I might say the same thing. If the organization will settle for “I’m too busy” then why not use that excuse? It is true and it is easier. He probably doesn’t even believe he can transfer his knowledge—and even if he could, it might be hard. And besides, he’s not sure any of the “kids” can handle the work anyway. So, he plays the “busy” card and pushes on.
My next question to the senior leader about this expert was simple: If doing his day job and transferring his knowledge are both important, how is it that 100% of his time is spent on his day job and roughly 0% is spent on preparing the next generation? Is that the ratio the senior leader had planned? If not, what should it be? 80%-20%? 50%-50%? How many hours per week should the expert have blocked out to work on knowledge transfer? 2 hrs? 5 hrs? 20 hrs per week? This decision should not be left to the expert himself. If his expertise is truly critical, then this ratio should be a management decision—and if the manager doesn’t step in, he or she is not doing their job.
So, the questions for leaders are clear. Do you know how many hours per week your experts are spending transferring knowledge? Is the ratio appropriate for their expertise and the risk your organization faces if/when you lose one of your experts? Have you been clear about the ratio you expect and asked for evidence that your expectations are being met?
Don’t leave this to chance. Your organizational capacity and productivity depends on it.
By the way, this question of ratio should be answered in your knowledge transfer strategy. If you want to see how these decisions and your knowledge transfer program all fits together, you can see some of that thinking in our Knowledge Transfer Strategy blog series.
SUMMARY: Every organization has busy experts with unique critical knowledge—and managers want these experts to do their day job AND transfer that knowledge to peers. In reality, knowledge transfer rarely happens until management clearly communicates how experts should prioritize knowledge transfer in relation to other work. Managers need to set a number of hours per week spent on knowledge transfer or give a target ratio of time spent on each type of work. This necessary guidance should ultimately be part of the organization’s knowledge transfer strategy.