DEFINITION: A knowledge silo is a specific knowledge domain or area of expertise within a given job role or function. Common examples include skills, tools, processes, systems and platforms, standards, products, customers, and history relevant to performing a job. Knowledge silos are an important organizing concept within the field knowledge transfer.
"Knowing" Silos Vs. "Doing" Silos
People tend to think about knowledge in two different ways. The first is what I call academic or “knowing” silos (areas of expertise), such as, “I know about material sciences, nutrition, or agile development.” Then, there are “doing” silos, such as “I can do seismic calculations, develop chemical formulas for new products, and manage plant systems maintenance.” Even though we can all agree that you have to “know” before you can “do,” effective knowledge transfer starts with a focusing on the “doing” silos. In other words, teach a qualified learner/apprentice how to do the work and the knowing will come along for the ride – and much faster.
A common mistake I've seen in my decades of knowledge transfer consulting is experts too often feeling the need to teach their apprentices lots of prerequisite background—“knowing” silos—rather than focusing on the skills required to do a job—“doing” silos. Time spent on teaching background can actually delay how quickly that employee is up and working productively.
Focus On Doing Silos: A Practical Example From A Fortune 500 Manufacturer
We encounter the issue of knowing silos vs. doing silos all the time. Most recently, one of our consulting firm's clients, a Fortune 500 global manufacturer and marketer, was training an apprentice in one country while the mentor was in the U.S. The mentor had to retire due to sudden illness and was the only one in that division’s product development team with the unique knowledge of how to use laser technology in automated footwear manufacturing.
As the mentor and I worked to fill out the apprentice’s Skill Development Plan—the second step in our 3-step process of transferring knowledge—here’s how our conversation went:
CLIENT: “Before I can teach my apprentice how to use these lasers, I’m going to have to spend three days teaching her about material sciences.”
ME: “Well, what will she do with the material sciences?”
CLIENT: “She won’t do anything with material sciences; she just has to know it.”
ME: “Okay, well, if she knows material sciences, what will she be able to do?”
The mentor was still skeptical so I suggested we make sure his apprentice really needs to know this background before he could begin transferring any knowledge related to job skills. To test his assumption, we started with our 5-Minute Meeting Plan (a knowledge transfer tool we teach our clients for planning the agenda of a knowledge transfer session), and we worked through the steps in his agenda right then and there on the phone:
5-Minute Meeting Plan for a Knowledge Transfer Session
- Write out the skill you’re going to teach.
- Say how the skill relates to your apprentice’s role.
- Outline the main points to teach, including answering your chosen knowledge transfer test questions.
- Define all the jargon in the outline.
- Identify practice opportunities.
- Provide additional resources.
In the process of listing out the content of the knowledge transfer session’s agenda, the mentor actually found that the test questions that we had already come up with precluded the need for him to spend three days explaining about material sciences, and instead he could spend one hour teaching a skill on testing new product designs and manufacturing feasibility using the laser technology.
By the end of the hour-long session transferring knowledge between the mentor and his apprentice, the new hire was not only answering the mentor’s test questions correctly—showing he had learned the laser-related job skill—but also he had learned quite a bit about material sciences as well because the test questions elicited that knowledge where relevant. Our process even unearthed what I call an “Air, Food & Water” onboarding issue: the new hire realized he needed a microscope in order to do his job and he had not been provided one. Consider the cost savings in productivity—all of this was accomplished by two employees in one hour instead of three less efficient days.
SUMMARY: Focus on the tasks inherent in a job role to get employees working more effectively and more productively in less time. Develop a clear action plan for knowledge transfer that concentrates on the “doing” type of knowledge silos, rather than on the “knowing” type. This helps new, transferring, or reorganized workers drive their own learning and, when used with 3-step knowledge transfer, typically results in a 50% shorter ramp-up time to productivity.