How to Transfer Knowledge
Organizations restructure operations, streamline processes, and reduce workforces every year. Employees get sick or leave. Have you ever had to handle this type of transition for your company?
Let’s meet Anisha.
Anisha is the director of talent development for a regional conglomerate of healthcare providers. One of the locations that delivers specialized care is not meeting revenue goals, so corporate decided to reorganize that location and reduce headcount by nine employees during the next three months. Anisha knows who they are; she is working closely with the finance and legal divisions to prepare the employees’ exit packages under strict confidentiality.
These nine employees are the keepers of critical knowledge for the location. The business needs their knowledge, yet it does not have a formal knowledge transfer process.
Anisha has three options:
• Decide to not do anything about knowledge transfer and let anyone who assumes new responsibilities learn on their own. This will take a while, but eventually they will figure out what needs to be done.
• Encourage individual departments to cross-train employees informally to perform different functions so the company can maintain operational continuity during vacations and other absences.
• Initiate a company-wide formal knowledge transfer program that will allow employees with critical expertise to share it with other employees. Those who participate can learn other functions, thus increasing their knowledge and career flexibility. The program has to be open to those employees who will assume the responsibilities of departing employees, as well as to anyone else who might be interested. By doing this, Anisha avoids potential issues among employees about why someone is or is not participating, which could lead some to make unfounded assumptions about the upcoming changes.
Which option would you choose?
Businesses need to have formal knowledge transfer and cross-training programs in place before transitions arise. These programs must consider situations such as the following:
Jake, an hourly employee who is the only one who knows the password to release federal funds that support several child care centers. He receives phone calls to access the system and enter the password when he is on leave. If he does not answer, the funds are not released.
Millicent, an hourly employee who knows how to prepare the three most critical financial reports for the end-of-year closing. She is getting tired of not being able to visit her family during the holidays, and she is considering leaving the workforce.
Andrew, a car dealership employee who is the only one who knows the combination that opens the key vault. Without him, the dealership cannot open for business.
Naomi who handles accounts receivable and Herbert who handles accounts payable. They have accounting backgrounds but cannot perform each other’s roles because of the specialized nature of these functions and the intricacies of the company’s operations.
Regina, the only project manager for the most important project of the company. Regina is not happy with the long hours and pressure. Her salary and benefits are good; nevertheless, she has been commenting about having personal issues at home.
Are you ready to let these employees go? Are you ready for their transition out of your company?
Cross-training and knowledge transfer efforts to prepare backups for employees like Jake, Millicent, Andrew, Naomi, Herbert, and Regina have to be fully documented and available for deployment on a short notice to meet business needs.
Learning and development has to be proactive and work in partnership with other departments so the company is ready for employee transitions.
The beginning of a new year is a good time to start taking the right steps to prepare for the unexpected.
These questions will help get you started.
Step 1: Get a snapshot of your company’s current state.
• Which business areas are more vulnerable to disruptions if certain employees leave or are unavailable?
• Are employees with long-term tenures beginning to inquire about retirement benefits, which suggests they might leave the company soon?
• Are emerging companies in your area or elsewhere seeking specialists in fields where your key players are recognized as experts?
• Who seems ready to move to another role, whether internally or somewhere else?
• Who are your key players (those individuals whose knowledge and skills are valued across the organization and who could be ready to assume other responsibilities within a short period of time)?
• Which are your key positions (those that would not allow the business to operate if vacant)?
• Does your company have a succession plan in place? If so, for which positions?
• What has the company done to ensure that specialized knowledge stays in house?
• How has the company documented its cross-training and knowledge transfer efforts so that someone can replicate them without reinventing the wheel?
• Are core company processes and procedures documented? Is the documentation up-to-date?
• Are any passwords indispensable for operations stored in secure places, yet several employees have access to the information?
• Who has a natural tendency to share company information with others and mentor newcomers?
• Who is well-suited to deliver group sessions about specialized topics?
• What electronic platforms does your company have that could serve as information repositories easily accessible to employees?
• Does your company offer online on-demand learning experiences?
• How receptive are your company’s employees to online learning experiences?
• What have been the results of the company’s cross-training and knowledge transfer efforts so far?
Step 2: Benchmark your current practices against those of other similar companies.
• What initiatives have they put in place?
• How do they choose which tactic to use to meet the needs of different positions? For example, how do they transfer knowledge between hourly production workers versus information technology specialists?
• Do they rely only on face-to-face interactions or online learning experiences?
• Do they provide job aids or other tools to facilitate transitions?
• What results have they obtained?
• What did you learn from your benchmarking exercise that you could put in place?
Step 3: Define what knowledge and skills your company will need in the future.
• Which of today’s vulnerable business areas will remain that way in the near future?
• Which will be your company’s key positions?
• What competencies, skills, and specialized knowledge is required for those positions?
• Where does the company expect to find the talent it will need to fill those key positions?
• Will those newcomers still need additional learning experiences because of your company’s culture?
• How will the company’s employee development strategy change in the future?
Step 4: Examine the difference between your company’s current and future states.
• Does your company have the talent it will need to meet its future needs?
• Does your company have the resources to acquire and prepare the talent to meet those needs?
• Is the necessary electronic infrastructure in place?
• What components of your company’s current employee development strategy will stay the same and which will change in the future?
• What will the company need to do differently to meet those needs?
• What will the company need to put in place?
Step 5: Design your knowledge transfer and cross-training efforts.
Based on the answers to all of the above questions, you will be ready to establish priorities and design a knowledge transfer and cross-training approach to meet your company’s needs. We recommend that your company:
• establish priorities to include positions in its efforts based on business needs and resource availability
• adopt a continuous learning culture where learning experiences are part of daily operations
• use a blended learning approach to knowledge transfer and cross-training, because nothing can substitute for face-to-face interaction
• start small and build your company’s program step by step.
Do you have ideas on how to best manage transitions? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.
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Norma Davila and