If, on their last day of employment before retiring, an employee tried to walk out the door with their laptop, what would happen? Even if the company appreciated the value they provided over the years, you can bet security would be chasing after them in a heartbeat. There would likely be a large quantity of confidential and sensitive company information that could do damage in the wrong hands.
Now, what would happen if that same employee walked out on their last day without sharing any of their expertise? Security wouldn't bat an eye, that's for sure. But, would business go on as usual? There would probably be a lot of scrambling to figure out what projects the employee was in the middle of (or how to work the machine they were operating, what their passwords to vital systems were, or…you get the picture). Then would come the panic and frustration of training the next person in that role. The knowledge our subject matter experts possess (and every person is the SME of their own job) is valuable, yet it’s often overlooked because it isn’t tangible.
Knowledge transfer isn't limited to employee departures, but is a part of maintaining optimal performance management for organizations. People don’t always know what makes them an expert. Because they've acquired the bulk of their knowledge slowly over years of experience, it's understandable that they might have difficulty articulating or remembering everything they know. Knowledge often feels like intuition rather than a process or skill that might be extracted and put to use. That’s why a formal knowledge transfer process is vital to create more effective training experiences and keep the business running smoothly.
So what should this process look like? Of course, it depends on the organization and the role, but here are five knowledge transfer best practices that can help ensure smooth transitions.
1. Communicate expectations.
Employee cooperation is the key to effective knowledge transfer. If they haven’t bought in to the idea, they won’t adopt the processes and tools and the effort will fail. Communicate your expectations from the get-go. Explain how knowledge transfer benefits them, in ultimately making their jobs easier by streamlining processes and tasks. Describe how it will take place, from the processes to follow to the tools that will be used. Most importantly, practice what you preach. If you convey the attitude that teaching and mentoring is valuable, you empower your employees to take the lead in their own professional development, and the development of those around them.
2. Identify both the sources of and types of expertise.
All right, so who knows what? Which employees have been around the longest, in each department? Which know the most about their field? Who relies on them, and what for? Who steps in for them when they’re gone, and what are they unable to do because only the SME can do it? Compile a list of names and find their job descriptions. The description of their role is only a starting point. You’ll also want to learn “what they don’t know that they’re the only one that knows.” Write a list of interview questions based on their role. These should be open-ended and high yield. Here’s a guide. Then develop your knowledge transfer plan.
3. Make it real.
In order for your knowledge transfer effort to be taken seriously, even after expectations have been set, you’ll need to provide the appropriate tools. For one, document your knowledge transfer process itself as you develop it. Then develop tools and templates to make the information gathering process easier. Keep these materials organized, up-to-date, and easily accessible for employees to use.
4. Embrace technology.
The technology you employ in both the information gathering and the information storage will have a substantial impact on whether the material will be used or not. It can be easy to fall into the rabbit hole of multi-system chaos, so be strategic in your search for a knowledge management platform or electronic performance support system (as well as a learning management system). Document what you need the software to do before you search to compare systems. For example, you’ll want the database to be searchable and customizable to your specific needs.
5. Invest in ongoing training.
Knowledge transfer is not a one-and-done process, but rather a daily practice. In fact, it plays a vital role in a continuous learning environment. It’s human nature to be problem-based learners, meaning, we are most motivated to learn at the moment we encounter the problem. These are also the best opportunities to transfer knowledge and provide training. We have long been advocates that training should continue even after initial onboarding or formal training is over. By cross-training, creating opportunities for social learning, or providing performance support materials, your employees will develop a big-picture view of how the company operates, and what they can do to both learn and contribute.
No matter the reason you find that knowledge transfer if necessary—succession planning, writing standard operating procedures, updating your training, or preparing to onboard new employees—keeping these best practices at the front of your mind will help you ensure that the process is complete and thorough. The results will be more confident and engaged employees, and a stronger organization.
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