Note: We periodically update blogs to reflect the latest trends, research, and best practices in knowledge management. This blog was updated and expanded on October 16, 2019.
Oh, look, there goes another valued member of your team, leaving the organization with a huge treasure trove of information and insights amassed during his or her tenure. It happens all the time — no great surprise when 10,000 baby boomers retire every day and recruiters advise people to change jobs every three years.
Knowledge loss can even become a problem when team members are working remotely. A subject matter expert might have a wealth of information stored on their hard drive or in their head, but if they’re not online and available when their team members have a question, those team members won’t be able to get the information they need in real time.
No matter the reason — retirement, the pursuit of another job, or remote work — the result is the same. When your people leave, they take everything they know with them. Without a way to retain and transfer that knowledge, organizations have a difficult time training new employees and providing an uninterrupted level of service to customers.
To avoid this, organizations must have a reliable knowledge transfer plan. In the workplace, knowledge transfer is defined as the process of storing and sharing employees’ institutional knowledge and best practices. The most effective knowledge transfer systems include ways to record implicit, tacit, and explicit knowledge.
Implementing a knowledge transfer plan will prevent knowledge loss when tenured employees leave. It will also help you establish a central source of company information, where all employees — whether they are new, experienced, on-site, or remote — can access up-to-date company knowledge. And because employees will always know where to find accurate company information, you’ll minimize the time employees spend searching through emails, files, and Slack messages to find the information they need, and therefore boost productivity.
Here are four steps to putting an efficient knowledge transfer plan in place.
1. Decide what information you need to keep
If you haven’t given a lot of thought to what kind of information should remain available to people on your team, much less how to capture and provide access to it, there’s no time like the present. Begin by thinking carefully about what kinds of knowledge are useful to people every day — from simple information, like how to log a customer service call in your CRM, to more complex knowledge, like strategies to respond to tough customers objections throughout the sales process. If you don’t identify this information, you’ll leave documentation to chance, and your company will be vulnerable to considerable knowledge loss.
Here’s a cautionary tale: a client with thousands of employees recently turned to Bloomfire for help following a disastrous downsizing. Many departments lost up to 50 percent of their team, and there was no formal knowledge transfer plan in place to retain the knowledge that lived in the brains of those leaving the company. Between the hundreds of team members who left, including many who had worked for the company for five or more years, the company was only able to save 80 documents … 80. Hundreds of studies, reports, and projects were lost, along with years of work and the money it took to produce them.
Avoid this situation by thinking through this hypothetical situation: if your most experienced employees were to turn in their two weeks’ notice tomorrow, what knowledge of theirs would you want to preserve?
2. Create a process for documenting that knowledge
Beyond determining what knowledge needs to be documented, you also need to consider how to save it. For some information, that will be simple — Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations can be saved in their native formats. However, not all company knowledge can be documented in such a simple format.
For example, maybe it’s critical that you document customer service calls so future employees can use them as an example of how to handle complex issues. The best way to save that knowledge is likely recording those calls and saving them as audio files. In the same vein, certain types of information may be most effective when saved as a video or chat transcript. And some knowledge may require a combination of different rich media types (images, videos, graphs, and so on) to provide necessary context.
To make sure your company is capturing valuable knowledge in a useful format, you must empower employees with a knowledge transfer plan to follow, outlining when, where, and how they should save information. Otherwise, individual processes can vary widely. For example, you may have someone on your market research team who carefully and methodically documents every detail about every project — more information than anyone could possibly access or use efficiently. And at the same time, you may also have an employee whose work style is just the opposite, relying on memory and documenting a minimal amount of information.
You can’t blame employees for a poor knowledge transfer outcome when there’s no specific institutional guidance for what they should pass along, and no defined way to carry out the task. Invest some time and effort in creating a single, standard process to ensure reliable, seamless knowledge transfer.
3. Choose a platform to facilitate knowledge transfer
Once you have a clear idea of what information you want to retain, look for technology that will support your goals without putting an unnecessary burden on your employees. Company efforts to preserve knowledge often fail because management puts employees in charge of determining what to save, provides little guidance for that process, and forces them to rely on a tool like Google Drive or SharePoint, which can quickly become disorganized.
On the other hand, knowledge sharing technology that requires little effort to save information eliminates many obstacles to successful knowledge transfer. A good knowledge sharing platform will enable you to standardize and automate how information is saved by taking natural human differences and preferences out of the equation.
With so many employees saving and sharing information, your tool should also allow you to identify duplicate content and ensure the most up-to-date version is available to employees. In addition, an effective knowledge sharing platform will enable you to save and share information in a variety of formats, including text, charts, images, audio, and video.
4. Use your technology for ongoing knowledge transfer efforts
The knowledge within your company is always growing and evolving, and your knowledge transfer plan needs to reflect that. Remember that having a plan in place to transfer knowledge is just one part of an ongoing knowledge sharing strategy.
Once you have a knowledge sharing platform in place, empower employees to use it to its full potential. Beyond documenting and saving information, encourage your employees to use the tool to find the information they need on a daily basis. With a tool that includes robust search and Q&A features, your employees should be able to use it in lieu of asking subject matter experts the same questions time and time again.
A good knowledge sharing platform can also provide a variety of support for keeping knowledge alive when employees move on. Choose a knowledge sharing platform that you can use to support:
- Learning communities – Virtual spaces where employees meet and share experiences and best practices (which then become part of the knowledge base).
- Mentoring – Opportunities for veteran employees to pass along what they’ve learned to future leaders and to capture the knowledge shared.
- Social networking – Tools that provide a far-reaching way for employees to share information with each other in real time and across multiple locations.
Don’t wait until the next time a tenured employee leaves and takes key information out of your company in the process. Start thinking now about the knowledge you want to preserve and transfer and what technology can help you achieve that goal.