Note: We periodically update blogs to reflect the latest trends, research, and best practices in knowledge management. This blog was updated and expanded on April 21, 2021.
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, according to Investopedia, and recruiters advise people to change jobs every three years, according to Fast Company.
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 experience difficulties training new employees and providing consistent, top-quality service to customers.
What is a Knowledge Transfer Plan?
To avoid knowledge loss, 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, therefore boosting productivity.
Here are four steps to creating an efficient and effective knowledge transfer plan:
1. Decide what information you need to keep
If you haven’t given much thought to what information you should make available to your team or how to capture and provide access to it, there’s no time like the present.
Begin by carefully considering 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 the best strategies for responding to tough customer objections throughout the sales process. If you don’t identify this information, you’ll not only fail to ensure processes and behaviors are consistent across the organization, but you’ll leave documentation to chance and risk losing valuable knowledge every time someone moves on.
For example, one Bloomfire customer with thousands of employees recently turned to us for help after a disastrous downsizing. Many departments lost up to 50 percent of their team, and because there was no formal knowledge transfer plan in place, lots of critical information left with those employees—including people who had worked with the company for five years or more. The company was only able to save 80 documents and lost hundreds of studies, reports, and projects, along with years of work and the budget it took to produce them.
But, as the adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And a little planning can save you from spending significant time, money, and energy recovering or recreating lost knowledge assets.
To identify the most valuable knowledge, ask yourself a few questions:
- Who are your top employees?
- What do your top employees know that others don’t?
- How does your organization or team handle tasks when top employees are out sick, on vacation, or otherwise unavailable?
- What information do top employees know that others ask about most?
- How is this information saved, if at all?
In other words, if your most valuable employees put in their notices tomorrow, you need to make sure you know exactly what knowledge would be leaving with them. Then, you need to create a process to preserve it.
2. Create a process for transferring 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. But, for other types of knowledge, it’s a bit more complex.
Transferring simple knowledge
First, let’s take a look at how you can transfer simple knowledge. This refers to anything that fits into the following categories:
- Information that can be written down
- Information that is easily shared through a quick conversation
- Information that can be saved in its native format (such as a Word document, Excel spreadsheet, or PowerPoint presentation)
In this case, capturing and saving information is relatively straightforward. It’s simply a matter of choosing a searchable knowledge management platform that supports a wide range of file types and then uploading existing knowledge assets, or creating new knowledge documentation directly in the platform.
Transferring complex knowledge
Of course, not everything is simple. And, often, it’s the more detailed knowledge that’s the hardest to recover or recreate after a veteran employee leaves. Usually, it falls into the following categories:
- Information that is hard to write down
- Information that comes from a person’s experiences and observations
- Information that requires a lengthy conversation or simulation to explain
A good example of transferring complex knowledge is documenting customer service calls so future employees can refer to them when handling complicated issues. This may require you to record calls and save them as audio files, videos, or chat transcripts. Complex knowledge may also require images, graphs, charts, and other visual elements for context.
Regardless of whether knowledge is simple or complex, it’s crucial your company is capturing valuable information in a useful format. And to do this, you must empower employees with a knowledge transfer plan to follow, which should outline when, where, and how to save information appropriately. 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 or a well-defined method for recording it. By investing time and effort to create a single, standard process, you can ensure reliable, seamless knowledge transfer across the organization.
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 expects employees to determine what to save without providing sufficient guidance, processes, or tools. For example, without a good plan, programs like Google Drive or SharePoint can quickly become disorganized and impossible to navigate.
On the other hand, knowledge management technology that requires little effort to save information eliminates many obstacles to successful knowledge transfer. A good knowledge management platform will enable you to standardize and automate how information is saved while also making it as easy as possible for people to share what they know.
With so many employees saving and sharing information, it’s critical you choose a solution that allows you to identify duplicate content and ensure the most up-to-date version is available to employees. In addition, an effective knowledge management platform will enable you to save and share information in a variety of formats, including text, charts, images, audio, and video.
Remember that even the best solution in the world won’t be effective if you’re not providing employees with a comprehensive knowledge transfer plan. Similarly, the best plan can still fail without proper technology to support it. By marrying these two elements together, you can foster better habits and ensure you’re keeping the most important information within your organization.
4. Use your technology for ongoing knowledge transfer efforts
The knowledge within your company is always growing and evolving, and your knowledge transfer plan should reflect those changes. And in addition to a solid plan and the right technology, you also need to ensure you’ve developed a strategy to support your company’s knowledge transfer throughout its evolution.
Once you have a knowledge management platform in place, make sure you 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 and familiarize themselves with their new resource. Make sure you’ve selected a solution with a robust search engine and Q&A features so your employees have one place to turn for answers instead of repeatedly asking subject matter experts the same questions.
A good knowledge management platform should offer various support features to ensure knowledge is shared when employees are promoted, move departments, or leave the organization altogether.
When comparing knowledge management tools, be sure to look for a solution that supports the following:
Your platform should allow you to organize onboarding documentation, ongoing training materials, and other professional development resources in an easily digestible format so employees can revisit the materials whenever they want or need to.
Mentoring programs give veteran employees opportunities to pass along what they’ve learned to future leaders and to capture the knowledge they’ve shared. While mentoring will likely involve in-person or virtual one-on-one meetings, it can also be incorporated into your knowledge management platform.
All too often, newer employees have to rely on more senior team members and subject matter experts to answer the same questions, which can be inefficient for everyone involved. When senior employees answer questions and share best practices in a knowledge management platform, it helps democratize information so this knowledge isn’t reserved for just company veterans.
You may not be looking for an internal social media platform for employees, but a knowledge management platform that incorporates certain social elements (such as the ability to like, bookmark, comment on, and share content) can help keep people engaged and provide a feedback loop so you know what content is most popular and where there may be knowledge gaps.
In many cases, new employees are paired with more experienced employees—and often, they’re learning by watching that employee do their job. At a certain point, they may no longer have access to the wealth of knowledge from the person they’re shadowing. A knowledge management platform doesn’t have to replace in-person shadowing entirely, but it should serve as a safety net should a new employee still have questions once they’re on their own.
How do you handle an irate customer? What do you say to complex objections from a new prospect? Often there are certain things employees can only learn through experience. But a knowledge management platform gives team members a way to document those experiences and guide others through them through a sort of “second-hand learning.”
Don’t wait until the next time a tenured employee leaves and takes essential information with them to start the knowledge transfer process. Start thinking now about the knowledge you want to preserve and how technology can help you achieve your goals.