One of your team members is getting ready to leave your company. Your organization doesn’t have a formal knowledge transfer plan, but the team member finishes their deliverables in their last two weeks, facilitates hand-offs where necessary, and heads out the door. After they leave, you realize your team doesn’t know how to complete a process that the departing employee always handled, or you have a burning question that you’re pretty sure only your former team member can answer. This leads to project bottlenecks, inefficiencies, and slower onboarding for new team members as you struggle to fill the knowledge gaps.
Now imagine this scenario playing out every time someone leaves your company or transitions to a new team. It’s no wonder that the average large US business loses $47 million in productivity per year due to inefficient knowledge sharing.
Developing a proactive knowledge transfer plan can help your business avoid the headaches–and the substantial cost–of lost knowledge. Below, we’ll take a closer look at what goes into a knowledge transfer plan and how you can develop one that is repeatable, efficient, and built into a knowledge-sharing culture.
What is a Knowledge Transfer Plan?
In the workplace, knowledge transfer is defined as the process of storing and sharing employees’ institutional knowledge and best practices. A knowledge transfer plan is a documented approach to capturing, preserving, and sharing three different types of knowledge:
- Explicit knowledge: Knowledge that is easy to articulate and write down (e.g., step-by-step instructions to complete a process).
- Implicit knowledge: The application of explicit knowledge (e.g., best practices an employee has learned from completing a process).
- Tacit knowledge: Knowledge gained from personal experience that is more difficult to express (e.g., skills an employee developed while completing a process.
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 five steps to creating an efficient and effective knowledge transfer plan:
1. Define the Knowledge 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.
- To identify the most valuable knowledge, ask yourself a few questions:
- Who are your top performers and subject matter experts?
- What do these employees know that others don’t?
- How does your organization or team handle tasks when these 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. You will need a process for preserving both simple (explicit) knowledge and complex (implicit and tacit) knowledge.
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 Knowledge Management Platform
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. Assign Knowledge Admins
While a knowledge management platform can take a lot of the heavy lifting out of organizing and sharing employee knowledge, it’s still a best practice to establish content owners and admins who can:
- Ensure employees are documenting their knowledge.
- Update content (or identify the right people to update content) when information goes out of date.
- Encourage employees to use the knowledge management platform to find and share information.
These admins don’t necessarily need to have “Knowledge Manager” in their title–they may be team leaders, training managers, or even subject matter experts who are responsible for owning specific topic areas in the platform. The important thing is assigning clear responsibility so that your organization’s knowledge transfer and management efforts don’t fall through the cracks.
5. 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 systems, 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.
Note: This blog was most recently updated and expanded in June 2023.