Encouraging knowledge transfer in your company's workplace

Catherine Heath | December 23, 2019

Convincing your employees to share their knowledge with each other is the dream – especially since knowledge workers spend around 30% of their time duplicating knowledge that already exists. Needless to say, this kind of behavior is a huge waste of time, and represents a poor level of productivity. 

The opposite of this state, knowledge transfer, is defined as: 

“A process by which knowledge, ideas and experience move from the source of knowledge to the recipient of that knowledge.” – IGI Global

Knowledge transfer will look different in every company. At its most basic, it means getting your people excited about collaborating more and unlocking the latent knowledge held in your business. To accomplish this, employees must perceive a direct reward for giving up their time to transfer knowledge.

“If HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.” – Lewis E. Platt, former CEO at Hewlett-Packard

Resources for knowledge transfer

There are a number of person-to-person ways to share tacit knowledge: 

  • Mentoring and buddy arrangements
  • Learning programs
  • Simulations and role-playing
  • Apprenticeships or internships
  • Communities of practice

Employees can effectively share their knowledge using spoken dialogue, but that knowledge is still not captured for future reference. That’s where knowledge management tools come in handy.

Technology is a small but important part of overall Knowledge Management, with most of the emphasis being on company culture. But if employees don’t have the right tools to do their jobs, knowledge will continue to get lost. 

There are a number of technological ways that you can capture and share knowledge in the workplace. Here’s a broad list of resources: 

  • Standard operating procedures
  • Frequently asked questions
  • Knowledge bases
  • Social collaboration tools
  • Help desk software
  • Intranets
  • Document sharing tools
  • Blogs
  • Wikis
  • Webinars
  • Videos
  • Podcasts

Once you have identified strategies for sharing knowledge, it may be worth investing in a dedicated Knowledge Management System. You could use a knowledge base to help your employees transfer and capture their knowledge.

Knowledge transfer strategy

It’s not easy to outline a knowledge transfer strategy but there are some key steps that all businesses will go through in one form or another

  1. Make a commitment to knowledge management – Incorporate knowledge management as a strategic objective into overall business strategy.
  2. Identify and create knowledge – using methods like communities of practice and brainstorming, inviting in experts or consultants, and designing solutions. You will discover a large amount of tacit knowledge which will need to be later captured.
  3. Capture and store knowledge – Making a distinction between explicit and tacit knowledge and storing in appropriate tools. Your infrastructure must work well with your existing company culture, and help you capture knowledge in a tangible form. 
  4. Transfer and share knowledge – Converting knowledge between explicit and tacit formats in various directions, and ensuring that as many people as possible can access your collection of knowledge. Clearly define and share the process for knowledge transfer in your company and implement the right tools.
  5. Acquire and apply knowledge, and measure the results – Assess the company’s knowledge management maturity levels and analyze how effective your initiatives have been. We’ll later look into some case studies for how top-performing businesses have succeeded with Knowledge Management.
  6. Create new knowledge – the cycle starts all over again as you continually repeat steps one through five. 

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To transfer knowledge effectively, you need to draw on the combined power of culture, measurement, technology, and infrastructure. Culture is the most potent of these four factors, but often the hardest to change. 

Unfortunately, employees don’t always feel inclined to share knowledge – for a variety of reasons. Research shows that people are much more likely to open up if they have a high level of autonomy in their job, and work in a cognitively demanding role. It’s better if your people are positively motivated (“I enjoy sharing what I know with colleagues”) rather than negatively motivated (“I don’t want to lose my job”). 

As we see in the later case studies, employees can be motivated by a peer review system, where they are socially and professionally recognized for their contributions. 

The SECI model

The SECI model addresses the problem of transforming tacit knowledge (hard-to-define know-how gained by experience) and explicit knowledge (know-what that is easily articulated and shared). The theory was developed by Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi over a number of years based on case studies of various Japanese companies. They conceptualize it as a knowledge spiral, and it’s a Japanese theory of knowledge creation.

Most interestingly, the SECI model gives instructions on how to turn tacit into explicit knowledge, which is one of the hardest things to do. 

  • Tacit to tacit (socialization) – when one person teaches their tacit knowledge to another person, which can take place through observation, imitation, practice, and participation in formal and informal communities. It usually requires the creation of a physical or virtual space where the community can interact.
  • Tacit to explicit (externalization) – being able to articulate the foundations of tacit knowledge to create new knowledge that can be communicated to the rest of the organization. The tacit knowledge must be articulated into explicit concepts that can be shared with an audience.
  • Explicit to explicit (combination) – combining existing pieces of explicit knowledge in a new whole, integrating parts into a new knowledge system. Rather than creating something new, existing knowledge is rearranged, for example into a trend analysis or a new database to organize content. 
  • Explicit to tacit (internalization) – when previously unknown explicit knowledge is shared through an organization, so other employees can learn from it and expand their store of tacit knowledge.

It’s conceptualized as a knowledge spiral because this activity is a continuous process that flows in multiple directions.

The way to effectively convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge is not by using logic alone. It works by using figurative language to connect directly with an intended audience’s imagination. This is because figurative language such as metaphors and analogies can serve to express the inexpressible.

Examples of knowledge transfer

Nothing brings an abstract concept to life like a concrete example. Here are two companies that report successful results from enabling knowledge transfer. 

Xerox Corp

Xerox was investigating ways to improve customer service in its organization, and they discovered that service engineers sometimes dealt with equipment problems that were unsolvable using the standard support channels.

Engineers in its 24,000-member customer service unit would fix these glitches anyway, but their invaluable on-site solutions couldn’t be efficiently shared among the engineers and the support staff around the world. This resulted in a huge amount of duplicated work, and unnecessary struggle.

Xerox convinced its engineers to use a knowledge management system, which ultimately cut costs and resulted in knowledge transfer. After studying typical workday behavior, Xerox designed a system called Eureka (which included a peer review system), and motivated its engineers to document newly created solutions.

The company benefited from a 10% reduction in labor and cost improvements. For example, in one instance, instead of having to replace a $40,000 copier, all they need to provide was a 90 cent replacement part to get it working again. 

Geisinger Medical Group

Another example of knowledge transfer is Pennsylvania-based Geisinger Medical Group. The company has significantly reduced costs, improved patient health outcomes, and attracted and retained top quality doctors after employing some well-known KM practices. They did this by standardizing some of the procedures regularly performed by the practice. 

The head of surgery at Geisinger initially captured 20 general steps that all surgeons should follow during bypass surgery. They even spelled out the specific drugs and dosages that doctors should be using. 

At first, the other surgeons rebelled against the final 40-step list, since they viewed it as “cookbook medicine”. However, once they began following the checklist, they liked its effect on their work. After the first 200 operations, the group had a 99.95% compliance rate with the checklist, which ultimately resulted in fewer patient complications, patients returning home sooner, and less post-op bleeding. The introduction of this KM strategy has also reduced the per-patient cost by roughly $2,000.

Benefits of knowledge transfer

There are many benefits that arise from convincing employees to transfer their knowledge.

  • Quickly communicate important knowledge to those who need it in a cost-effective manner
  • Preserve important company knowledge for future use in an accessible format
  • Reducing the amount of time wasted in searching for, or duplicating, existing knowledge
  • Ameliorate the effects of employee attrition, such as parental leave, sickness, finding a new job elsewhere, or retirement
  • Standardize important processes and find areas to improve quality and make improvements
  • Enhance employee engagement by rewarding the sharing of knowledge in the workplace

“Most activities or tasks are not one time events whether it’s serving fuel at a service station or drilling a well -we do the same things repeatedly. Our philosophy should be fairly simple: every time we do something again, we should do it better than the last.” – Sir John Browne, BP CEO

Final remarks

Knowledge transfer is stimulated when an effective Knowledge Management strategy is underway. Employees must be encouraged to share their knowledge by directly tying the preservation of business-critical know-how to corporate strategy. 

Leadership at the top who participate in internal educational programs add a level of weight to KM, and encourage lower-level managers to provide the necessary resources, time and effort.

Employees will then be strongly motivated to share their knowledge as a result of having a meaningful job, and infrastructure can be set up to allow knowledge to be shared through suitable channels.

Creating an internal knowledge base is a great way to communicate explicit knowledge. Trial our very own knowledge base software now. 

About the author
Catherine Heath
Catherine Heath

Catherine is a freelance writer based in Manchester. She writes blogs, social media, copy, and designs owl-based images. She believes in ditching the jargon – just give her plain writing.

You can find out more about Catherine on her personal websites Away With Words and Catherine Heath Studios.

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