Knowledge transfer is a constant in any organization because passing along experience-based knowledge is essential.
With baby boomers reaching retirement age, highly experienced employees are leaving en masse. Organizations that are unable or unwilling to address the loss of these employees’ deep smarts will lose business-critical, experience-based knowledge.
In a 2013 survey of 73 chief learning officers, chief information officers and top human resources executives, 78 percent said knowledge loss was a greater problem than five years ago. They also estimated the intangible costs of losing key employees because of delayed projects, loss of valuable relationships, mistakes occasioned by inexperience and extra training. These cost their companies an average of $430,000 for every departure on top of the usual recruitment replacement costs.
Some 42 percent reported hiring experts back as consultants to perform the same work, often at inflated prices — a costly, ultimately unsuccessful strategy for dealing with knowledge loss. Despite the need to address this expensive issue, only 14 percent of the executives surveyed said their organizations were doing a lot about such losses.
Essential, competitive, critical knowledge is walking out the door daily, but addressing the issue isn’t a priority. The responsibility for preserving top talent expertise falls in the cracks between functions. Whose job is it — human resources, chief information officers or chief learning officers? Increasingly, CLOs are stepping up, possibly because they are best equipped
to address it given their specialized knowledge of learning and development.
Learning leaders can perform five activities to minimize the risk and expense associated with knowledge loss.
1. Ensure the team knows where deep smarts reside in the organization and which are at risk of loss or overutilization because they are rare. Managers close to operations and peers know the “go-to” people others count on for the information they need to do their jobs; upper management often does not. If there are too few employees with particular skills, these experts can be overwhelmed by demands on their time. And if key talent leaves the organization, current and future operations are at risk.
Some organizations have evolved highly systematic ways to identify their knowledge vulnerabilities. At one division of oilfield services company Baker Hughes, managers were asked to develop specific, measurable criteria to judge what knowledge was essential. For example, could a vacancy affect profitability, customer satisfaction or the ability to bring out the next new product? If so, just how difficult would it be to replace the current incumbent possessing that essential knowledge? The next steps are to determine exactly what those key employees know that less experienced individuals don’t — and to take steps to preserve those essential skills.
2. Train experts as knowledge mentors for the next generation. Experienced employees and mentors who are motivated to pass along their skills may need to be trained in the fundamentals of how people learn or how to teach.
Ask most expert employees how they developed their deep smarts, and they’ll say experience. But they may have difficulty passing that on to others. Good decisions, they note, arise from the experience of having made bad ones. Further, they often fall back on efficient, rather than effective, teaching methods: PowerPoint slide presentations, written reports and design rules, all of which are static skeletons of experience-based knowledge. These don’t teach critical thinking or judgment.
What is better? Researcher Robert Bjork, who studies what makes learning stick in memory, has called for “desirable difficulty” in learning. There are two erroneous, but common, assumptions. One, the easier we make the learning, the more easily the lessons will be retrieved. Almost the converse is true: active wrestling with thorny situations or problems leads to longer memory of solutions. Two, performance during learning translates directly to job performance. In fact, when learners think they have easily grasped the lessons, both they and their trainers overestimate how well they will do when they need to solve similar problems later.
Therefore, mentors who teach skills, behaviors and critical thinking patterns need to engage their learners in problem-solving and discovery rather than present them with pre-digested solutions. One way to do this is to pose a predicament or problem and have learners tackle it before suggesting a solution.
For example, the U.S. Army constantly needs to pass along experience-based knowledge. Its worker population is fluid and not necessarily well educated to begin with. Further, cognitive as well as physical skills can literally mean the difference between life and death. Young officers fighting battles today have to be able to make rapid, wise decisions.
One method to teach judgment is through the leader challenge. Experienced military leaders — via video or in person — pose a specific dilemma they have personally experienced in the field. Then group members discuss alternatives, potential consequences and second-order effects, before they find out what happened. The objective of having the learners actively grapple with a complex issue is not to find a solution for this exact situation but to practice critical thinking.
This kind of teaching usually requires a different concept of mentoring. Henry McGee, former president of HBO Home Entertainment, said he has radically changed his mentoring process since being exposed to a university culture where students are required to learn through experience — either vicariously through case studies or personally through field work. “My mentoring style used to be very directive,” he said. “But I have come to appreciate the power of a more consultative approach. The learning is much deeper.”
3. Help less experienced employees learn how to pull knowledge from those with deep smarts. A successor’s goal should be active, purposeful and efficient learning. But too often, the responsibility for passing on knowledge resides exclusively with the experienced incumbent. Just as there are better ways to teach, there are better ways to learn. Most educational institutions have not equipped graduates to take responsibility for their own learning. After all, from first grade on, teachers package and present knowledge.
Further, internalizing deep smarts — largely tacit, highly nuanced and complex — requires discipline. Joe DeConno, senior manager of human resources operations and projects at GE, has been leading a knowledge transfer initiative in GE’s Transportation business, and he said that “holding potential successors responsible for actively pulling knowledge from experts gives them a much stronger investment in the learning process.”
Part of this “pulling” process is to keep a learning log, which is reviewed with the mentor or expert as part of a knowledge-sharing contract. More than journals of lessons learned, these records force reviews of the learning process and can lead to changes in learning activities. However, the contents also can be integrated into searchable repositories of experts’ critical thinking processes, diagnostics and problem solutions.
4. If the need for knowledge transfer is acute and immediate, seek tools and techniques beyond exit interviews. Ideally, leaders will have time to set up knowledge mentoring. But when a deeply smart individual leaves abruptly, there may be only hours or a few days to capture as much essential expertise as possible. A successor, facilitator or coach trained to drill down into specifics will get much deeper into the smarts than is usually possible in a generic exit interview.
Facilitated group sessions can cover more territory than a one-on-one interview — especially if the session topics are carefully selected to focus on corporate history where the departing individual played a crucial role — so-called “critical incidents.”
Tim Perlick, senior director of professional development at CME Group, uses the critical incident process as a key knowledge transfer protocol for senior leadership transitions in his organization. “The stories emerging from questions that a group of colleagues pose, remove the folklore and provide detailed insights into thinking processes, problem-solving approaches and relationships one doesn’t get from exit interviews,” he said.
5. Build knowledge transfer into the organization’s DNA. Some managers have integrated knowledge transfer into the fabric of the organization through processes that explicitly require attention to sharing expertise. At Schlumberger, engineers on the six-level technical ladder have to prove they have contributed to community knowledge before they can climb to the next rung. At Nucor Corp., bonuses depend upon team output, an incentive system that encourages old timers to bring new members up to speed swiftly.
But managers also need to remove obstacles. At GE’s global research centers, HR leaders require that any rehired pensioners transfer knowledge — not just do the same jobs they had before retirement.
Knowledge transfer should be built into succession planning, onboarding and even routine evaluations if an organization is to become a true learning environment. A CLO has a major role to play in establishing this kind of culture.