Human Connection, Not Technology, Most Important in Knowledge Transfer

Capturing the knowledge of departing employees can be helped by technology but won’t be effective without a strong dose of human connection.
Knowledge transfer tech

Business leaders should prepare for workers to leave their organizations in droves. This year, baby boomers are between 53 and 71 years old, according to Gallup, which means the average boomer is in their mid-60s. Retirement is just around the corner for many in this cohort, meaning a whole lot of knowledge is about to walk out the door.

Transferring exiting worker knowledge down the generational chain is important because the knowledge of older workers is critical for company operations, according to Dorothy Leonard, professor emerita of business administration at Harvard Business School, and chief advisor at Leonard-Barton Group, a training and consulting firm based in Charlestown, Massachusetts. While it’s important for people to bring their own expertise to work, “there’s no use in losing all of the perspective of the prior occupant of that role if it’s deep smarts, if it’s business critical and if it’s experience-based,” Leonard said. “Experience-based means that a lot of the knowledge that you need to keep your company successful exists in the heads of your key employees, your talent.”

Knowledge transfer isn’t just critical when people retire, either. It’s also important during recruitment, onboarding and training of new hires, mergers and acquisitions, as well as when a company is geographically dispersed. “Knowledge truly is a strategic asset,” Leonard said.

Knowledge transfer is arguably made easier thanks to technology. The proliferation of workplace collaboration and productivity software tools has undoubtedly made it easier for workers to share information. However, technology isn’t always the go-to method for knowledge transfer, according to Leonard. Much of valuable knowledge in an organization is tacit, meaning it’s not readily captured, regardless of the technological tools available.

“Technology has limitations, especially when it comes to knowledge transfer from one generation to the next,” said Kip Kelly, director of marketing and public programs at UNC Executive Development at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. Kelly also wrote “Passing the Torch: 5 Steps for Turning the Baby Boomer Brain Drain into a Brain Trust,” a paper for UNC Executive Development.

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In other words, organizations should not underestimate the importance of the human element in knowledge transfer. “Baby boomers have critical experience and skills — tribal knowledge that an organization must work to retain,” Kelly said. “They have stories that capture and convey the culture of an organization.”

Harvard Business School’s Leonard said that stories are an integral means to effectively transferring information from one workplace generation to the next. Organizations, for instance, can interview people to learn how they process information and how they work, and then tailor knowledge transfer through storytelling as a result.

One organization that Leonard advises through Leonard-Barton Group is Educational Testing Service, a Princeton, New Jersey-based nonprofit educational assessment organization. Felicia DeVincenzi, a strategic advisor at ETS, leads the firm’s knowledge transfer process. She finds experts whose skills are in demand and then pairs them with a “nextpert,” or people who want to learn from the experts. The organization then makes a learning plan, which contains experiences that will stretch their knowledge.

To identify the internal experts to contact, Leonard advised that business leaders think of their go-to person is when they’re faced with different business challenges. Then, think about the risk of losing that knowledge if that person were to leave. Along with identifying how much of their knowledge is already captured, the urgency of knowledge transfer becomes apparent. “You’re balancing two things: Who are the people who have the knowledge, and what risk do we run of losing it?” Leonard said.

Although Leonard and Kelly see no downsides to passing along knowledge, Leonard said there are risks to going about the process the wrong way:

  1. One pitfall is misidentifying what is the business-critical knowledge of a person.
  2. Some experts could be hesitant to pass along their information. However, they should still be conscious of the process.
  3. Finally, experts aren’t always right and make poor predictions. Adjust assumptions experts make and adapt that to the current situation, while understanding that contexts change.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.