“Knowledge Management: Transfer It Now!”

ARTICLE | May 16, 2014

As organizations prepare for the potential departure of valuable staff, a major concern is how to preserve the knowledge that these seasoned employees have amassed.  In general, the growth in the volume of information available and rapid technological progress has forced most people into a state of information overload.  This has left organizations scrambling to create systems for acquiring, retaining, and accessing an overwhelming volume of data.  Added to this is the demand for highly specialized knowledge that is often difficult to find and retain.  Knowledge management is one method for ensuring that years of accumulated wisdom do not leave the department once the employee(s) retires or moves on. 

Generally speaking, the term “Knowledge Management” (KM) represents a broad concept, and is thought of as a system for finding, understanding, and using knowledge to achieve organizational objectives.  The three activities of finding, storing and retrieving are the “organizational memory” of the particular agency.  It is more than simply moving or transferring files and data from one employee (or department) to another.  KM allows others to build upon a person’s professional experience, within the context of the organization, in a way that strengthens not only the employee, but the organization as a whole. 

Various types of knowledge retention strategies can be utilized so that critical knowledge does not “walk out the door.”  The goal of the knowledge retention process is to preserve knowledge assets, enabling the agency to:

  • Minimize the risk and cost of lost knowledge
  • Increase the speed to competence of individuals assuming new responsibilities.
  • Build internal bench strength, thereby increasing employee retention.
  • Create knowledge and skill repositories that support creative job and learning design.
  • Lower training costs through repurposing assets across various employee groups.

There are a number of proven ways for organizations to identify, store, and transfer knowledge.  Relying on an overall strategy and accompanying tactics will enable your agency to systematically and efficiently capture and transfer knowledge.  The following is an inventory of Knowledge Management and Transfer tools available for your agency to consider: 

  1. Expert Interviews. Expert interviews are sessions where one or more people, who are considered experts in a particular subject, program, process, policy, etc., meet with others to share their knowledge. Sessions can be audio or videotaped or even transcribed if the subject is highly technical. Expert interviews are a way of making tacit knowledge more explicit.
  2. Apprenticeships, Internships, and Traineeships:  Establishing these types of programs with colleges, universities and trade schools can serve to strengthen the pipeline of talent to replace existing staff, when the situation occurs, as well as simultaneously transfer knowledge about the agency’s way of doing business.
  3. Communities of Practice: A Community of Practice (COP) is a group of individuals, sharing a common working practice over a period of time. These have proven very successful in those agencies where there are a high number of workers in the field such as utilities and street maintenance.
  4. Document Repositories: Collections of documents that can be viewed, retrieved, and interpreted by people and software systems.
  5. Retire to Rehire:  The easiest knowledge recovery tactic to employ when expertise walks out the door is hiring recent retirees back as contractors or consultants.  Retirees not only have the skills needed but they also know the culture and organizational history, and have the extensive social networks necessary to get the work done, even when they are different from those they left. 
  6. Job Aids: These are tools that help people perform tasks accurately. They include things such as checklists, flow diagrams, reference tables, decision tree diagrams, etc. that provide specific, concrete information to the user and serve as a quick reference guide to performing a task.
  7. On the Job Training: On-the-job training is any kind of instruction that takes place at the actual job site and involves learning tasks, skills, or procedures in a hands-on manner. It can be informal, such as when a person asks a co-worker to show how to perform a task, or part of a more formal structured OJT system. Structured OJT is usually more effective than informal; however, informal can also be valuable.
  8. Wikipedia An internal wiki that serves as an electronic archive of knowledgethat can be shared across the department. 

Leaders at the City of Fort Collins, Colorado in reviewing their workforce demographics, realized within their Utilities Department – Water, Sewer, Electric and Storm Water - a number of people filling key positions were reaching retirement age. The primary concern was the knowledge of these employees would vanish when they departed and it, the knowledge, was essential, to ensure the continued high performance of utility services. 

As a result, the City engaged the Mejorando Group to design and implement a Pilot Program of Knowledge Transfer for the Utilities Department.   A group of employees were selected to participate in this Pilot Program with the Expert Interview technique utilized to capture and repurpose the tacit knowledge the employees possessed.  The focus was to gather the equivalent of the “highlight reel” of those employees’ job responsibilities and capture it in writing.  With respect to the General Manger of the Utilities Department, he was videotaped responding to a series of questions.  A video is an extremely valuable tool for those in Executive levels, due to the political nature of their work and its accompanying subtleties and nuances.  Ultimately, it can enable their successor to be highly effective sooner than later in their new role.

Overall, the Pilot Program proved very successful at capturing and transferring the critical tacit knowledge prior to employees departing. The Pilot Program was expanded into other positions and the Utilities Department has made great strides in its efforts to create and implement a practical Knowledge Management Transfer Program.

The goal of retaining knowledge is always related to creating value through access and reuse, not just capturing intellectual capital, for the sake of posterity.  Knowledge management helps your organization track and transfer valuable knowledge.  Dedicate the resources to retain this expertise before it is too late.

Patrick Ibarra, a former city manager, owns and operates an organizational effectiveness consulting practice, The Mejorando Group, and is one of the country’s leading experts on optimizing the performance of public sector organizations. Mejorando is Spanish for “getting better all the time,” and Ibarra’s firm brings fresh thinking, innovation, and new ideas to help governmental organizations succeed in the 21st century. Ibarra is a noted author, speaker, blogger and educator who translates the headwinds leaders are facing into a tailwind with practical, impactful and sustainable results. For those seeking additional information, Ibarra can be reached, either by phone at (925) 518-0187, e-mail at patrick@gettingbetterallthetime.com, www.facebook.com/mejorandogroup and www.twitter.com/mejorandogroup. 


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