Knowledge is power. Transferring that knowledge within your organization is powerful. If we accept the reality that we live and work in a knowledge-based economy, where the knowledge worker is what differentiates an organization, why are so few organizations effective at valuing and then transferring knowledge?
The idea of knowledge has been written about for thousands of years, but it is only fairly recently – less than 50 years – that the application and value of knowledge in systematic, economic ways is becoming increasingly critical to the success of organizations.
Organizations known for turning ideas into action, such as the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), recognize effective knowledge transfer as a vital capability.
“Knowledge is central to mission success,” said Ed Hoffman, Chief Knowledge Officer, NASA. “Projects are based on the successful interaction of multiple disciplines; the ultimate demand is to access the best solutions and answers from a global and diverse team. If there is no strategy for defining what knowledge is most critical, and what strategies can best be used to share and transfer knowledge, we leave to chance that the best decisions will be made.”
On the job training does not equal knowledge transfer
What exactly is knowledge transfer? It is the methodical replication of the expertise, wisdom and tacit knowledge of critical professionals into the heads and hands of their coworkers. It’s much more than on-the-job training. Knowledge transfer seeks to organize, create, capture or distribute the “know-how” of experts in a field and ensure its availability for future stakeholders.
“Knowledge is the business! And the best practice of knowledge transfer should accelerate the business value,” states Jean-Claude F. Monney, Global Knowledge Management Lead, Office of the CTO at Microsoft Enterprise Services. “We capture knowledge of every project through a process that makes highly valuable knowledge discoverable and known. You cannot search for something you don’t know exists.”
An aging workforce is creating gaps in knowledge transfer
Knowledge transfer is an important, albeit often underappreciated goal in the world of project and program management, which are knowledge-intensive and often have high levels of complexity and risk. Complexity and risk can be minimized by transferring valuable knowledge from the most experienced, high-performing employees to others who are responsible for implementing strategic initiatives.
This is becoming increasingly more important in government agencies, where significant numbers of senior officials are retiring and where elections can mean turnover of key personnel. If processes are not put into place to transfer knowledge, organizations can find themselves starting their projects back at square one.
Knowledge transfer increases project success
The importance of knowledge – how it is acquired, used and shared – is key to project and program success. Organizations’ most unique and dynamic employees – those with experience, initiative, creativity and a commitment to excellence – possess the type of knowledge that sets an organization apart from the competition. When those employees transfer their knowledge to others, project outcomes improve and strategic objectives are met.
PMI’s Pulse of the Profession: Capturing the Value of Project Management Through Knowledge Transfer report reveals that when organizations value knowledge transfer and implement good practices to support it, they improve project outcomes substantially – by nearly 35 percent. How do organizations become effective at knowledge transfer? PMI’s research shows the most effective organizations focus on three things: culture, leadership and people.
Culture enables knowledge transfer and encourages buy-in
Simply put, when organizations have a culture that values knowledge transfer, they are far more successful at it. A full 96 percent of Pulse study respondents agree that a supportive organizational culture – alone or coupled with state-of-the-art knowledge storage and retrieval policies and technology – contributes to effective knowledge transfer.
“Our goal at NASA is to create an environment that has the right rewards, incentives, leadership and commitment,” said Dr. Hoffman, who believes that culture drives everything, because it defines norms and behaviours.
Several cultural issues often stand in the way of knowledge transfer and actually erode knowledge:
• Lack of trust — Solved by building relationships and trust through face-to-face and virtual meetings that foster dialogue and collaboration;
• Different cultures, vocabularies and frames of reference — Solved by creating common ground through education, discussion, publications, teaming and job rotation;
• Intolerance for mistakes or need for help — Solved by accepting and rewarding those who make use of lessons learned; support creative problem-solving and collaboration; and recognize that no one knows everything.
When organizations fall short in the area of knowledge transfer, while the reasons are many, they often relate to cultural issues. Many organizations point to the fact that they simply have higher priorities (52 percent), and also believe that there is insufficient recognition and understanding of the value of knowledge transfer (42 percent). Moreover, organizations tend to take a punitive approach to mistakes in managing projects instead of gaining insight and learning from them.
Leadership sets the tone, people make the difference
PMI’s Pulse report found that more than half of the organizations surveyed name managers and directors as ultimately responsible for knowledge transfer. Regardless of the specific title, 95 percent of organizations that are most effective at knowledge transfer have identified someone in the organization who is ultimately responsible for it, compared to only 54 percent of organizations that don’t do knowledge transfer well.
The vital link in the success of knowledge transfer is the buy-in and commitment of an organization’s people. “At the end of the day, you’re only going to be successful if the people working in the different areas are openly sharing what they see and know,” said NASA’s Dr. Hoffman. “Even when you fail at a project, you’ll only learn if the knowledge is actually shared via the people.”
The employee buy-in factor is significant. Just over half (57 percent) of the organizations said employees are willing to share their knowledge. But within organizations that are most effective at knowledge transfer, 90 percent of employees are willing to share, compared to only 49 percent of employees in other organizations.
Getting knowledge transfer done
Experts in knowledge management commonly identify the steps of a knowledge transfer program – or the life cycle of knowledge transfer – as:
1. Identifying knowledge that is relevant and valuable.
2. Capturing and retaining that knowledge.
3. Making that knowledge available to others.
4. Applying transferred knowledge.
5. Assessing the value or benefits of specific knowledge.
The Pulse study reveals that while approximately two-thirds of organizations follow the first three steps, few follow the last two steps. And even when organizations follow a step, nearly half are not effective at achieving the step’s goals.
The most effective organizations, by their definition, execute all five steps well. This begs the question – what are these organizations doing that others can learn from? They report a wide range of methods and approaches for identifying, capturing, sharing, applying, assessing – and ultimately transferring knowledge.
“Small wins are vital in transferring knowledge,” states Dr. Hoffman. “That is, consider ways to transfer knowledge that doesn’t cost dollars or require the organization to come up with new policies. Connect senior leadership or provide communities. Small wins really do lead to great things.”
Using your PMO to drive knowledge transfer
A project management office (PMO) can play an important role as an advocate for knowledge transfer. PMI’s Pulse report identified that effective organizations are over five times more likely to have a PMO that supports knowledge transfer as a means to improving the management of projects and programs (90 percent vs. 16 percent in less effective organizations). Does your organization want to exploit the value of knowledge by being effective at knowledge transfer? Be sure you can do the five steps of the knowledge transfer life cycle well. And be sure to focus on culture, leadership and people.