Knowledge Transfer: Secret Sauce for Continuous Improvement

I love to bake, and many of my favorite recipes have been in my family, passed down to me  from my mom and my mother-in-law (my second mom). My early experiences with these recipes involved many calls to my private “baking hotline”, resulting in copious margin notes about nuances that only an experienced baker could provide. Their familiarity with these recipes saved me from lots of learning by trial and error.

I share this story as an everyday example of the importance of blending proven procedure (recipe) with knowledge transfer (the passing along of both procedure and wisdom gained through experience) for continuous improvement/success.

Case in point

Two weeks ago, Kate, director of training and development at a manufacturing firm called to share news about her new role. I’ve worked with Kate for several years and could detect mixed emotions – excitement about her new adventure and hesitation about leaving the people/team she had embraced as her work family. 

Kate shared that her colleague, Jodi, of six months would be stepping into her role. Kate had been with the company for five years and in her current role for two years. She had figured out many effective techniques to deliver training and development that delivered both standard procedural knowledge and insight from subject matter experts to help with the implicit knowledge (knowledge that comes from experience). We’ve worked together on reinforcing tools to ensure the new knowledge “sticks”.  

I’ve had a front row seat to Kate’s transformation of this department. Through the pandemic she’s played a key role in creating online learning tools to help people make work from home (WFH) easier. I peppered her with questions to determine how much of her experiential knowledge in developing these trainings had been transferred to Jodi captured as process notes in the company’s knowledge database. The answer a disappointing “almost none”.  

Bridging the knowledge transfer gap

Too often people retire, leave a company for a new role, or change roles or business units within a company without effective knowledge transfer. It is a recurring challenge I hear about in our work to create engagement and improve the employee experience.

Every solid contributor amasses critical knowledge and becomes a subject matter expert about something. That expertise is lost when there is no formalized knowledge transfer process to capture the nuances learned by experience, the implicit knowledge gained. The urgency often leads to a scramble of meetings to capture as much knowledge as possible before they go.

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports the average person is in a position five years or less. With people changing roles this frequently, why isn’t more energy put into documenting both standard and implicit knowledge? What does lack of documentation really cost? How can an organization do to make a shift?

Lack of documentation

  • Although there have been advancements in communication practices, communication is often siloed, and systems are fragmented and disconnected from one another.
  • People are stretched to handle responsibilities within their current role and don’t think about “what’s next”, what happens when they exit.
  • It is not culturally built into the workings of the organization.

Productivity costs (according to insight from HR management & compliance survey)

  • It is estimated that on average 42% of the skills and expertise required to capably perform in a given position will be known only to the person currently in that position. 
  • Employees reported they spend an average of five hours a week waiting for insight from someone that has implicit knowledge they need to complete their work.
  • The average U.S. enterprise-size company may be wasting $4.5 million in productivity annually due to failing to preserve and share implicit knowledge. 

Making the shift to documenting procedural and implicit knowledge

Knowledge transfer is more than preparing for an employee departure. To keep your team engaged and shape a meaningful work experience, a culture that includes teaching through a proactive plan of sharing knowledge throughout your organization is critical. Some aspects to consider:

  • Understand the areas or positions with the most potential for knowledge loss. Important questions:
    • If “this person” left today, would anyone know how to do what they do?
    • When this person is on vacation, what tasks pile up because only they know how to do them?
    • What does your team depend on them for?
  • Now you likely have a list of names of people, the activities and tasks that you need to have documented.
  • There are two type of knowledge that are key to your success:
    • Standard procedural knowledge. Information that is easily documented, shared and transferred through writing, videos, or through a short conversation.
    • Implicit knowledge, is more challenging to transfer and pass along. In addition to a written or video procedure it includes a person’s experiences, observations, and insights. Implicit knowledge requires shared activities to transfer and impart that knowledge.
  • Prioritize information that needs documentation, and keep a running tally of what has been accomplished and new items that crop up.
  • Develop a system to capture (wiki or other intranet portal) and transfer that is a purposeful, ongoing strategy with measurable results. Successful knowledge transfer systems are more than a one-time long data dump. 

Knowledge transfer methods

These knowledge transfer methods, when used consistently together within an ongoing system, will create best practices and simplify implementation. Knowledge sharing and transfer may happen in person (think brown-bag meeting) or through an online platform (think Slack) or video.


  • Mentor up and mentor down. A mentor can be anyone with specific accumulated knowledge on a particular subject. This means even the new hire who has specific accumulated knowledge in how to build complex formulas in Excel can be a mentor even to someone with much more company experience.
  • Both formal and informal mentorships work.
  • Mentors can be from within the same or different work areas. 

Share, Show, Transfer

  • Think of this as a guided experience. This practice has a hands-on element.
  • The person with the implicit knowledge shares how they do something. This includes questions they think about, the thinking process, any special forms or formulas they’ve developed, the actual actions to get a particular thing done. This sharing stage will often take more than one time working together.
  • Now the person learning needs to “drive”, and the person with the implicit knowledge needs to observe and coach. Often the task being accomplished will take longer. The guide must exhibit patience while the learner thinks through all of the steps. This drive, observe and coach stage will often take more than one time working together. In each guided experience the guide needs to wait longer to “coach” so the learner will more actively engage in the transfer.


  • Shadowing is more observational than the Share, Show Transfer method. 
  • The “learner” will experience the functions and activities of a specific task and learn the ropes through observation.
  • Often these tasks are less complex than those addressed by the Share, Show Transfer method.

Paired Collaboration

  • When two or more people who share a similar role and need to learn the same function or activity, a group (two or five people work well naturally) is formed. This most often happens within your department or business unit.
  • This group can works interactively to share something they have learned, bounce ideas off one another and learn together. 
  • This group most often has a standard procedure to start with and learns the implicit knowledge together through trial and error.

Community Collaboration

  • When two or more people, with different roles and responsibilities, often in different parts of the company have a common interest in a particular subject. 
  • Collaborative communities engage each individual to share their knowledge and gain new knowledge from others in the group (think interdepartmental, cross function). 
  • This knowledge transfer often happens over a longer period of time with the exchange of each kernel of insight.

Traditional Training

  • Instructor led. 
  • In person or through e-learning, both live and on-demand.
  • This is a great way to provide training to a larger group with a standardized approach to create a knowledge base.

A system for knowledge management is critical as the importance of the “knowledge worker” continues to grow. Consider making documentation and process updates part of an employees’ job description. This will foster a culture of shared learning which will strengthen collaboration, coworking, and cross-training to naturally make knowledge transfer more seamless.

As always, I love learning from you. Please drop me a note or give me a call 952-933-8365 to let me know what knowledge management techniques are working for your organization. 

If you’re thinking about developing a knowledge transfer system to enhance your employees’ experience and create a culture of shared knowledge, let’s start a conversation. You don’t have to go it alone.