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Effective Knowledge Transfer Can Help Transform Your Bottom Line


Last updated 8/5/2010

Most companies do not have a plan to manage and transfer knowledge and even fewer factor cross-generational challenges into business strategy, says a new report from The Conference Board, the global research and business membership organization.

“As the Baby Boom generation of corporate leaders and experts approaches retirement, businesses in the U.S., Canada and many European nations face the loss of experience and knowledge on an unprecedented scale,” says Diane Piktialis, Mature Workforce Program Leader at The Conference Board and co-author of the report with Kent Greenes, Program Director, Learning & Knowledge Management Council, The Conference Board. “Younger workers can’t be counted on to fill the void, as they lack the experience that builds deep expertise. They also tend to change jobs frequently, taking their technological savvy and any knowledge they’ve gained with them.”

The result can be a significant drain of business wisdom that decreases innovation, lowers growth capacity, and reduces efficiency in the organization.

The Conference Board report—Bridging the Gaps: How to Transfer Knowledge in Today’s Multigenerational Workplace—is based on a Research Working Group on Multigenerational Knowledge Transfer that explored the topic with a special emphasis on knowledge-retention challenges that organizations face due to shifting demographics and the shortage of new talent in the pipeline.

Changing Workplace Dynamics Require Knowledge Transfer
In the past, the expectation of passing along knowledge and leaving a legacy fit well within the cultural values of long-tenured employees who spent their careers with the same company. But in today’s workplace, where four generations work side-by-side, knowledge is not always filtered well throughout an organization, says Piktialis.

The report describes how best to capture and transfer knowledge across generations by emphasizing:
  • Choosing the best knowledge transfer methods for specific needs.
  • Understanding generational learning preferences of both the sources and the receivers of knowledge.
  • Adapting knowledge transfer methods to accommodate multigenerational preferences and learning styles.
  • Making the business case for cross-generational knowledge transfer.
  • Best practices—what some companies are doing right today.

Effective and sustainable knowledge transfer is complex in organizations. Since knowledge doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it is important to first identify and evaluate what kind of knowledge company executives are interested in capturing.

Because knowledge is complex, it is also vital to validate and document it. Most successful transfer efforts actively involve both the source of the knowledge and its receiver. It’s almost always a “two-way street.” The receiver gains from the transfer in an obvious way. But the source of the knowledge may need to be persuaded of the value of the process. Establishing performance expectations for those who will use the knowledge further quantifies the value of the transfer.

“While the process may seem long and complex, it can sometimes be accomplished quickly in practice,” says Greenes. “But several iterations through the process may be necessary when the knowledge is deep, complex, or large in scope.”

In Knowledge Transfer, Age Matters
Because so much knowledge transfer is cross-generational, from long tenured to younger employees, an understanding of different learning styles based on age facilitates the process. Understanding generational learning preferences and adapting how knowledge is conveyed can make the difference between merely harvesting knowledge and actually using it.

Technology has created a larger gap between the outgoing and incoming workforces than employers have ever experienced. Employers need not build generational considerations into every aspect of information sharing in their organization. But adaptations should be made when the knowledge is firm-specific and mission critical and when the receiver(s) is likely to have specific generational learning preferences. For example, today’s mentees may prefer getting Instant Messages (IM) from their mentor in real time rather than meeting or talking according to a set schedule. Gen Y employees may set up blogs to capture knowledge on a particular topic across the organization. Companies considering or using knowledge transfer processes, should assess their readiness for Instant Messaging, blogs, wikis, RRS feeds, podcast, and virtual realities.

Helping the Bottom Line
While many workers transfer knowledge and experience expecting recognition, or out of a sense of altruism, there is a growing business case for it. The benefits for workplaces include increases in productivity, speed, agility, profits, and growth.

Knowledge transfer methods include formal education and training, interviews, mentoring, apprenticeships, simulations and games, instant messaging, peer assists, communities of practice, job transfer, knowledge elicitation interviews, storytelling, wikis, blogs, research papers, and conferences.

“Knowledge transfer is not as widely practiced as the potential business benefits and workforce demographics suggest it should be,” concludes Greenes. “In a knowledge economy, firm-specific knowledge is critical to the sustainability, performance, and innovation of organizations facing the imminent retirement of large numbers of baby boomers.”

Concludes Piktialis: “Is the sky falling because Boomer knowledge and business wisdom are leaving organizations at an unprecedented rate? Probably not. But there is significant opportunity in strategic and targeted knowledge transfer.”

For copy of report #1428-08-RR, Bridging the Gaps—How to Transfer Knowledge in Today’s Multigenerational Workplace: courter@conference-board.org