The Knowledge Transfer Equation

One of the great benefits of teaching is that I get to read some wonderful guidance on many key aspects of knowledge management. As I’ve written before, at the top of my list of books to read over and over again is Working Knowledge by Tom Davenport and Larry Prusak. Inevitably, every time I go back to that KM classic I find something I have never noticed before.

In preparing for one of my recent classes, I spent some time on the chapter in Working Knowledge concerning Knowledge Transfer.  It was a good reminder that all our efforts to capture, collect, and organize content are not an end unto themselves. Rather, they are intended to help us transfer knowledge throughout the organization, thereby increasing the organization’s value.

But how do we transfer knowledge effectively? The answer Davenport & Prusak offer may not be exactly what you were looking for:

The short answer, and the best one, is: hire smart people and let them talk to one another.

But, you say, in busy days (and nights) spent battling exploding email inboxes, who has time for conversation? Davenport & Prusak remind us that “In a knowledge-driven economy, talk is real work.” Arguably, dealing with some of the trivialities in your inbox is not.

If you are skeptical, consider the example of Sematech, a nonprofit consortium that focuses on research and development for the computer chip industry. Davenport & Prusak report that Sematech was successful because it created “organizational and human resources structures devoted to technology transfer.” One way they transferred knowledge was by inviting assignees (i.e., representatives from sponsoring firms) to participate in research at Sematech. Then these assignees carried their new technical knowledge back to their own firms where they could put it to use. In the words of one Sematech technology transfer manager:

We have documents, document databases, an intranet, Web, groupware, you name it. But the assignees and the face-to-face meetings we have are by far the most important channels for transferring knowledge to the member firms.

As you think about how you try to transfer knowledge within your organization, on which channels do you rely? Your SharePoint intranet? Training sessions? Email threads? Practice group meetings?

Once you know what channels you are using, consider this crucial question: how successful is the knowledge transfer? Davenport & Prusak remind us that it is not enough to simply post, publish, or announce information. In fact, even a training session may not be enough. Yes, you have made information available but have you fully transferred it? The answer to that question lies in the following equation offered by Davenport & Prusak:

Transfer = Transmission + Absorption (and Use)

In other words, posting, publishing, or announcing information is the equivalent of transmitting it. Once you have made it available, then you must take additional steps to ensure that this information is absorbed by the recipient. Finally, you need to see how and when they use it. Until the moment of use, you do not have a complete transfer. After all, it is through the use of knowledge that you achieve the goal of knowledge transfer: “to improve an organization’s ability to do things, and therefore increase its value.”

This knowledge transfer formula poses an interesting test of our intranet efforts. How much of the content in your intranet is used, much less re-used? If the answer is not sufficiently high, then it is time to think about how to get out of the knowledge transmission business and into the knowledge transfer business.

I suspect that is where you and your organization intended to be all along.

[Photo Credit: Nick Youngson]

 

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