Why are so many employers becoming more concerned about effective knowledge transfer? After all, there have always been retirements within organizations, and employee turnover is nothing new.
Moreover, it has always been the case that much of the institutional “know-how” within organizations is never committed to paper but instead resides within the brains of its most experienced senior staff, who – ideally – pass it on to those who will follow them. Essentially, that is the definition of knowledge transfer: training or learning that passes on the knowledge of an organization’s most experienced people.
These people have typically spent many years with their current employer and have a thorough understanding of the organization, its history and its internal politics. Manuals, policies and training materials attempt to codify the information that new staff need to know, but nothing can replace “learning the ropes” from the individuals who, over time, have become the institutional memory of the organization
The growing interest in knowledge transfer can be attributed to two main factors. The first of these is, of course, that the career clock is winding down for the Baby Boomer generation which has dominated the workforce for many years; indeed, the first wave of Boomer retirements has already begun.
The second factor is that there are not two, but four distinct generations represented in today’s workforce – and each of these generations has somewhat different values and approaches workplace learning differently. One commonly sees the following kind of breakdown between the four generations in the workforce, although the terminology and demarcation points can vary and newer generations are continually entering the workforce:
- “Traditionals” (also referred to as the Silent Generation): – born between 1922-1945
- “Baby Boomers” – born between 1946-1964
- “Generation X” – born between 1965-1980
- “Millennials” (also referred to as “Generation Y”) – born between 1980-1995
- “Generation Z” (born after 1995) – waiting in the wings
It is always wise to avoid generalizations, and one must keep in mind that employees are all individuals, not merely representatives of an age cohort or products of the environment in which they were brought up and entered the workforce. However, as a group, Millennials tend to be more tech-savvy and team-oriented than the workers of older generations, and they place a high value on being supported and appreciated.
They are considered to be more likely to “job-hop”, and less likely to be loyal to one employer, than older workers (although this may have as much to do with the paucity of good quality jobs previously available to Millennials as it does with their own values and tendencies). When it comes to workplace learning, Millennials may be less interested than Traditionals and Baby Boomers in formal training programs of the hierarchical “sit and listen” variety, and may prefer group-oriented or interactive tech-based learning.
Generation Z will begin to enter the workforce in greater numbers in the coming years. They will have been using the internet and social media from a young age. They are likely even more comfortable with technology and digital communication than Millennials. In fact, with this group, more socializing may occur digitally than in person.
Here are some best practices for knowledge transfer that your organization may wish to consider:
Develop a formal knowledge transfer strategy, and prioritize it appropriately. Knowledge transfer is important to your organization, but more time-sensitive priorities will tend to supplant it on a day-to-day basis if it is not formalized and built into the organization’s planning processes.
Get buy-in from experienced employees. These are people who have responsible positions and they may not feel that they have the time to work with newer staff, but your knowledge transfer strategy will be worthless without their support. Try to make the process easier and more attractive to them, showcasing it as an opportunity for them to be teachers and mentors. They may also be surprised by how much they can learn from younger staff, particularly in the area of new technology and social media.
Include younger employees at an earlier stage. Younger employees usually hold more junior positions within an organization. However it can facilitate knowledge transfer – and possibly help to build employee engagement and loyalty – if younger staff are invited to meetings with more senior staff and asked to join important project teams. Even if they are only there to listen – at least at first – they will absorb important information and feel that they are part of the organization at a higher level.
Use a variety of methods to deliver information and training, keeping generational learning preferences and new ways of delivering information in mind. In addition to formal training, conferences, and online learning, you may also want to consider mentoring, coaching, job shadowing and job rotations. Some employers use storytelling and interviews to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next. Others develop a “buddy system” in which they partner younger employees with more experienced ones to give the newer hires the benefits of one-on-one and hands-on learning.