Companies of all sizes are constantly looking for a competitive edge to when it comes to driving sales and increasing revenue. All too often their focus is on technology and tools, rather than the human resources and the vast wealth of knowledge these individuals possess. In fact, in far too many instances, there’s not only no consideration given to these human resources and their expertise, but also no plan in place to capture and transfer that knowledge to others within the organization. Technology is great, but it doesn’t replace experience and intimate, insider knowledge about a company’s history, products, services, customers, and the like. In this episode of Future of Work, BMG’s Shelly Kramer is joined by Eric Vidal to tackle the topic of knowledge transfer and how to leverage and maximize this critical business asset.
Why Knowledge Transfer Matters
In many instances companies are poorly utilizing one of their biggest resources—their employees. Imagine a new hire being able to quickly and easily access the knowledge and expertise of the longest tenured employees in the company and shorten her learning curve in a new position, with a new company. That’s called knowledge transfer, also referred to as tribal knowledge, and it benefits both employers and employees.
Employees in today’s workforce want information quickly and efficiently, and they’re used to getting what they want, when they want it, using the device in their hands. This is especially true as it relates to Millennials, who are accustomed to having information available to them at the touch of a button or screen. Yet in the workplace, in spite of the advent of cloud computing and other tech advancements, when it comes to having systems in place that facilitate the establishment of a knowledge database or learning center making it possible for those with less tenure with a company to learn from those who have been in the trenches, or in the industry, for a number of years is sorely lacking.
But that’s fixable. Making a commitment to turn a laser focus on knowledge transfer, especially as Boomers begin to move toward retirement and younger workers take on new responsibilities, is like a business insurance policy. Not only will this help bolster company knowledge, it will go a long way toward enhancing corporate culture and more closely connecting generations within the workforce. That’s a win-win for everyone involved.
How Does Knowledge Transfer Work?
The vast majority of companies today don’t have the advantage of a Chief Learning Officer (CLO) on the payroll. So, without a position dedicated to ensuring knowledge transfer, how can companies make sure the expertise of employees is getting passed down?
There are many ways companies can encourage and facilitate tribal knowledge. Many collaboration technology platforms—like Cisco’s Spark product, which our team has been immersed in testing for the last several months—contain the ability to allow free flowing information from employee to employee. The Spark platform in particular allows for training sessions, presentations, interviews, conversations, or even meetings to be recorded, grouped together in project files and saved for future access by others within the organization. Our team does a ton of training on an on-going basis, so this kind of functionality not only helps new folks joining the organization and gets them up to speed more rapidly, it saves time for the veterans on our team to not have to be constantly reinventing the wheel and spending time doing the same information transfer over and over again. Another win-win!
Similar to collaboration technology platforms, Learning Management Systems (LMSs) and Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) are made specifically for knowledge transfer. A VLE allows new employees to access veteran employees in real time, and that last part is especially important. Real time communication allows for specific and tailored questions, as well as discourse and interaction which are vital to tribal knowledge.
Learning Management Systems are very similar to Virtual Learning Environments, but differ in one major aspect. LMS can be accessed whenever the employee wants, allowing knowledge transfer whenever is most convenient for the employee.
The Issues—Why Aren’t We Embracing These Things?
Knowledge transfer is vital to keeping your company viable, yet, not everyone within a company recognizes this value. Many CEOs don’t fully understand the value of knowledge transfer and are hesitant to back a knowledge strategy. There’s also the problem of responsibility. If companies don’t designate a person to be in charge of facilitating tribal knowledge and monitoring the efforts—and most don’t—it is difficult to measure progress and get results. Bottom line: Without a clear strategy, the backing of company leaders, and the right person in charge, knowledge transfer and tribal knowledge can’t fully meet its potential.
Do you have experience in knowledge transfer and tribal knowledge? What kind of technologies do you use to help in knowledge transfer? And how important do you think it is for business?
Watch this episode now, or read the transcript below. Don’t miss a single episode by subscribing to the podcast.
Shelly Kramer: Welcome to this week’s episode of Future of Work Talk. We are so glad to have you here with us today. This week we are going to tackle the topic of “Knowledge Transfer and its Impact on Business Sustainability.” This is something that we talk about a lot about here, even in our small family of companies. We also find ourselves talking with our enterprise clients about this as well and how important knowledge transfer and tribal knowledge is to the health and sustainability and profitability of businesses of all sizes. Today I am joined by my business partner and colleague Eric Vidal. Eric, welcome.
Eric Vidal: Thank you Shelly, thank you.
Shelly Kramer: Always a pleasure to share my time with you.
Eric Vidal: Always.
Shelly Kramer: Anyway, I know you have a lot of thoughts on the whole topic of tribal knowledge and what that is and how important it is having systems in place and actually using technology to facilitate the transfer of knowledge within an organization. So why don’t you kick that off a little bit and maybe let’s talk a little about tribal knowledge and what tribal knowledge is and why it’s important.
Eric Vidal: Yeah, you know, that’s great Shelly. Like you said, even in our company we don’t have a lot of people. We have like 30-40 employees depending on how you look at it. It is a challenge for all companies, especially when you get to be a medium and large sized company. The last two companies I worked at were InterCall and Cisco where we were multibillion dollar companies and we had hundreds of thousands of employees everywhere and so a very important part of the organization was trying to transfer knowledge from one group to another or just have that tribal knowledge transferred. Tribal knowledge means a lot of things to different people, but that way we looked at it was you have these subject matter experts, or even baby boomers or senior employees that had all this valuable information and how do we get that out to the rest of the team? How do we get that out to the rest of the company? Especially for new employees or millennials that may have only been with the company for a few weeks or few months, right? There are a lot of different best practices. There are a lot of technologies that you can use and do, so I’d love to share some of those ideas with you, those best practices.
Shelly Kramer: One thing I was thinking about as you were taking was that I think it’s just as important, sometimes when we talk about this and I know you and I spoke about this this morning in preparation for this show, we were thinking about transfer of knowledge from one generation to another. But with some of the enterprise companies I’ve worked with before as clients, the bigger you are the more disconnected you are, so knowing who your subject matter experts are is good. We would randomly come across somebody and say, oh, so and so has a personal blog about the aviation industry. This was a global engineering client of mine, a global engineering consulting company. So you might well have subject matter experts on a wide variety of topics that can help you as you’re pitching new clients, or as you are serving existing customers, or whatever. But if you don’t have a way to capture that knowledge base and to be able to communicate it across the enterprise or across the company, no matter how big your company is, I think you are missing out on a huge amount of expertise, experience, and really opportunities to leverage the full breadth of your knowledge that exists throughout your organization. To me it’s about more than just a generational transfer. It’s about really feeding the lifeblood of your company.
Eric Vidal: Yeah, you are absolutely right. The way I look at it is the employee these days want information quickly and they want it to be transferred quickly and efficiently. We live in a Google world. We want to quickly search and find it. When you are looking for information out there in the world you use Google. But how do you find it in your organization? You can have a knowledge management platform. Some learning management system platforms, LMS’s, have that capability and some don’t. I know the newer ones do now. Some companies have it created in a virtual learning environment, VLE’s. So, what you do is you can search by topic and when you find some information on this topic it can be in a document form like a PDF or PowerPoint, there are a lot of videos and how-tos. The other thing is there are one or two or multiple subject matter experts, or SMEs, that are associated with that topic. Okay, so I read a couple of the documents, I read a whitepaper, I watched two or three videos and now have some questions. You can actually connect with that employee via Q&A or some other type of collaboration. That’s powerful and that’s where we are going. That’s where a lot of companies are right now, actually.
Shelly Kramer: Right.
Eric Vidal: I know you love video. By the way, I read all your stuff. You have been writing a lot about video the last month or two and so that one is interesting. Video. I will give you one thing. I talked to an old co-worker of mine last week and he said you know, you haven’t worked in this company for over two years and your videos are still all over the place because there’s important information that is in these videos. They are learning modules, five or ten-minute training sessions that we created. There are twenty or thirty of them created. Do you want to recreate it? The information is there, why recreate the wheel? I thought I would share that with you.
Shelly Kramer: Our company is a small company, but we have for years relied on learning management systems that we’ve created so that we can streamline training and onboarding. We approach every situation like, what are we doing that somebody else is going to need to know? It is for business continuity purposes. It is for productivity purposes. It is to help us be more innovative. It’s all of these things. It’s also with a view toward creating content in a way that it’s consumable by people on our team at midnight if that’s when they choose to want to be learning about this. It doesn’t have to be done during traditional work hours. All of our team is virtual. We write and talk a lot about mobility and the remote workforce and its impact on work today and the industry and workplace of tomorrow. We have a company that is 100% virtual so that means we have to work harder and leverage technology more to stay connected to get our work done and be productive. We really dove into technology as a part of the foundation that our businesses are built at an early stage. You can take those same lessons and apply them. Eric, I know we’ve talked before about platforms and we have talked about the Cisco Spark platform that we are using. One of the things I like about that is that in previous years we have had to use other platforms, like join.me, which is a fabulous platform and now owned by Log Me In. Who owns Log Me In? It’s a big company. Anyway, so we have had to go out and say let’s have meeting via join.me. We set up the meeting and record that meeting within the platform. It has served a great purpose. It has been wonderful. So, we have an archive of our content that lives there and anybody can access. As we are experimenting with the Spark platform we are finding that we can use that platform to collaborate, to have video meetings and calls. We can also record those meetings as they are happening inside this collaboration platform and it can live there forever. The collaboration business is a multi-million dollar business now and in the coming years and the reason for that is exactly these things that we are talking about. It is because of the importance of tribal knowledge and knowledge transfer, and also catering to the different communication preferences of multi-generations within the workforce.
Eric Vidal: You are absolutely right and I don’t think you should shy away from bringing up collaboration because it is an integral part of knowledge transfer and tribal knowledge transfer. It’s not just PDF’s and PowerPoints and what have you. Shoot, twelve-thirteen years ago, I was working with companies that the way they were handling this was taking that poor subject matter expert and shipping them around to different offices all across the country and all across the world and/or maybe doing a WebEx. Not a lot of people want to listen to a one hour recording on WebEx, right? Then it started to evolve to videos and what have you, so the collaboration is an important part, is an integral part because even a one hour video won’t capture everything. I have specific question I want to ask, right? Let me give you a couple of examples that come to mind. Capgemini and the Woman’s Healthcare Association. I hope I’m saying that correctly. I think the acronym is WOMM. Both of those organizations, one is a non-profit, it’s an association, but it’s a who’s who in pharma, mostly women. The other one is Capgemini, the large consulting company, a global company. Both of them have virtual learning environments for this specific use case. What’s interesting about the Woman’s Healthcare Association, they use office hours. Remember in college, about five or six years ago, Shelly, when you were in college, when we were in college and the professor had office hours?
Shelly Kramer: Five or six years ago? I caught that.
Eric Vidal: Wednesdays from 1-3PM or 1-4PM you could go visit this professor and on Tuesday and Thursdays from certain hours. Well that’s what they had, a virtual learning environment. And twice a month they would have one or two of these subject matter experts in a virtual room, like a space, that you could go in for two hours, and there would already be a document or a short video created, and then it would be this open collaboration, people talking and everyone listening and you could ask questions via chat or even audio. It was very interactive. Capgemini does something very similar as well. I just think it was very interesting to see how companies are taking care of this, treating this challenge and really tackling it.
Shelly Kramer: I have a couple of thoughts. One that occurred to me as you were saying this as we were talking about it. The problem with making this happen is, whose responsibility is it? You know what I’m saying? We understand the importance of tribal knowledge in the learning economy but in an organization, who owns this? It’s not Marketing. It’s not Sales. Is there a Chief Collaboration Officer that is only focused on this?
Eric Vidal: Unfortunately, it usually lies on the CLO, the Chief Learning Office or the VP of Learning.
Shelly Kramer: If there is one.
Eric Vidal: If there is one. But then that person has to bring in other people. They have to bring in other executives. It has to be a top down thing and the CEO has to be bought into this and that’s the biggest problem, I think. For everything I have heard and everything I have read and all the companies that we have worked with, if you don’t have the CEO’s buy-in it won’t be as powerful as it should be and sometimes it falls flat.
Shelly Kramer: Okay, to that point, I was reading something in a manufacturing association newsletter, blog, something, about this very topic. Here are some stats that are really pretty interesting: 25% of 12 million manufacturing employees are 55 or older. So they have knowledge about products, processes and customers. It’s not written down anywhere. It’s in their heads. And what is really interesting to me is that the same article talked about the fact that their management is disinclined to worry about or to care about this knowledge that is in the heads of these older workers and that their strategies are all focused on recruiting new talent. The problem with that focus is that the Fabricators and Manufacturers Associating did a survey and they found that 52% of teens, and by the way I’m pretty sure they aren’t interviewing fourteen-year old’s, so look at seventeen, eighteen, nineteen-year old’s who are getting ready to graduate high school, in their first years of college 52% of the teens surveyed said they had no interest whatsoever in the manufacturing industry. Okay? So, when your management’s strategy is let’s not worry and let’s get the old people out, because by the way, they also command higher salaries and bigger benefits, let’s just focus on recruiting new talent, but the potential pool of new talent isn’t interested in the manufacturing industry, you’ve got a problem.
Eric Vidal: Yeah, oh yeah.
Shelly Kramer: Isn’t that kind of interesting? And I think that sometimes management arrogantly thinks that this new generation of workers can figure this stuff out but the reality of it is, as anybody knows, I am who I am today and I’m able to bring the solutions to the table that I’m able to bring, as are you, because of years of experience and learning from trial and error and mentors, and all of that sort of thing. I just thought that those stats were alarming, specifically as it relates to the manufacturing industry, which apparently moving forward is going to be the success upon which our nation is built as there is a resurgence of manufacturing. I say that without any sarcasm at all but I mean, I’m serious. I think there are a lot of people that are pitting their hopes of a resurgence of American manufacturing. But when you have people that aren’t interested in going into the manufacturing field, and management who aren’t interested in collecting any knowledge, this could be a problem. I don’t know.
Eric Vidal: Well, it is a challenge and one of the things that I have heard for the last ten-fifteen years is there are more CLO’s now then there were ten-fifteen years ago inside the organizations. But not enough. And there’s not enough CEO’s that take learning in these topics and these challenges seriously enough, because it’s hard to be able to show the ROI, do you know what I mean?
Shelly Kramer: How that impacts? Absolutely, but I will tell you this. I have run into fewer Chief Learning Office titles than people within an organization who are charged with internal training and things like that. They tend to be less of a high-level. It’s more of a mid-level middle management position, certainly without a seat at the strategic table or anything else. I think the people that I know that have been doing those jobs are very adept at understanding the importance of training, and putting programs in place for continued education and all of that sort of thing. But my personal experience has been that there is a lack of connection between the importance of continuing education and internal training and connecting the dots on knowledge management are the keys to business sustainability and profitability and our ability to innovate based on what we know from the past. I think that this is a big gap that we have in businesses of all sizes, maybe even most at enterprise level.
Eric Vidal: Yeah. You know, I’ve read a few articles that show interesting graphics, and maybe this is another show or follow-up show, but of all the top Fortune 500 or Fortune 1000 companies that actually have a CLO or actually have an executive that is an integral part of the learning process for their employees and stresses and puts a lot of emphasis on it, or resources and/or budgets on it and how successful they are because there is a correlation. It’s hard to prove, but if you look at it closely, and there are some people who have analyzed this, those companies stand out. So maybe that’ where a follow-up conversation happens. I’d love to go into detail there.
Shelly Kramer: I agree, I think that would be really fascinating and finding out who those are and actually maybe having some of those folks to interview I think would be interesting as well. As we go into the last part of the show, let’s talk briefly about knowledge transfer and tribal learning and how you facilitate that within an organization and I think that, especially as you speak to different generations within a workforce, it’s kind of as important as your content strategy from an outward facing standpoint and how you have to create content in different adorations and serve it up to your customers and prospects in the forms and in the mediums and in the channels that they prefer. I think that you have to go into this within your organization with the same point of view. And you have to understand that sure, video is tremendously important. And by the way, it can’t be a snooze worthy, corporate produced, ridiculously boring video. Things like candid conversations like this or 15 minutes on this process and why I developed that and how you think about applying it to a particular customer situation. Those little quick vignettes of easily consumable information. I also think about if you are working on developing mentoring programs and you are pairing different generations together, understanding that your millennial might be more interested when you are communicating by IM and by way of email, and you can do things like podcasts. We have talked a lot about video. We have talked about that on-line hours kind of thing, but I get up every morning and spend an hour working out, going for a walk or going to the gym or whatever and you know what I have in my ears every single minute of that time? I have earbuds in my ears and I’m listening to music or I’m listening to podcasts. If some of this information was created in a podcast form so that I can consume it that way? How awesome would that be? So, I do think there are some innovative ways that companies can think about, how to capture this knowledge in different ways throughout the organization. And how to use technology, whether it is video or podcasting, whether it’s messaging or a platform or collaboration platform. I know you probably have some thoughts on that topic too.
Eric Vidal: Well, I think from a technology standpoint you brought up great points about the creation and then about the distribution and being able to make these learning modules into learning chunks so they are digestible and thinking about your audience and how they consume. The other thing is, as a marketer, one of the things that we always do Shelly, is right after we launch any kind of program or campaign, we go back into our platform and we look at the dashboards and we see what did people do? How did they consume? How long did they stay? We look at all the analytics. Correct?
Shelly Kramer: Right.
Eric Vidal: And so that is one thing the learning folks, and I’m being a little tough here, but ten-twelve years ago, not so much. But they have learned from their brothers and sisters down the hall in marketing groups and they are starting to do that now. There are some companies that religiously look at the content and they find out what’s working and what people are saying and what they are commenting on it, and they are adjusting, which is wonderful. That’s a big help because now they are able to cater their audiences better. I will tell you, eight-ten years ago, not so much. Sometimes even a few years ago, they would just put together something in a PDF and send it out. And you know what? Read it. You have to. If you build it, they will come and that’s not the case. That’s one thing I have noticed in a lot of organizations, that some change has gone on there.
Shelly Kramer: You know I think that some key take a way here that I want to challenge you if you are watching or listening, to think about what processes do you have in place to capture that tribal knowledge that exists within your company? What are you doing to put a knowledge learning system in place? How are you positioning that in terms of the importance and the role that it plays for your business sustainability and your ability to continue to grow, innovate and perform? I challenge you, if you don’t yet have a Chief Learning Officer or a Chief Collaboration Officer. I think these things are as important for you to understand and implement internally as they are externally. We are in a time that is being driven by the learning economy. That’s actually going to be another show topic that we are going to tackle, the learning economy and how marketers need to function within a learning economy because we have a customer base that no longer wants to be sold to. They want to be educated. What we as marketers can to do facilitate that is tremendously important. On that topic, I will give a nod to our friends The Big Know, who are very knowledgeable about the learning economy and are producing an event that is happening in Chicago on May 3rd called “The Learning Economy Summit.” We will share some information on that if that’s interesting to you. This is really all about marketers being able to leverage the learning economy. But as important as it is from a marketing standpoint, marketing your business to customer and prospects and leveraging the learning economy, I think it’s truly important to do that internally as well, because that is what is going to keep your business vital and growing and really able to apply all the knowledge from people of every generation. I think it really will have an impact on performance and the bottom line. Eric, you and I experience this all the time, even in our 40-person family of companies. It’s like we are moving so quickly and we are juggling so many balls, as is everybody on our team, and it’s like, wait a minute? You are working on that? I didn’t have any idea. Or you just hired this person with these capabilities? Oh my gosh, I can totally use that. I need to know about this resource. So, it happens all day, every day with businesses in all sizes. We are all moving very quickly. When you can step back from it and say this is where technology plays a role and technology can make this happen for us. We just have to recognize its importance, put a plan in place, figure out what tools, and of course it’s more than one set of tools. But let’s start, and let’s start collecting this knowledge that is so important. I think that’s going to play a big role in businesses moving forward.
Eric Vidal: I agree with you 100% Shelly. One last point before we close up is, you don’t have to make that large financial commitment anymore. Learning management systems, knowledge management platforms, on-line communities, virtual learning environments, there are affordable platforms in each of those categories that you can use. Worst case scenario, you can use an on-line community platform. We are using Cisco Spark and there are things out there that are very nimble, very collaborative, very powerful, that are not a high price. So, the opportunity is out there.
Shelly Kramer: Yeah, and I think that what we can do as a follow-up maybe to this show is Eric, is what we can do is go away and come back with a digestible amount. Maybe it’s 4 or 5 of these learning management platforms that we can really talk briefly to, and introduce our audience. It may help you on the path to exploring some of these things. That would be an interesting follow-up. Are you in?
Eric Vidal: I’m in. Learning Management Systems, or LMS’s is usually a dirty word in some organizations so I would love to be able to find the good ones and make some recommendations, so I’m in.
Shelly Kramer: That would be great. All right, thanks for hanging out with us today. It’s been great. Eric, we will see you again. Thank you.
Eric Vidal: Thanks Shelly.