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Knowledge Transfer - Its a pull not a push

I’m often asked about knowledge transfer.  Customers will ask me to guarantee that it will take place when consultants are working with their staff.  I’ll receive Request for Proposals wherein I’m asked to explain how we will do knowledge transfer.  I’ve even had customers insist that we contractually promise to provide knowledge transfer.  I can tell consultants to teach classes.  I can write documentation.  I can spend hours explaining things. But, how can I guarantee that someone else will learn?

In the past, it seemed like the customers I worked with who learned the most were the ones who were so passionate, so interested in having the knowledge and capability I brought to the table they couldn’t wait to take control.  Very quickly they were pushing me out of the way and taking the lead.  They were actively engaged; sitting in every meeting, always looking over my shoulder.  Reading everything and constantly asking questions.  They were critical and would challenge me.  Often, these were the customers who would stretch me to my own limits and I would find myself walking away from our engagement having learned more than when I started.

On the other hand, there were customers who were passive.  Clients who just locked us in that metaphorical room until we completed the work (hopefully sliding those metaphorical, occasional, pizzas under the door.)  These are the folks that seemed to struggle the most.  Yes, of course, we’d produce documentation for them.  But, they were operating under the mistaken belief that all we had to do is just produce documentation of our work, hand it to them, and this would be enough to know and understand all that we had done.  In the end, these were the folks who were the most unhappy, who struggled as we walked out the door, and who often failed to be able to continue on without us.

The management challenge then is to figure out how to reap the benefit of a consulting engagement by having staff learn from the experts why they are there.  Of course, one can’t force people to be passionate about something new coming at them.  If they are, great, then things get simple.  If they aren’t then one sure way is to shift documentation responsibility from consultant to staff.  Let the consultant define the template and structure of the documentation to be produced but let your staff produce it.  Review it with them, discuss it together.  Even have the consultant attend these meetings with the understanding that she/he will sit there and say nothing.

If the thing being learned has the element of repetition, being involved in the first iteration and producing documentation of it enhances the observation and involvement in the later iterations.  This, again, helps to deepen knowledge and experience.  If possible, press your team to move from observation of the consultant to observation by the consultant so your staff can move from observing to doing while the expert is there.

Work with your expert and encourage him/her to rate your people with you, explore their strengths and weaknesses, and use this to guide what else is needed for true knowledge transfer to take place.

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