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The Throughly Modern Dilemma of Knowledge Transfer

Posted by Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin

Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin is editor-in-chief for PM Solutions Research, and the author, co-author and editor of over twenty books on project management, including the 2007 PMI Literature Award winner, The AMA Handbook of Project Management, Second Edition.

It was a gorgeous, cool and sunny morning in Los Angeles when I checked in at the PMI Congress, stoked to deliver my first PMI session in eight years, on our strategy research. Stepping into my first session, I realized one thing had not changed … that dim, gloomy convention center lighting …!  Luckily my first session, on knowledge management, was presented by Ben Anyacho of the Texas DOT: definitely a presenter to wake up the crowd. I appreciated his focus on the people side of KM, because as you know if you read last week’s blog, I think an over-focus on software tools is a mistake. Ben hammered this point home by advocating for “living lessons learned”: knowledge transfer that is rooted in relationship and communication.

Sharing knowledge makes companies more sustainable by building bench strength as tacit knowledge is transmitted. Anyacho noted that this will become ever more important as baby boomers retire. Being one of those boomers myself, I had a recent experience with the truth of this, when I was the only one who remembered we had a detailed presentation about a certain topic that we were scrambling to find information on, dating back a few years, which had been created by a former employee. I just signed up for Medicare, so the importance of my passing along my institutional knowledge about an enterprise where I have worked longer than almost everyone except the company founders suddenly stood out in high relief for me. 

But there are additional human equation barriers to knowledge transfer as well, as some of the questions by attendees indicated, within teams where expertise is hoarded as team members compete with each other for promotions, as well as between silos where information hoarding may equal power or access. We will have to develop human-scale answers to these human problems, because technology is not going to save us from ourselves. Although there is definitely a role for virtual teaching and learning, for online connection and sharing, and for software mediated collection and storage of data, the degree to which we begin by focusing on the human element will be the success factor in all our knowledge management efforts. 

Even low-tech methods of knowledge transfer did not work all that well. Ben noted that, “An employee manual is not knowledge transfer for most people because most people don’t read it,” (Ow. Guilty as charged, here.) and that 67% of people want to learn face-to-face.

Software is only useful to the extent that it connects people and allows them to share their knowledge with each other; another statistic Ben shared was that knowledge retention multiplies exponentially when newly learned information is shared with others. Knowledge, he stressed, has to be transferred not merely into repositories or bits and bytes, but into “head, hands and heart.”

My take: throughout the long pre-industrial history of human culture, we have understood how to do knowledge transfer. In fact, knowledge transfer is what culture is for. We did it by apprenticeship, through learning by doing, with the young observing and helping their elders. The first advance in KM was the invention of writing, then the publishing of books, which are a technology for knowledge storage and transfer. So far so good. But with the advent of industrial schooling, we began to separate learning from doing. Our task now is to rebridge the gap. Person to person, mediated and supported by technology, but not replaced by it.

When I was about five, our elderly neighbor, Mrs. Peterman, taught me how to cross-stitch, and how to make a flower out of embroidery yarn by using a French knot. I have forgotten a lot of what I subsequently “learned” in school, but that knot, and the clear image of her hands, will never leave me.

The bottom line: technology mediates knowledge transfer, but can also dilute it, by taking the emotional element away. This is something that, as a company that provides both face-to-face classroom experiences as well as virtual training, we think about that lot. As we develop new technologies we should keep in mind the critical element of human connection and the way that learning shared is learning intensified. This also points to a bigger role for PM mentors, consultants, trainers, coaches, as research and experience has shown us how expert knowledge can raise the performance level of everyone it comes in contact with.

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