Wednesday 5 June 2013

Knowledge Transfer, seeing is believing

73 - Seeing Is Believing, Brian Roscoe I heard a sad but instructive story this week.  The moral of the story is about the credibility of knowledge, and how seeing knowledge for yourself, in context, establishes the necessary credibility for re-use.

This organisation had an effective approach to knowledge sharing.  They would identifying those parts of the business which had knowledge to share (the “supplier” business units), and they would set up knowledge visits from the other business units to come and see for themselves what the supplier business unit had to offer.  The people who came on these learning visits were the operators, the foreman, and the knowledge workers.  They could watch how the supplier business unit did things, they could identify new knowledge and new practices that they could use, and they could see for themselves how things were done.(They could also suggest, and sometimes demonstrate, better practices they used at their own sites, so that knowledge transfer was two-way).

This approach worked.  Because the people coming on the visits were the people who would apply the knowledge, and because they could see that knowledge in context, they could go home convinced that they had seen a new and better way to do things.  Seeing was believing.  Knowledge was transferred, best practices reapplied, and significant cost savings resulted.

Then management changed the system.  They believed that transferring knowledge in this way was expensive, as each knowledge transfer involved sending somebody to another country.  Cost pressure meant that there was a restriction on travel budgets, and they decided to do things a different way.  Instead of sending the operators, the foremen and the knowledge workers, they decided to send a few company experts instead.  The theory was that the experts would then come back and spread the knowledge around the other operating units, delivering knowledge transfer more cheaply.

What happened was that because the operators and knowledge workers had not personally seen the knowledge in use, the suggestions that the experts brought back lacked credibility.  The experts found it very difficult to get people to reuse knowledge which they had not personally seen in use.  Because they hadn't seen, they didn't believe, or at least they didn't trust.  The rate of knowledge reuse dropped.

Eventually the entire system was cancelled.  Now the different operating units work in silos, with no sharing and reuse of best practice.

The moral of the story, of course, is that if you wish to transfer knowledge to somebody, then you should involve them first-hand in the transfer wherever possible.  It’s very difficult for experts to transfer knowledge on someone else’s behalf.  Seeing is believing, and seeing first-hand is important.  Certainly this may require an investment in travel, but the investment pays for itself in improved performance.  Trying to save some of the money risks losing all of the value, and the key people to involve in the knowledge transfer are the knowledge workers themselves.

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