Knowledge transfer and succession: not just for the c-suite

A few weeks ago, I attended the IRI (Industrial Research Institute) conference, here in Seattle. During one of the receptions, I spoke with a man (let’s call him Dave) who is retiring in six months from a company ranked high in Fortune’s Top 500. Dave has built his career at the company from which he’ll retire. Our conversation revealed he truly enjoys his work, thinks highly of company he works for, and although he has considered retiring before, he just did not feel the time was right – until now.

Although Dave is in a non-executive position, he is a specialist. I asked Dave if he had chosen his successor. “Sort of…” Dave told me. And he explained three individuals were being considered to fill Dave’s position. However, none of the three candidates had been informed they were being considered for the position and none of the three were direct reports to Dave. I asked, “Where will all of your knowledge go?”

The company has knowledge management system software, he explained. And then he added, “It isn’t used often.” This admission did not surprise me; I have heard this from others whose companies have similar software programs. Ideally, these software systems create a library or repository of useful and perhaps proprietary information that can be utilized by others in the organization. It represents a kind of “wiki” where employees can research answers to their particular challenges at work. It sounds incredibly efficient, but I suggest two reasons why a knowledge management system alone cannot serve to transfer knowledge: Self-inflicted redundancy and a tradition of oral history.

Even if they have the time to input their knowledge into the database, employees have concerns about voluntarily making themselves redundant. As one person I spoke with said, “I want people to ask me about what I do and then we figure out how I can help them. Interacting with my colleagues and helping them solve problems is a part of the job I enjoy!” Further, this way of handling knowledge lacks a certain something, a break in connection with the information. This brings me to the second reason…
Human beings have survived, in part, through a tradition of oral history. At its most basic level, this oral history helped us learn what food we could eat, how to care for our young, and which hill or riverbank was the safest place to house ourselves. I propose sharing knowledge at work, through a discussion with someone, creates an organizational oral history and serves the same survival purposes for the employee and the organization.

One way to continue this “tradition” is to make knowledge transfer part of one’s annual goals. This is particularly important for those in leadership roles who not only have developed expertise, but also are in a position to identify others with whom they can share their knowledge. Knowledge developed by specialists and leaders in organizations represents a type of intellectual property. It may not see the desk of in-house counsel or result in patented information, but it holds value to the organization and should be transferred to others within. Unfortunately, in a few months this particular company will watch Dave – and an extensive amount of knowledge pertinent to the company and knowledge they “own” – walk out the door.