Plug the 'Brain Drain'

Strategies for knowledge management and knowledge transfer


According to Brown, companies must be systematic in knowledge sharing to realize the full benefits. "Building a collaborative culture requires a systematic approach to knowledge sharing, and leveraging knowledge for continuous improvement requires changes to a company's culture," he emphasizes.

Brown continues: "It is essential that companies begin their knowledge capture process as soon as possible." In addition, they must be systematic in knowledge sharing to realize the full benefits.


* See Argote, L.; Ingram, P. (2000). "Knowledge transfer: A Basis for Competitive Advantage in Firms". Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 82 (1): 150–169.

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For example, at NASA, in response to its engineering brain drain, the agency set up a network to promote learning and sharing among NASA's engineers. "As a program- and projects-oriented agency, NASA recognized the need not only to gather best practices and review lessons learned, but it was also key that those lessons be shared throughout the whole organization and not just with individual project teams," notes Brown.

Techniques for Knowledge Transfer

According to Thompson, there are two ways in which organizations can pursue knowledge transfer.

One involves formal and traditional processes that have been practiced for decades. These include documented procedures such as instruction manuals, videos, archives, expert systems and job aids, such as flow diagrams, checklists, reference tables and decision trees. "Success here involves increasing documentation for every process and procedure," he says.

The other involves more informal and less traditional processes. "What we have been seeing more in the last couple of years is the desire to capture the experiential knowledge of the workers who are about to retire," he explains. "These are people who have built up knowledge over decades — knowledge that isn't necessarily documented as part of a procedure or process."

According to Thompson, mentoring is at the top of the list here. "Research indicates that this is the most impactful way to relate experiential knowledge, because, if done properly, it allows for a long-term relationship of trust and collaboration between the mentor and the mentee," he explains.

Other related methods include storytelling, lunch-and-learns, critical incident reviews, lessons-learned debriefings and job rotations. With job rotation, individuals are identified on particular career tracks and are rotated on six-month cycles through an organization, so they have the benefit of partnering with experienced leaders in different parts of the organization.

Thompson also cites some external opportunities for knowledge transfer. These include ERP systems, white papers, standards, and collaboration and training with suppliers.

Opportunities can be "sliced and diced" a different way, too. According to J. Kevin Perry, managing director for professional development with SAE International, there are four general opportunity areas to engage in knowledge transfer. These are mentoring programs, internal knowledge capture and share techniques, internal company training and externally sourced training. The latter can include training offered by universities, associations, vendors and alliances. "One of the keys to successful mentoring programs is first being able to successfully anticipate the retirement pattern and the impact that the retirement pattern might have on your company, and then create a program to address it," he adds.

Barriers to Knowledge Transfer

While the need for formal and informal knowledge transfer strategies and programs is pressing, there can be barriers and challenges to knowledge transfer. One, according to Thompson, is the organizational culture and structure. Do these encourage knowledge transfer? And are time and money being set aside for specific initiatives devoted to transferring knowledge?

"If you're interested in trying to have a more structured knowledge capture and sharing strategy, one solution is to try to get management to buy into a scenario where your prospective retirees are allowed to break away one day a week, allowing them to create some knowledge assets, such as case studies or videotaped assets," suggests Perry. If your company is not interested in doing this, you might consider referring these opportunities to other organizations, such as associations, universities or even consulting firms.

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