When employees leave an organization, they take with them a lot more than just a can-do attitude or a killer potluck recipe. Often, important knowledge, such as how to complete a critical compliance report or manage a persnickety client, goes with them.
“When an employee leaves, other team members will attempt to put the puzzle of projects, internal systems, vendor agreements and staff management together, but this can lead to chaos and a lack of productivity,” says Shawn Stout-Jough, SHRM-SCP, CEO and principal consultant of Strategic HR Advisory in San Diego.
And while an overwhelming majority of companies—75 percent, according to a recent Deloitte report—say creating and preserving knowledge is important to them, just 9 percent feel prepared to make it happen. That includes HR departments, 61 percent of which aren’t using knowledge management tools, according to a 2023 report by software provider eGain Corporation.
In many ways, that’s understandable. It can be tough enough to get the day-to-day work done, especially as a solo HR practitioner, much less have time to create a plan to protect against knowledge loss. But making a knowledge transfer plan—which spells out how to capture, store and disseminate the most important operational information—is critical.
Having a knowledge transfer plan can help human resource professionals train employees, boost productivity, and increase employee satisfaction and retention, says John Horn, SHRM-SCP, vice president of human resources for LA Family Housing, a North Hollywood, Calif.-based nonprofit with 525 employees. Here’s how to keep employee know-how intact.
Collect Key Information
To decide what company knowledge is most important to capture, Horn recommends asking a few key questions:
- Which functions and employees are most critical to business operations?
- What knowledge is exclusive to only a certain person or department?
- What tools are necessary for employees to do their jobs?
- What skills does each job require, and which skills do current employees have?
The answers can help you determine what you need to know to continue operating at a high level if one or more employees leave. Lean on technology and company managers to help you identify and gather information, Stout-Jough suggests.
Knowledge capture should be a year-round process, and a knowledge transfer plan should include opportunities to collect that knowledge from various sources, she says.
There are two types of knowledge: explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is more easily recorded and shared—for example, how to process a biweekly payroll or onboard a new employee. Tacit knowledge is less obvious and harder to share. This type of knowledge is often gained through experience or observation, such as a manager learning how to handle an employee reacting unfavorably to a performance review, she says.
Some employees struggle to accurately reflect in writing what they do and how they do it. That’s why it may be more beneficial to have a manager or another employee shadow a departing employee for a day or two, or for an employee to record their day-to-day duties, Stout-Jough says.
Important knowledge, Horn adds, can also be collected by:
- Interviewing or surveying staff about their duties.
- Conducting regular skills assessments to learn which skills are required for which positions, which skills your employees currently have and where you have skills gaps.
- Poring through policy and procedure manuals or shared collaboration documents.
- Holding meetings or focus groups with the sole purpose of collecting knowledge.
Daily standups, project debriefings and staff meetings can also help managers stay on top of the ins and outs of their department, according to Stout-Jough.
“Managers should have weekly meetings with their staff members to discuss initiatives, challenges and achievements,” Stout-Jough says. “Project management technologies are great, but they can’t replace interactions and the knowledge a leader can acquire by speaking directly with their employees.”
Store and Share
How you store company knowledge is almost as important as the information itself. Keep privacy and security concerns in mind, but also ensure that knowledge is easy to access. After all, siloed information is a major barrier to employee satisfaction and collaboration. Yet 36 percent of company leaders say they use three or more knowledge management tools, according to eGain’s survey.
Company knowledge should also be easily searchable.
Stout-Jough recommends establishing standardization policies, such as naming conventions for folders, files and shared drive storage, as well as requirements for how to document progress on ongoing projects.
Also, be sure to regularly “inspect what you expect,” she says. “It’s important to allow employees autonomy in their roles, but also to ensure that company processes are being followed. For example, each month, leaders can set aside time to check files and ensure documents are stored in the preferred method.”
As you collect and store your company’s most vital information, experiment with the best ways to share that information across the organization. Job shadowing is one of the most effective ways for a new employee, or one about to take on a new role, to learn what a colleague does, Stout-Jough says.
Cross-training—teaching employees specific tasks or skills usually done by others—is also a great way to broaden workers’ skill sets and ensure coverage for essential tasks when an employee leaves, is sick or is on vacation.
“Taking the time, be it a day or week, to learn a colleague’s role ensures that the organizational knowledge is maintained in the department, regardless of who leaves or when,” says Alexis Holland, SHRM-CP, an HR compliance analyst with the Milwaukee County, Wis., government, which has 5,000-plus employees.
Allowing employees to share best practices and skills, such as through brown-bag lunch-and-learns or recorded tutorials, can also help disseminate knowledge throughout the organization, Horn says. Employees often have an impressive list of skill sets to share.
Test the Plan
How do you know if your knowledge transfer plan is working? See what happens when an employee goes on vacation. While it’s natural for the workflow to be bumpier while they’re gone, important work shouldn’t come to a standstill.
Also, you can set knowledge transfer goals, such as requiring managers to identify and cross-train a set number of employees in a given period, and then allow those employees to flex their new skills, Horn says.
Certain key performance indicators are good signs of whether your knowledge transfer plan is producing unwanted results, such as changes in customer or employee satisfaction scores, employee productivity levels and the time it takes for new team members to ramp up.
“If onboarding tends to take longer than expected, there may be a problem with your approach to knowledge transfer,” Stout-Jough says.
Inevitably, when an employee leaves an organization, time and resources are lost, Holland says. But a quality knowledge transfer plan means managers don’t have to start from scratch. Instead, they have a foundation of knowledge to help train a new worker even after the employee doing the job leaves.
Jennifer Thomas is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
Image by xdez/iStock.