Knowledge Transfer: Effective Practices in Adverse Circumstances

Knowledge transfer is a key behavior for virtually every organization which has ever existed, allowing different elements to both better coordinate joint action and more effectively pursue their individual objectives. Effective knowledge transfer is of even greater importance in time-critical, high-risk, and high-stakes situations, particularly because such circumstances tend to have a deleterious effect on routine procedures, including established knowledge transfer protocol. Moreover, different organizations often have relatively different bodies of critical knowledge, internal structures between which knowledge is transmitted, and types of high-stress situations to confront and overcome.

We’ll examine three articles this time, each dealing with a different type of organization dealing with different stresses and the knowledge transfer practices they use to overcome those circumstances. The intent is to use that collation to form a broader perspective on useful, generally applicable methods for streamlining and encouraging transfer of useful knowledge in a timely manner in trying situations, as well as ways in which organizations can design their knowledge transfer systems to avoid or minimize the effects of crises before they happen.

Lucas deals primarily with the last of those, emphasizing the importance of trust and reputation between individuals both within a single organization and as representatives of cooperating organizations. More specifically, his three hypotheses (each supported by the data) are that trust between colleagues, the reputation of the knowledge provider, and the reputation of the knowledge receiver each play a role in facilitating the smooth transfer of knowledge. As he notes, his study is of a single organization’s practices–however, the findings are general enough to apply to many others which operate under similar conditions (2005).

Most importantly for our purpose here, Lucas argues that:

 From a practical perspective, one cannot overemphasize the importance of creating an appropriate environment for knowledge transfer. The success of any strategy aimed at improving the chances for the successful transfer of organizational practices requires a major shift in the thinking of employees. Employees must see these practices as things to be shared throughout the company and not to be controlled for the benefit of their departments. (2005).

In other words, he has provided us with a strong general rule for any organization which has a regular need to transfer knowledge between different internal elements, one focusing on the elimination of factionalism within the organization, instead implicitly encouraging the propagation of knowledge and skills to any and all individuals and groups within the organization that can make use of them.

In their illumination of AMTC’s reaction to the ECR recall crisis of the mid to late 2000s, Wang & Lu make repeated mention of a similar practice in the Taiwanese company, specifically in terms of employee cross-training as a core goal of knowledge transfer both before and during the event of interest; this was accomplished through job transfer opportunities which allowed AMTC employees to directly gain knowledge and experience regarding different facets of its business, which in turn made it easier to coordinate efforts between departments during the crisis (2010). Additionally, they discuss AMTC’s hierarchical mentoring system, which ensures that…

…every newly recruited employee is assigned a mentor on their first day at work. The mentors are responsible for coaching their individual mentees to learn and practice the skills and knowledge necessary to perform their work well through the process of learning by doing. In the crisis investigated, the mentoring system was used as an important means to transfer knowledge… (2010).

Wang & Lu specifically single out this practice as an efficient way of ensuring that tacit knowledge is transmitted to all new employees in the way that a less personal, more formal training program might not.

Likewise, AMTC had developed communities of practice to discuss and share knowledge regarding various issues and operations, which continued to occur throughout the crisis (2010)–this echoes Lucas’ idea of facilitating knowledge transfer by optimizing environmental conditions (2005). Wang & Lu do not directly discuss trust or reputation, but one can reasonably assume that such were present between AMTC employees in order for their formal and informal community meetings to function as effectively as they did. Ultimately, they go on to propose that such communities of practice facilitate knowledge transfer in a way which improves an organization’s ability to recognize and resolve threats with relatively minor harm compared to the same situations if poorly handled (2010).

Finally, Wang & Lu also discuss the role of thorough documentation as a key resource for critical decision making. They make particular note of AMTC’s internal information system, e-Service:

The e-Service system can be generally divided into two subsystems, which are the intelligence information system (INIS) and the discussion board. The INIS collects and stores all the operational information, including the sales, motorcycle maintenance records, and customer services from over 2000 contracted agencies on a daily basis. The information gathered is analyzed, either automatically or manually, by the AMTC staff, based on a set of predefined principles in order to detect the warning signals of unusual events. (2010)

This system was, as they note, used to predict the crisis, and to coordinate the response to it on all levels from high-level pattern monitoring down to individual technicians exchanging helpful information regarding the repair of individual vehicles.

Thus far, we have dealt with organizations operating either in wholly stable times, or undergoing a single crisis event. Jones & Mahon offer a different perspective on knowledge transfer, focusing on how it is conducted in environments of constant high stress, discussed within the context of military operations.

They combine previous work on the subject of such “high velocity/turbulent environments” (henceforth HVTEs) into a single package for the sake of their argument; we’ll need to understand that to examine the rest of the article.

Simply put, in high velocity/turbulent environments the pace of changes, the magnitude of changes, the interactive effects of change and magnitude, the evolving competitive environment and relationships in the environment place the acquisition, storage and transfer of knowledge in a distinctively new position than that found in lesser environmental situations. (2012).

Jones & Mahon are suggesting that there is a fundamental divide in practice between organizations operating under such conditions and those which have relatively routine, stable knowledge needs. Furthermore, in discussing types of knowledge, they argue that “it is tacit knowledge that is crucial to survival and long-term success”, and that “[tacit] knowledge yields insights necessary for the understanding of explicit knowledge and for the placement of that knowledge in context”, concluding that “tacit knowledge is crucial for success in HVTEs” (2012).

Jones & Mahon go on to describe various elements which assist in knowledge transfer for organizations operating in HVTEs, noting (listed here in no particular order) organizational culture, interpersonal relationships and trust, cross-training, and easy-access high-speed information sharing systems (2012). Notice a trend there?

In fact, virtually all of the practices identified by Jones & Mahon as crucial for organizations in HVTEs were also pinpointed by Lucas, Wang & Lu, or both as important practices for organizations which operate in more stable, slower-paced conditions, which need only to prepare for occasional crises. Jones & Mahon propose that a “tacit knowledge-based approach” to knowledge transfer is better in HVTEs, but suggest that one rooted more in explicit knowledge might be more appropriate for more stable conditions (suggesting that such environments allow for more time to absorb both types of knowledge, whereas HVTEs limit how much explicit knowledge can be absorbed when dealing with a given situation).

The first is sound and well-reasoned, particularly in examples like the one discussed by Jones & Mahon. However, given the situations examined by Lucas and by Wang & Lu, it appears that such a tacit knowledge oriented approach is also crucial to the establishment and maintenance of good knowledge transfer practices even in stable environments. The formation of strong interpersonal relationships based on mutual trust and good reputation deals heavily with tacit knowledge: “impressions” of others, exchange of effective work habits, the building of a working dynamic, &c. Likewise, the formation of an efficient and cooperative organizational culture and the pursuit of cross-training within the same, although assisted by elements relating to explicit knowledge (such as AMTC’s e-Service system), is fundamentally a matter of establishing a shared understanding of elements of tacit knowledge regarding how organizational operations should be conducted.

Essentially, the most basic and widely applicable practices, which form the basis for a great deal of effective knowledge transfer within many organizations, are rooted in the establishment and transfer of shared tacit knowledge regarding the “hows” and “whys” of effective knowledge transfer–tacit metaknowledge regarding knowledge transfer, if you will.

 

References

Jones, N. B. & Mahon, J. F. (2012) Nimble knowledge transfer in high velocity/turbulent environments. Journal of Knowledge Management, 16(5), 774-788.

Lucas, L. M. (2005). The impact of trust and reputation on the transfer of best practices. Journal of Knowledge Management, 9(4), 87-101.

Wang, W. T., & Lu, Y. C. (2010). Knowledge transfer in response to organizational crises: An exploratory study. Expert Systems with Applications, 37(5), 3934-3942.

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Knowledge Transfer: Effective Practices in Adverse Circumstances

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