Knowledge transfer: A must imperative

Dhaka,  Tue,  26 September 2017
Published : 18 Aug 2017, 20:23:39

Knowledge transfer: A must imperative

Maswood Alam Khan
There were two types of classmates we had to interact with in our school days. One type was very liberal in distributing their knowledge among their classmates. They enjoyed helping lagging classmates with their homework and often helped an eager classmate in solving a problem on mathematics or understanding a critical lesson. Knowledge, to them, was of no value unless they could flaunt their ability to disseminate their earned knowledge for free. The other type was stingy; they thought if they gave knowledge for free their ranking in the classroom would go down. Interestingly, classmates' liberal and miserly behaviours were also palpable even during exams in dealing with lagging students who needed help in cheating. 

But, when it comes to technical knowledge in workplaces, an experienced technician is a stingy old master. He does not believe in transferring knowledge for free, unless otherwise he is compelled to do so. A wealth of information and expertise that he accumulated over the years made him efficient and productive. He makes himself somewhat indispensable to the company he works in. He deems his technical know-how his personal trade secret. He would even argue that if Coca-Cola company could keep the drink's recipe as their confidential information, why not he should also be allowed to keep his earned knowledge as his own intellectual property!

Employees in an organisation are reluctant to pass along their acquired knowledge to others for various reasons. One reason is their fear of losing job and status as they age and the other is their motive to bargain for promotion or hop jobs for better pay and perks with fewer experts like him available in the job market. Hanging on to their acquired special knowledge gives them a sense of supremacy because they have specific information that no one else has.

One of the most troubling issues employers nowadays face is convincing employees to share their knowledge with fellow colleagues. There are procedures in place whereby employers can train new and old employees with new and old knowledge. To resolve the issue, companies adopt job rotation as an HR strategy to shuffle employees to different jobs and assignments inside an organisation which benefits both employers and employees. Such reshuffles increase the level of motivation among the employees and decrease the employers' level of dependence on experienced employees. In case any veteran employee quits or retires, an employer finds an easy replacement if all employees are trained for all the jobs inside an organisation. But, it is an uphill struggle to nudge employees off their present place of posting no matter how hard a company encourages its employees to share what they have learned on their jobs. Companies pay their workers for their jobs, spends money for their training and have reasons to consider knowledge so acquired on the job as belonging to the organisation and it is justifiable that knowledge so earned be shared. But often, employees do not see it that way.

True, not all employees should be encouraged to share their knowledge. Knowledge sharing differs from industry to industry. There is a need for secrecy as well. People dealing in trade secrets of a company should not be allowed to share their knowledge of sensitive or proprietary information. There should be clear rules and policies as to what should and should not be disclosed and to whom. Unfortunately, in many organisations the guidelines as to what to share and with whom are vague and incomplete. On the pretext of maintaining secrecy, knowledge which can safely be shared is also wrapped under the blanket of secrecy norms, thereby creating pitfalls leading to a work climate where everybody keeps his or her knowledge to themselves, which, in turn, hinders productivity.

It is found that people with critical knowledge have a propensity to protect it as if it were their own property and they are apt to engage in different behaviours to hide knowledge from others. There are reasons, other than the fear of losing jobs, why employees engage in knowledge hiding. One is inter-personal. That includes circumstances when people feel that an injustice has been done to them, they are distrustful of management and feel they are reciprocating for someone else's rude behaviour toward them. Closely related are employees who are unsure of themselves and keep information to themselves. They are afraid of negative job evaluations and figure out that they are better off not sharing anything. 

Organisational climate is also responsible. There are organisations where a culture of 'not sharing' and 'being secretive' is ingrained and employees naturally tend to adopt that culture.

The best way to protect a company from trusting too much in experienced and existing employees is to maintain and update a 'Procedure Manual' or 'Operations Manual'. An Operations Manual or a Procedure Manual is a comprehensive documentation of how a company functions. If written correctly, it should guide someone unfamiliar with the company through the day-to-day procedures for business operation.

The Manual, in addition to providing emergency recovery plan, serves as a constant guide for new trainees and old employees who are rotated around different stations and postings.

Even the selling price of a company goes up when the buyer is provided with an Operations Manual.

An Operations Manual which is continuously updated with new inputs out of emerging circumstances is like an insurance against a possible eventuality like an experienced employee suddenly quitting job without providing notice or scarcity of technical people in the job market.

An office manager or operations manager with good writing skill is typically responsible for writing the Operations Manual. The writer must have knack in details and be able to present the processes step-by-step in a manner that allows someone unfamiliar with the business to perform the tasks independently.

Employees may be encouraged to write in elaborate narratives their day-to-day activities in diaries and thus build data bases of knowledge based on which a variety of manuals and handbooks can be generated. But if workers are not willing to cooperate, these efforts are not very productive. Knowledge sharing, most importantly, requires personal interaction and a spirit of camaraderie among colleagues. Organisations need to enhance the workplace climate and make knowledge sharing and collaboration a norm in their workplaces.

There are, of course, employees who spontaneously and voluntarily transfer their acquired knowledge to their fellow colleagues. Teaching is their inbuilt habit. They are perhaps the type who in their school days were enthusiastic in helping lagging classmates with their homework.

Days of those stingy students and miserly experienced workers are, however, over who once thought knowledge is not meant for free distribution. Internet, especially the Google Search Engine, has opened floodgates for megatons of knowledge and information. Knowledge as digitised materials is now offered freely and openly for educators, students and self-learners to use and re-use for teaching, learning and research.

But googling will never replace the classroom teachings. Nor will the floods of information available over the internet obviate the necessity of creating data bases of knowledge or making Manuals for a company's smooth and efficient operation.

Not only in a business organisation, in every stratum of our societies, even in this age of information technology, gap between the amount of knowledge possessed by the information haves and the amount of knowledge possessed by the information have-nots will foreseeably remain huge. To bridge the gap as far as possible is a modern CEO's job.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
Published by the Editor for International Publications Limited from Tropicana Tower (4th floor), 45, Topkhana Road, GPO Box : 2526 Dhaka- 1000 and printed by him from City Publishing House Ltd., 1 RK Mission Road, Dhaka-1000.
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