No matter what business you’re in, subject matter experts are likely in high demand. Your organization needs people with deep know-how and extensive experience to lead, innovate, and solve tough problems. But experts can’t just be islands unto themselves. You also need them to replicate and spread their knowledge by imparting it others.
It’s impossible to build an effective knowledge transfer program without engaging formal and informal subject matter experts. After all, these folks have the most knowledge to convey, especially when it comes to deep contextual understanding of the organization’s products and processes. Experts can play many different roles in knowledge transfer, but APQC groups these into four broad categories:
- Structured elicitation—Experts participate in detailed interviews, knowledge mapping, or similar activities designed to extract their tacit knowledge and record it or transfer it directly to up-and-coming experts
- Peer-based knowledge transfer—Experts contribute knowledge through communities of practice, enterprise social networks, discussion forums, mentoring, or expertise location tools
- Learning sessions and events—Experts serve as instructors, presenters, facilitators, and/or curriculum developers for trainings, webinars, workshops, or other learning activities
- Documentation—Experts create, review, or validate knowledge content relevant to their domain
Even if experts in theory recognize the importance of documenting what they know and preparing the next generation, it can be hard to secure their participation in practice. Most are already overloaded with mission-critical and revenue-driving work, and they may be understandably cranky about taking on “extra” duties. Because of this, knowledge managers must be smart about how they approach experts, what demands they place on them, and the reasons they present for getting involved in KM.
Below are five recommendations for convincing experts to transfer their knowledge—and getting the most value out of the time they give you.
1. Figure out what motivates experts and tap into it.
As with any KM initiative, you need to define the WIIFM (“What’s in It for Me?”). Most experts want the organization to succeed, but they’ll be more motivated if they see a personal benefit. Talk to experts about their pain points: Are they answering the same questions over and over on email? Are they stretched too thin because no one is qualified to take on any of their work? Do they feel underappreciated? If you can, position your knowledge transfer approach as a solution to their pressing problems.
It also helps to present expert knowledge transfer as a prestigious opportunity, instead of just a task to complete. Experts should feel their status is being recognized and their contributions are valued. Linking transfer to career opportunities or a prominent fellows’ program is one way to elevate KM participation. Other organizations accomplish this more informally by enthusiastically promoting experts’ knowledge contributions and emphasizing the legacy they are leaving through transfer.
2. Lay out exactly what you need and how much time it will take.
Experts are more likely to agree to transfer knowledge if you present a clear “ask.” Most want to help, but both they and their managers shy away from vague, open-ended commitments. Some types of transfer are easier to delimit than others, but make sure you’ve thought through the details and can provide a rough estimate of the time commitment.
For example, structured elicitation works best as a limited project with start and end dates, an approximate number of hours needed, and expectations for each participant. Similarly, organizations find it easier to attract mentors when mentorships have clear timelines (typically 3-6 months) and ground rules to reign in the commitment. Communities tend to be less structured when it comes to expert participation, but they still benefit from clear parameters, such as a request to spend 1-2 hours per week answering member questions.
3. Make participating as easy and straightforward as possible.
Map out the knowledge transfer process from the perspective of the expert, and figure out how it can be streamlined. This may involve creating user-friendly templates for experts to use, assigning a facilitator to help experts explore and document their knowledge, or building a system that emails experts targeted forum questions so they don't have to visit the community site and sift through irrelevant posts.
When you talk to experts about their pain points, delve into any barriers that prevent them from engaging in transfer. Metrics are a common hurdle. For instance, I talked to an organization that expected experts to be utilized full-time on billable projects, so any time they carved out to transfer knowledge was a “ding” against their utilization goals. Once the KM leader understood this problem, she was able to create a project code so experts could get credit for the time they spent on KM.
4. Don’t ask experts to do tasks others can take on.
Experts will become frustrated if you saddle them with non-value-added activities such as scheduling webinars, posting content, or adding metadata. It’s much better to pair experts with more junior colleagues who can take on the administrivia involved in knowledge transfer. Free up experts’ time for the contributions only they can make, and assign the rest to content manager, community administrator, learning professional, or mentee.
5. Broaden the pool of expertise to draw on.
A final way to minimize the burden on experts is to rally mid-career professionals to mentor newbies, create foundational knowledge content, and address straightforward questions and requests. Some situations require a full-fledged subject matter expert, but others are easily handled by competent workers who have not yet achieved expert status.
Expertise location tools, such as profiles and AI-driven colleague recommendations, connect newer employees to a range of contacts so they don’t automatically address every question to the official subject matter expert. (These tools also surface emerging and “hidden” expertise.) Communities can encourage non-experts to respond to certain questions, leaving only the most complex for experts. When it comes to authoring, non-experts can prepare documents that experts can review and verify.
Mid-career professionals tend to be open to such opportunities, especially if they are seen as avenues to advancement, but many do not realize they are qualified to transfer knowledge. Clear guidance and encouragement on when, where, and how mid-career people should step in can go a long way to relieve overloaded experts.
For more information on expert knowledge transfer, including examples from best-practice organizations, see Using Experts to Transfer Knowledge. The article is part of our new collection, KM Essentials: How to Transfer Knowledge.