Reducing Transition Risk Through Conversation-Intensive Knowledge Transfer

Blog Topic: 
Shared Insight In Action

When transitions occur between one leader or leadership team and the next, there is a significant risk of losing knowledge and relationships.  The results can be devastating for the leadership team, external relationships, and employee morale. In this article we learn about the nature of knowledge loss, how conversation-based knowledge transfer approaches can help, and how five organizations have improved the effectiveness of transitions by using the Knowledge Jam. By Katrina Pugh, AlignConsulting, November 12, 2011.

What’s "transition risk"?

The greatest risk of leadership transitions is the loss of hidden know-how. Losing the knowledge and relationships of executives and their teams, either through executive exits or restructurings, can result in the loss of strategic continuity, process destabilization, and a drop in employee morale. Sometimes a break with the past may be appropriate and even helpful, but failure to understand the leverage points, best practices and networks can spell downfall for new leadership. The leadership team may fracture due to lost relationships. Talent may defect or “check out.” Deals may be stalled, markets missed, and external relationships compromised. For example, in a large Financial Services firm, the departure of the president stalled dozens of change initiatives, and threatened just as many vendor contracts and employee careers.

What are organizations trying to do about this?

Organizations are trying to “preserve” knowledge through conducting interviews with executives, mentoring or staging role-overlap with successors, executive journaling or video blogging, and even curating the executives’ personal file system. These processes generally go in one direction, missing the much of the situational wisdom of the executive, producing content that is not very easy to use, or putting content into a locked or obscurely organized repository. We call these problems with traditional knowledge preservation blindspots, mismatches and jail, and they can bog down the final days of the executive and produce little valuable, scalable knowledge for the successor teams.

Why is conversation-based knowledge-transfer a better approach?

A conversation between executives and their successors or business partners has the benefit of drawing out content that is relevant and clear. By capitalizing on story-telling and facilitation, participants in a conversation pose pointed questions out of need, and they drive for clarity. The interaction, or “jam,” brings out the type of tacit knowledge that the leader may not have recorded on their own, in an “exit interview,” or even in an intimate mentoring session with their immediate successor.

Katrina Pugh’s book on leading the “Knowledge Jam,” called Sharing Hidden Know-How (Wiley, 2011), describes a knowledge-sharing conversation focused less on capturing knowledge, and more on putting knowledge to work. It covers the practical step-by-step Knowledge Jam approach, as well as the Jam’s underlying disciplines and heritage.  The Jam conversation is facilitated, concentrated (90 minutes), transparent (captured in a shared visual in real-time), and actionable (engaging those who will apply the knowledge in a practical discussion of what they can do or lead others to do. It also capitalizes on the best practices from intelligence acquisition, organizational learning, and collaboration technology.

Examples of leadership or leadership team transition knowledge jams:

Leading mutual funds manager Fidelity Investments transitioned its India information technology operations from one part of the country to another, shifting much of the leadership. They used knowledge Jam to surface insights about critical applications and their users.  The focus was on insights that were not written down, and that could have significantly compromised future application development or performance.

IT strategy consultant Intel Solution Services transitioned teams almost daily, all over the globe. Though there was rigorous process documentation, local improvisation, problem-solving and industry-specific insights were often kept in the heads and hard-drives of consultants. Intel used the Knowledge Jam to surface consultants’ adaptive approaches to process, product, and customer-management. This accelerated the revisions to the shared processes, and helped to shorten the learning curves of new teams.

Biofuels research Forest Bioproducts Research Institute (FBRI) needed to rapidly capitalize on learnings during its three-year incubation phase as an NSF Initiative as it transitioned into an independent institute. It needed to improve commercialization planning techniques for new chemical and biological engineering processes, and to more quickly onboard funders, faculty, and student-researchers. By using the Knowledge Jam FBRI identified ways to improve the efficiency of several multi-disciplinary or multi-university processes, improved its positioning with current funders, and improved attractiveness to the Board of Governors of the University of Maine, who approved its new institute charter.

Consumer energy “market maker” CurrentChoice used a Knowledge Jam to accelerate its media planning in anticipation of entering a major US market. A web-based education provider and matchmaker between consumers and independent energy suppliers, CurrentChoice was transitioning from development to production operations, and sought to capitalize on the deep social media knowledge in its extended creative team. The Knowledge Jam brought out relevant insights on the market’s current awareness, the sequence of messages, and the balance of traditional press with education- and social-interactive sites.

Top New England boarding school, Concord Academy (CA), did a Knowledge Jam with its much larger neighbor, Harvard College. A retiring fundraising executive from Harvard College joined in a discussion with CA’s fundraising staff. Prompted by pointed questions from the smaller organization, she shared insights on managing and soliciting significant donors, engaging volunteers, and bequeath gifts. As a result, the CA fundraising team improved training for its fundraising professionals and volunteers,  expanded the breadth of legacy gifts, and piloted new language with significant donors.

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