Knowledge Transfer: Starting It Out Right

By Jacques Murphy October 22, 2007

Volume 2 Issue 4from PRODUCT MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES
A Weekly Newsletter of Tips For Companies that Develop Software

When a new version of the product is in the works, and the Product Manager and the rest of the team is making the checklist of everything that needs completing for the product launch, it's easy to remember some things. Usually documentation and online help get done on time, as do press releases, maybe some sales training, and perhaps updates to collateral. But there's one important thing that companies forget to build into their plan time and time again: knowledge transfer.

It seems like a basic thing that after a whole lot of work is done to build great capabilities into the software, there will be an organized and thorough effort to roll out an understanding of those new capabilities to the entire organization. Yet I have rarely seen this to be the case.

It's as if Development was focusing on existing and future external customers as the only customer, when a major group of customers are those people at your company who serve its external customers: trainers, consultants, custom programmers, customer care reps, and sales engineers.

Read on for tips on putting together an effective knowledge transfer effort for each new release of your software.

Effective Knowledge Transfer

Effective knowledge transfer benefits from combining the elements below in a way that works best for your company.

Selecting the Right Trainers

Most, if not all, of the individuals who will be explaining the new capabilities will come from the Development department. While some of the more technical explanations may require engineers or coders, if the documentation function is integrated into Development, use the documentation writers as the best candidates for clearly explaining new features in a way that a non technical audience can understand.

You may need to punctuate the explanations with descriptions by engineers, and have engineers on hand to field more technical questions.

Of course, if the knowledge transfer session is aimed at technical architects and programmers, you'll need a programmer to explain much of the material at the right level for the audience.

It may be helpful to back up a technically qualified presenter with a second person who can jump in with clarifications for those moments when the point is not getting across and the explanations could stand a little simplifying.

Materials That Are Just Right

The knowledge transfer doesn't have to have extensive training materials to back it up. That's the job of the training department, and comes later. But it does benefit from some formal materials, perhaps a written outline or a few slides.

The main purpose of the materials is to help the audience keep track of the subjects you are covering and the progress of the knowledge transfer session.

The Right Delivery

The idea of conducting solid knowledge transfer inevitably begins to fall down when you start to consider the costs of travel and hotel accommodations to get people together in the same room for standup training. It's too bad that people seldom do the math and realize that the boost in productivity is well worth the expense, but that's life.

If you are not able to bring people from two or three locations for standup training, as a fallback plan you can send a trainer or two to those two or three locations. However, that's often seen as too costly as well.

This is where webcasts can be particularly cost-effective. They can reach people in scattered locations without a need for training facilities.

If webcast technology is not available, remote training can take the form of a conference call, but backed up in that case by some good written materials that everyone uses together.

Repetition

It can be hard to schedule sessions so that everyone can attend. You may be better off holding a series of sessions, scheduled at a regular time such as every Monday afternoon. This helps people remember to attend and helps make sure that everyone who needs training gets a chance to attend.

The Right Focus

Knowledge transfer is a pretty all-encompassing term. There's a lot of knowledge you need to transfer from Development to all the other areas of your company. You want to focus the effort.

First, focus in terms of number. If you want participants to have the chance to productively ask questions, limit the number in one session to about 10 people.

You may be required to focus in terms of the total number of people at the company who attend. If you can only have one or two sessions, you may have to choose one or two representatives from each department. It will be their job to roll out the knowledge to the rest of their department.

You can also focus these sessions in terms of time. You're better off with multiple sessions that are only one to two hours, because people can only focus for so long, particularly if training is via webcast.

Focus your presentation in terms of topics covered. While it would be great to cover everything that is new, break sessions into manageable sets of topics, organized by theme, rather than providing a long laundry list of features.

Finally, if you have various audiences--training and support, marketing, professional services--focus in terms of technical level. Try to provide a business-oriented session for those on the business side. Save the technical detail for a session focused on technical attendees.

Don't Forget Documentation

Much effort has been invested in the documentation and online help. Just like you would train attendees in the new capabilities, train them in what the manual and online help contains. Give them a good orientation of the types of explanations and how to find them. The aim here is to show everyone how they can help themselves.

The Goal Is an Introduction

A knowledge transfer session is not intended to be an exhaustive and exhausting training session in everything you ever need to know about the software. It's intended as an introduction to what's new, an orientation to the new capabilities. If you could aim for one goal, it would be to have everyone leave the session knowing what they need to learn more completely on their own, as opposed to feeling like they learned it all completely.

The bulk of the learning effort is still up to the attendees, after the session.

Encourage Follow Up Within the Department

After the session, it's time for members of individual departments to work together to learn the material in more depth. It may be that only a couple people within the department attended the session.

Each department must complete its learning, focusing on the aspects that are most important to it, on its own.

Handoff to the Right People: Training

Members of Development who provide the training are not required to be the best trainers. This is not the end of the training required. It's just the initial handoff of knowledge to other departments.

While it sounds like a no-brainer to include the trainers in the knowledge transfer, I've seen times where that didn't happen. One of the first goals of knowledge transfer should be to train the trainers. These professionals understand how to impart information to individuals at different levels of business and technical expertise. They can develop more elaborate training including certification for everyone in the company who needs it.

Question and Answer

People who are not in the habit of training others--who are often the ones tasked with the knowledge transfer--have a tendency to hurry through the material and leave no room for questions. It's important to cover the topics at a pace that allows for questions, with pauses and prompts to encourage participants to speak up when they don't understand.

The Right Measurement

Nothing tells you how well Development did at imparting information like a pop quiz. And nothing gets people to pay careful attention during knowledge transfer like hearing that a quiz will be given at the end of the session. So whether it's a surprise or it comes with advance warning, quizzing the participants is very useful.

A quiz makes for a good ending to a good start, your knowledge transfer.

Copyright © 2003 Jacques Murphy. All rights reserved.

Jacques Murphy

Jacques Murphy

Jacques Murphy is a consultant who helps software companies develop their products faster. He does this using a focused process which quickly develops product requirements. Contact him at www.ProductManagementChallenges.com.

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