Knowledge Transfer Challenges for Virtual Teams and Independent Leaders

The importance of Knowledge Transfer is well-recognized across organizations. From on-boarding to promotions, succession planning and expansion, the success of every employee depends largely on the accessibility of critical knowledge and historical context. Well-documented systems can share what is done and how, but understanding why requires effective on-going communication between team members. Most organizations struggle to implement knowledge transfer systems, but they’re especially difficult to execute with two key groups: virtual teams and controlling managers.

Before we dive into the specific challenges for those two groups, it’s important to understand the foundation of any knowledge transfer strategy. For knowledge transfer to work, all parties must be willing, able, and motivated to participate.

Willing—In organizations with low stability, low trust, and high uncertainty, it’s common for employees to avoid knowledge sharing as much as possible in an effort to remain critical/irreplaceable in the organization. Actively avoiding any method of knowledge documentation is used as a survival tactic (though incredibly ineffective).

Able—How the knowledge will be transferred differs greatly across organizations based on circumstance. Formal knowledge transfer can be facilitated through structured on-boarding programs, eLearning courses, videos, podcasts, and manuals. Informal means require frequent communication, mentoring, and coaching.

Motivated—While a recently promoted employee will be highly motivated to on-board his successor so he can move on to his new role, most other employees see knowledge sharing as a time-consuming addition to their regular daily demands/priorities. When an individual is unmotivated to share information, that activity will always fall to the bottom of the day’s priority list and never be completed.

When considering these three foundations for knowledge sharing, it becomes clear why lack of knowledge sharing is especially common for controlling managers and virtual teams. For the past 2 months, I’ve been particularly interested in the challenges one organization close to me has been experiencing. The organization has a senior leader who is incredibly well-respected, high functioning, and successful. For years he has maintained his organization like a well-oiled machine. He is young, healthy, and has no plans to retire. Additionally, he is internally driven by professional success and often characterized as a workaholic by others, so he rarely (if ever) takes vacations or sick days. As a result, he often chooses not to delegate since he knows he will outwork anyone around him, and he can ensure everything will be completed to his satisfaction. For years that worked extremely well, until the bus factor came into play. He didn’t literally get hit by a bus, but he sustained a major head injury while exercising that may jeopardize his career. While he’s recovering and a prognosis is being assessed, the organization is at a total loss. This leader never planned to step away for even a day, and therefore the what, why, and how of his daily activities are a total mystery to all of his team members. They’ve lost months of productivity while trying to breadcrumb their way through daily operations. So, while this leader wasn’t opposed to sharing knowledge, and had an assistant GM in the office next door who was able to learn from him, he just didn’t perceive a need to share information currently. This story is dramatic, and while no one wants to consider the reality of the bus factor, it is a risk that should be discussed openly and mitigated with a knowledge transfer strategy that motivates leaders to participate.

For virtual teams, the most common foundational component missing is the ability to transfer knowledge. Realistically, this is an excuse. In the age of email, chat, Slack, and corporate social hubs, there is no lack of opportunity to document and share information across organizations that are geographically dispersed. However, virtual teams rarely have the same deep relationships between team members as those who office together. Physical proximity plays a major factor in relationship and trust building among team members. As a result, it takes more effort to proactively reach out and ask for or share information. Leveraging social media to stimulate problem solving discussions, brainstorming, collaboration can boost knowledge sharing opportunities as long as are willing and motivated to participate.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that the knowledge transfer strategy that is effective in one part of your organization may not be applicable to another entity. Be flexible in your design given the context of each unique situation, but also be committed to the activities for the long-term. Knowledge sharing isn’t an event. It isn’t even a process. When it’s done effectively, it’s a culture.