Well, Whaddya Know? The Myth of Knowledge Transfer

Part of my practice involves working with organizations – and individuals therein – going through transition and transformation. Often, cases of drastic (read: traumatic) change involves helping them deal with the aftermath of a merger or acquisition.

Imagine you’re on the “acquired” side of such a transaction. Your potential new boss schedules a series of debriefing meetings in which you are asked to participate in “knowledge transfer”—tell us everything you know about your newly acquired division, its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, competitive position, operations capabilities, and so forth. Clients have told me that such situations are not all that uncommon, and it leaves them feeling tremendously vulnerable, and worse: not valued or appreciated for who they are, what they’ve contributed to the organization over the years, nor what they yet could contribute to the newly re-formed enterprise. They often feel like once they have had their brains sucked dry, as it were, they will be dispatched to the brown-envelope-in-the-boardroom meeting, and from there to the outplacement counsellor.

“Tell us what we need to know” (sometimes) works as a strategy in a bad spy thriller (especially when delivered in a cheesy foreign accent). It rarely works as even a well-intentioned approach when dealing with the total realm of knowledge that is the heart, soul, and brains of an otherwise viable business operation. The idea that anyone can learn all relevant knowledge “while standing on one foot,” as the ancient sage was once challenged, is not only a foolish endeavour, but demonstrates a fundamental lack of respect for the individual and a lack of understanding of the 21st-century business environment.

Once upon a time, one could argue that a job could be specified completely in terms of its rote function, the information contained therein, and a relatively finite set of well-defined interactions. Any individual with the requisite training and experience could replace any other in that job—“human resources” was an unfortunate, if accurate, description of people considered as little more than replaceable machine parts in an industrial process. Even today, hiring processes driven by parsed and processed résumés only serve to reinforce and reproduce this mentality.

In that context, a “knowledge transfer” of information and defined skills might be possible to enable the new organization to take over the functional responsibilities contained in the old. But information and skills – “know-what” and “know-how” – are only two parts of three aspects that comprise holistic knowledge. The third encompasses who the person is, how they show up in their role, their entire personal history of experiences, their connected network, and their personal ability for sense- and meaning-making. I’ve described the three aspects as savoir (information knowledge), savoir faire (skill-based knowledge), and savoir être—the knowledge embodied in the person’s way of being in the world. Of the three, in the business context of the 21st-century, the last one turns out to be the most critical for an enterprise’s sustained success, growth, and future innovation.

For organizations in the process of assimilating a newly acquired division or subsidiary, the challenge today is not to find scalable efficiencies as was once the case. Rather, it is searching for ways to scale the capability of the entire enterprise by merging knowledge networks and discovering new, strategic adjacencies among everyone’s three aspects of knowledge. It is not knowledge management so much as it has become knowledge emergence that is the critical challenge for contemporary leaders, especially when transforming two organizations into one.

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