Top 10 ways IT managers can support knowledge transfer

Effective knowledge transfer requires the guidance of IT managers who understand how to build and support peer mentor relationships. These practical suggestions will help you cultivate the right mentors, clarify roles and expectations, and facilitate learning and information sharing on your team.

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By Steve Trautman

During the 15 years since I wrote the Peer Mentoring Workshop to teach engineers at Microsoft how to transfer knowledge to their co-workers, I've helped many IT managers figure out how they can support their teams better. The following is a list of advice to IT managers who want to improve communication, on-the-job training, cross training, and the onboarding of their new employees.

#1: Pay attention to who is transferring knowledge and pick the right people

I'm often asked whether anyone can be a peer mentor, and the answer is no. There are two requirements. First, the peer mentor has to be competent. Now that may sound obvious, but if you look around your organization, you may find people who teach others just because they're nice, enjoy talking, or because it gets them away from having to do something else. Ask yourself whether the peer mentors in your organization all have a skill set you want to replicate in others. If so, you've got a good foundation. If not, you have some work to do in ensuring the right people are transferring knowledge.

The second requirement for a good peer mentor is that they have to want to do it. You don't have to be a "people person" or good with words, but I've found that you do have to have a personal motivation. As a manager, you should be able to help your subject matter experts find their reasons for mentoring. The reasons could include spending less time answering repeat questions or cleaning up mistakes. Some mentors want to shape the way things get done or move on to another role. Whatever the reason, the motivation should be clear up front.

#2: Clarify the different roles of manager and peer mentor

The role of the peer mentor can easily be confused with the role of the manager. This can cause the two to overlap on some areas and completely skip some important tasks. Managers can invite mentors into a brief meeting to discuss roles. For example, who will assign tasks? Who will monitor the quality of the apprentice's work and who will give feedback? If you take a few minutes to detail your expectations, you'll reduce the risk of problems.

#3: Offer some advice to the apprentices

An apprentice can be anyone who has anything to learn. The most obvious case is when a new employee joins a team. Other examples include cross-training, working with an outsource partner, and handing off work from one team to another. In every situation, advice can be offered to the apprentices to help them take more responsibility for their own learning. This could include how to prepare a problem-solving question, the best way to interrupt a mentor, what to do when you need to escalate a problem, and what documentation to use (or avoid) when researching a topic. As a manager, you can help the mentor shape some advice and present it to the apprentices.

#4: Set up a meeting to ensure that everyone is on board

Once you identify the people in the mentoring relationship and clarify roles, the three of you (manager, mentor, and apprentice) should meet briefly to discuss the expectations of the relationship. In this meeting, you'll "deputize" the peer mentor and help the apprentice know when and how the three of you will work together. This reduces the likelihood that the apprentice will get confused or upset if given direction by the peer mentor. It also lets the apprentice know that you've been thinking about this relationship and have a plan to get it off on the right foot and make it successful.

#5: Be sure that the basics are covered early on

It's common for on-the-job training to start with teaching a skill before preparing the foundation. You should ensure that either you or the mentor take care of the basics before you let any training begin. Some examples include setting up the workstation with the right version of the software, providing passwords, explaining some vocabulary, pointing out the current documentation, introducing the apprentice to the right team members, and getting them on the right e-mail distribution lists. Skipping any of these elements can lead to a host of problems that are easily avoided with a little preparation.

#6: Explain the big picture

Do you know anyone who really gets the big picture? Most people answer "yes" when I ask that question. I always follow it up with, "What the heck is the big picture?" and I get a blank stare. We talk about the big picture and we all know it's important, but we don't really do a very good job of putting a finger on what it means.

Here's a suggestion: The big picture is the map we expect our employees to use to find their current location, locate the goal, and then plan how to get from one place to the next. What information is needed to put them "on the map"? I suggest that you talk about your customers, suppliers, standards, process flow, success metrics, competitors, market conditions, and risks. Give your mentor/apprentice pairs this information as a way of developing context for the work in front of them. They'll use it to set priorities and solve problems.

#7: Clarify exactly what you want the mentors to teach

If you need an apprentice to develop a skill set so that he or she can take on a task, you should be explicit about your expectations. Don't say, "Be familiar with our backup systems." Instead, frame the skill in terms of the work you want the apprentice to do. Start with a verb and then be clear about the work to be done. Say, "Run the backup utility for the sales division server." Even complex jobs can be broken down this way and if you make a clear list of the skills you want the apprentice to develop, you're more likely to get them.

#8: Provide tools that individuals can use to transfer knowledge

One common complaint I hear from managers is that they wish their people would share more information. The trouble is that there is skill involved in transferring knowledge and many people don't have that skill. So if you want your people to transfer knowledge, you should provide them with training, support, and tools to help them along. You can give them training plan templates, lesson plan templates, models for status reports, strategies for managing communication, learning styles advice, and approaches to giving feedback. These tools will help your employees help each other.

#9: Say thanks once in a while

Most peer mentors understand that transferring knowledge isn't going to get them a bonus or a ticker tape parade. They do it because there is a need and because they're a team player. Still, it is hard work and your whole team depends on them to teach what they know, so you should notice the effort once in a while. Start by making a list of all the people on your team and their areas of specialty. Then, think about how much you rely on that employee to share information. Consider how much chaos there might be if this employee stopped doing on-the-job training. Now, go and say, "Thank you."

#10: Show them how it's done

The best managers are good at knowledge transfer themselves and model the behaviors they expect from their peer mentors. At the heart of it all is good communication, a direct approach to managing expectations, and an eye for results. You have the opportunity to help promote consistent movement of information within your team by supporting what's working and noticing what isn't working. Every bottleneck has a predictable solution and it is your job to lead the way.

Steve Trautman is the author of the Peer Mentoring Workshop and a new book published by Prentice Hall called Teach What You Know.