Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Retaining Business-Critical Knowledge

Storytelling, shadowing, and mentoring are only part of an effective knowledge retention and transfer program.

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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Knowledge retention and transfer (KRT) is a very important leadership function for any organization. KRT is a process that strives to identify business-critical knowledge and build effective mechanisms to shift that knowledge so that it is retained by the organization. The American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC) has led efforts to share information and best practices about KRT.1,2

We all work in knowledge-intensive businesses. Each of our businesses has knowledge that is critical to business success. It might be around work processes, methods, manufacturing, or customer interactions. People spend their careers building the knowledge that is key to success in their positions. KRT helps shift from a focus on individual learning to organizational learning.

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There are several challenges that organizations face to effectively implement KRT:

  • Lack of time
  • Lack of funding
  • Little interest among senior staff in teaching their younger colleagues
  • Little interest among younger staff in listening to their senior colleagues
  • Lack of effective KRT tools

We work in a “do more with less” work environment. In this lean and optimized business world, time is perhaps the most valuable asset of any organization. If protecting business-critical knowledge is important to the organization, then prioritizing time for it will be a critical factor in the KRT plan.

While we work hard to hire and develop staff who are intrinsically motivated,3 we often need to explain why KRT is important. It is our responsibility to educate our staff about why sharing important knowledge is crucial to our business success, and why learning from the experienced people is equally crucial. Many senior staff may look at their experience and knowledge as their job security. Younger staff may not realize the value of the knowledge held by their senior colleagues.

With all these barriers to KRT, what are the risks of not prioritizing KRT? The key risk is the loss of important knowledge for the business. Some examples of key knowledge losses include the following:

  • Loss of a key work function
  • A key work function takes much longer than before
  • A key work function costs much more than before
  • Significant mistakes are made, and mistakes cost money and irritate customers

An approach to KRT

An approach to KRT has three different key activities:

1. Evaluating the importance of the knowledge held by individuals

2. Focusing people development actions on KRT projects

3. Using a variety of tools to accomplish the knowledge transfer

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has shared a very effective prioritization tool for making decisions about the criticality of knowledge and the timescale of the risk.4 We have fully adopted the TVA critical knowledge grid, shown in Figure 1. The critical knowledge grid describes both the business criticality of the knowledge (ranging from generally known to irreplaceable) and the timescale of the risk of losing the knowledge (typically two to six years). It is very important when using the critical knowledge grid to be very clear about the definitions and assumptions used to describe both the x and y axes. It is also vital to be very specific when making the entries in the table, so that actionable decisions can be made. The high-priority KRT opportunities will be located in the upper-right portion of the grid.

Figure 1. Critical knowledge grid developed by TVA. The grid enables the prioritizing of KRT decisions based on the risk of people leaving and the criticality of their knowledge.

Once the key KRT priorities are defined, it is important to identify the people who will be involved in the projects. Both the current holders of the critical information and the appropriate receivers of the knowledge need to be selected. After selecting the people for the KRT projects, it is vital to include the KRT projects in both groups’ annual performance objectives. Including KRT projects in annual objectives keeps them visible to both the participants and leadership, ensures that we budget sufficient time and funding for these projects, and ensures that we commit only to the KRT projects that are truly business critical.

The final piece of the KRT puzzle is having sufficient tools to enable effective and efficient transfer of the knowledge. Table 1 shows the key tools we use for our KRT projects:

Table 1. Effective KRT tools.

Tacit knowledge is the “head” knowledge picked up by people through their experiences. Tacit knowledge is very difficult to write down and can be both the most important knowledge in the workplace and the most difficult to transfer. Explicit knowledge is the concrete knowledge that is readily written down and documented.

Effective KRT tools

Storytelling is a very effective tool for sharing information and knowledge. People naturally use stories as a way to communicate and teach. In using storytelling as a KRT tool, we want to focus on the people who have a stake in preserving the significant knowledge in the organization. Storytelling can be accomplished through many different media:

  • Simply asking someone to tell his or her story
  • Using interviews with directed questions
  • Holding panel discussions with multiple people to tell parts of the story from different perspectives
  • Creating written accounts
  • Producing edited video segments

Storytelling brings several benefits:

  • It captures tacit knowledge.
  • It is effective for transferring knowledge from a few people to many listeners.
  • It is easy.
  • Stories capture people’s attention and can result broad participation.

Storytelling is easy to arrange, easy to do, and relatively uncomplicated. The real value of the tool is what the audience hears.

Lessons learned
Lessons learned is a relatively simple learning tool pioneered by the US Army.5 It is straightforward and flexible. Lessons learned can be done at the beginning of a project, in the middle of a project, or at the end of a project or event.

A lessons learned event focuses on the answers to five simple questions:

  • What did you expect to happen?
  • What actually happened?
  • Why?
  • What can we learn?
  • What will we do with the learning?

Lessons learned brings several benefits:

  • Insight into why things were done
  • Easy to use
  • Flexible – can be done with small or large groups
  • Perfect for work teams
  • Builds a habit of learning

While often focused on understanding what went wrong, lessons learned is also very effective at identifying what went right.

Shadowing pairs employees to help transfer knowledge from one to the other. The learner watches the experienced employee do the work that contains the knowledge that needs to be transferred. It enables the pair to work closely together for some important work content. Since the learner watches the work, the learner will see how it is done and learn about the decisions that are critical in accomplishing the work.

Shadowing brings several benefits:

  • Learn first, execute later
  • Often a prelude to on-the-job training later
  • Specific skills learned from an experienced employee
  • No travel
  • Low cost
  • Good way to start an employee in a new area

On-the-job training
On-the-job training (OJT) is the flip side of shadowing. In OJT, the roles of the learner and the teacher are reversed. In OJT, the employee learning the new skill does the work with close oversight by the experienced employee. OJT provides the security required for the learner to execute the work, but for any mistakes or problems to be rapidly corrected by someone with more experience.

The benefits of OJT are similar to the benefits of shadowing:

  • Learn specific skills
  • Learn from an experienced employee
  • Transfer the knowledge through specific training
  • No travel
  • Low cost

Mentoring matches junior employees with specific senior employees. One key responsibility of mentors is to transfer culture and behavior, in addition to knowledge. We want to choose mentors who will transfer the culture and behaviors we want for the future of our organization. By understanding the key strengths of our experienced staff, we can match mentors to learners to focus on specific areas.

Mentoring brings several benefits:

  • Mentors can work with more than one learner at a time
  • Spreads some of the mentor’s critical knowledge to a wider group
  • Transfers tacit knowledge through shared problem-solving
  • Helps transfer institutional knowledge

Documentation can be a very effective tool for sharing explicit knowledge. To really gain the benefits of documentation for KRT, we need to expand the typical written record that occurs in the normal course of business. We need to emphasize both documentation and archiving. If we write it down but can’t retrieve it in the future, KRT is not accomplished. We may also want to ask experienced staff to write down additional information, such as including comments around how and why, in addition to what and how much. We may also want to include documentation of how decisions were made.

Nontraditional methods of documentation can also yield important KRT benefits; for example, using wikis and blogs provides the opportunity to capture and transfer additional knowledge within the organization.

Documentation brings several benefits:

  • Allows a focus on explicit knowledge
  • Preserves a written record to share into the future
  • Forces concepts to be written in words
  • Enables key facts to be transferred
  • Enables a broad audience to find the information

Additional KRT activities

In addition to using these KRT tools, we’ve found two other activities to be very valuable parts of a KRT project: early succession hires and phased retirements. Early succession hires can provide the overlap required to transfer key knowledge to the new employee. If we can understand the financial impact on the business of the knowledge loss that will occur when the incumbent leaves, we can create an effective business case for an early hire. If the benefits are sufficient, we can gain the funding to hire the replacement early.

The second activity is phased retirement. By having senior contributors ease into retirement by going from a full-time status to a part-time status to acting as consultants, we can greatly increase the overlap with the replacements, providing much greater opportunity to be successful with KRT. We also find that the individuals appreciate the opportunity to transition to full retirement.


KRT is a vital management function. We need to understand what knowledge in our organizations is business critical and formulate effective projects to retain and transfer that knowledge. Effective KRT programs include:

  • Identification and prioritization of business-critical knowledge
  • Identification of the right people to participate in the projects
  • Development of effective goals for the participants, which are included in their annual objectives
  • Use of effective tools to enable the transfer

By using KRT effectively, we can manage the risk to our businesses of losing critical knowledge.


I would like to thank key colleagues who have helped us develop and use KRT. My colleagues on the leadership team at Intertek Allentown who helped with the implementation of KRT were Sherri Bassner, Paula Mc- Daniel, and Todd McEvoy. My colleagues from the Air Products Knowledge Management team who worked with me on KRT were Vince Grassi, Donna Thompson, Karen Castillo, and Morrie Kapitan. I would also like to thank TVA for the critical knowledge grid and APQC for the chance to learn from other companies about KRT.