There are so many ways to learn on our own: reading a book, listening to a podcast, browsing a website, watching a training video or clicking through a slideshow, just to name a few.
But often, people prefer to receive knowledge directly from another person. Sometimes, the best person to deliver the knowledge is a trainer, but some of the most impactful learning comes from connecting a "knowledge seeker" to a seasoned professional with relevant expertise.
One of my favorite thinkers about knowledge transfer is Katrina Pugh, author of Sharing Hidden Know-How. The origin of Pugh's work is knowledge management. Early work in knowledge management attempted to entice knowledge providers to pour their know-how into a vast database, but this tactic didn't work well. Why? Because the experts—the knowledge providers—worked in a bit of vacuum. The missing piece was interaction with knowledge seekers.
Pugh's framework involves three parties. The initiating party is the knowledge seeker (or seekers). They have a specific task they need to accomplish and want advice. This advice will come from knowledge providers who are the second party in the framework. The third party, a facilitator, is useful because seekers and providers may not be skilled at having a productive conversation. Facilitators can swiftly move the process along with a few deft touches. The end result? A successful exchange of know-how.
I think of Pugh's framework in terms of three themes:
Theme 1: Make the knowledge seekers primary
What I like most about this framework is that it starts with knowledge seekers. It's not about providers randomly pouring knowledge out, it's about seekers pulling specific knowledge in. By making the seekers the most active element, it ensures the knowledge is relevant and understood in a way that it can be applied to an existing issue.
Theme 2: A knowledge provider isn't just a person who knows a lot of facts
The second theme is related to what we presume the knowledge providers know. Do we think their value is that they possess a lot of facts? Were that the case, then we might just want them to write down all of the facts and figures in their head. However, an expert isn't an expert simply because they know a lot of stuff. What makes knowledge providers so useful is that they understand what facts are relevant in a specific context.
Imagine a knowledge seeker who needs to drive a project that involves two disparate parts of the organization. The knowledge provider, aided by the facilitator, will probe so that they understand the context. They'll also dig to see how the knowledge seeker approaches the project. With this background. the knowledge provider can offer nuanced advice that fills in the gaps and corrects any blind spots. That's how really high-value advice is delivered in a short period of time.
Theme 3: Knowledge transfer works better with a facilitator
It's also interesting that Pugh has found the process works much better with a facilitator on board. You might think that it's enough to get providers and seekers in the same room for a chat, but that can lead to them talking past each other. The facilitator, who typically does some pre-work to set things up, provides guidance to ensure the conversation doesn't get stuck.
Fitting the knowledge transfer framework into the broader learning program
It's easy to see that this seeker-provider-facilitator framework isn't a good fit for many kinds of learning issues. At the same time, it is so powerful for certain problems that it needs to be a part of the HR department's toolkit.
Most organizations are good at standard processes (e.g. "We will give this training to all new employees") and not so good at triggering specialized processes on an "as needed basis: (e.g. "Aha! I see these employees would really benefit from a knowledge transfer session").
There are a couple of things you can do to make it more likely that this technique will be used and not sit overlooked in the toolbox. One is to make sure it's well-defined and the steps to initiating it are well laid out. If someone wants to do a knowledge-sharing session there should be, in effect, a "button they can press" and the process initiated. The second thing is that you want people to remember there is, in fact, such a button and this means listing the knowledge-sharing session as a learning option so that when people review their choices, they see it as one possibility.
One last thought about this method: It fits into the broader trend towards just-in-time, personalized, user-initiated learning. That's another reason to bring this framework into your organization. A knowledge transfer session is right in line with current learning trends.