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Critical Knowledge Transfer - Book Review

1 September 2016
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

"Critical Knowledge Transfer: Tools for Managing Your Company's Deep Smarts," co-authored by Dorothy Leonard, Walter Swap, and Gavin Barton, was published in 2015. It is a sequel to another book written by the first two authors a decade earlier, "Deep Smarts."

The book delves into the transfer of knowledge from experts. It focuses on activities such as rapidly training new employees with the guidance of experts or transferring knowledge in the context of departures or retirements.

The topics covered in the book include:
  • Introduction

    • The need for knowledge transfer

    • Identification of experts

    • Partners

  • Knowledge transfer tools

    • Explicit Knowledge

    • Implicit Knowledge

    • Tacit Knowledge

  • Management and control

    • Measurement

Having worked for years in expert knowledge transfer and reading the first book, I discovered new tools in this edition, some of which I plan to implement. I highly recommend this book to all those involved in the field.


The need for knowledge transfer

Experts possess knowledge, and the crucial question is not whether they have it but rather the examination of necessity—whether it is feasible to transfer this expertise. This involves considering if the process would consume infinite time and resources. The book's premise, as implied by its title, underscores that not all knowledge requires transmission; only critical, experience-based knowledge needs to be conveyed. This pertains to the undocumented knowledge residing in the minds and actions of experts, commonly referred to in professional jargon as "know-how."

Consequently, the initial question should be "what" to transfer, not "if." This involves delineating the knowledge that should be transmitted to minimize financial damage and the loss of innovation ability—two primary risks identified in a survey among managers regarding the necessity of knowledge transfer.

The top three criteria for selecting subjects of knowledge transfer include:

  • Relevant knowledge

  • Actionable knowledge

  • Knowledge-based on experience

The desired knowledge to be transmitted falls into three categories:

  1. Explicit Knowledge – documented knowledge in writing, photographs, or other forms.

  2. Implicit knowledge – informally documented knowledge or knowledge integrated into processes, which may not be formally documented but is easily described and expressed by the expert.

  3. Tacit Knowledge – knowledge not previously described by the expert but explainable through intelligent questioning or knowledge residing in the expert's subconscious.

Identification of experts

Here is a compilation of metrics designed to pinpoint experts whose knowledge deserves focused attention:

Cognitive measures:

  • Critical Know-how and Know-What* - Managerial and technical knowledge, experience-based techniques and processes, and comprehensive factual knowledge.

  • Systems thinking* - Recognizing dependencies, evaluating derivative meanings, and understanding interfaces, especially regarding the organization's work methods and processes.

  • Judgment *- Fast and effective decision-making.

  • Contextual ads - The ability to consider context.

  • Pattern identification – Identifying past phenomena, situations, or processes.

Behavioral measures:

  • Know-who - Building and maintaining a network of influential professionals.

  • Interpersonal - Dealing with people, motivating and leading them, and bridging intellectual gaps and disagreements.

  • Communication - Building, adapting, and transmitting messages on one or more channels.

  • Diagnosis - Recognizing signs corresponding to or challenging familiar patterns and separating signal from noise.

Physical indicators:

  • Sensory intelligence – The ability to diagnose, interpret, or evaluate through touch or another sense.

*Studied as the most significant metrics for identifying experts compared to all other measures.

Identifying these specialists involves questioning management or employees about their colleagues. Asking individuals to set goals for themselves is ineffective, as these results tend to be biased. For instance, at GE, this assessment is conducted using the QFD quality technique, considering parameters such as the level of need, risk, immediacy, and an existing overlapping plan.


While the book primarily addresses experts and the transfer of their knowledge, it is crucial to recognize the involvement of various partners in facilitating such a transition. The list of partners encompasses:

  • Stakeholders: CEOs, senior managers responsible for the expert, and HR managers are pivotal in making the process a reality by motivating it, ensuring partnership and commitment among all concerned, and removing barriers.

  • The experts: Those possessing knowledge; their willingness to share, contribute time, engage in thoughtful discussions, and impart knowledge is integral to the success of the transfer.

  • Knowledge recipients: The learners; ‘ willingness to learn from seasoned experts, attentiveness (a crucial skill), and effective assimilation of acquired knowledge are critical factors in the knowledge transfer process.

  • Helpers: Intermediaries/personal trainers operating at both the organizational and individual levels guide the process of knowledge transfer and leadership. Their role involves removing barriers to effective knowledge transfer.

Knowledge transfer tools

The transfer of knowledge unfolds akin to the layers of an onion – from the outer surface to the inner core. Some individuals may be content with the external layers, while others may delve more deeply into deep knowledge. This variation is contingent upon individual needs and the availability of resources.

Explicit Knowledge

On-the-job Training Time – Ranging from several hours to days

Partners – The Expert and the Recipient

One-on-one knowledge transfer; one-to-many; many-to-many

Realtors conduct workshops instructing relevant employees on knowledge transfer and reception without personal guidance.

Focus - Explicit Knowledge

Details of the process:

  1. Description of the specialist's duties, primary tasks, roles, and responsibilities, with a recommendation to utilize mind maps.

  2. Concentrating on the areas of knowledge for transfer.

  3. Identifying topics (as outlined above) related to implicit, tacit knowledge concerning judgment, uncertainty, risks, and unique skill areas.

  4. Polling based on structured narrative patterns or interviews. Possible methods include:

    a. Immediate knowledge for solving a current problem – seeking assistance from a knowledge community. Possible throughput: problem solved.

    b. Departure interview - guiding a replacement into their role (example - page 79 of the book). Possible throughput: rules of thumb, identification of priorities/problems.

    c. Questioning based on ready-made templates/kits - primarily for those entering the position (example - page 81 of the book). Possible output: archiving; Personal information tables (e.g., warnings).

  5. Validating the accuracy of knowledge and its added value; Reporting onward or archiving of knowledge.

Implicit Knowledge

On-the-job Training Time – Extending over several weeks to months

Partners – The Expert and the Recipient

Involvement of a mediator (preferably an external mediator with training and experience), peer integration (for comprehensive knowledge completion and validation)

Focus - Implicit Knowledge

Details of the process:

In-depth questioning based on templates or structured narrative interviews. Possible methods include:

  1. Structured narrative stories: known cases; Historical documentation - capturing a critical thought process or process in the expert's mind. Tip: Utilize a whiteboard for writing and thinking—possible throughput – mind maps, process maps.

  2. Peer-guided sharing: peer assistance; knowledge jam – diffusion of known solutions; combining thinking directions. Tip: Beneficial for onboarding new employees. Possible output - action plans; Creation/transfer of knowledge.

  3. Validated in-depth interviews - capturing best practices and thought processes of technical experts/managers (examples on pages 106, 111). Possible throughput - skills documented in text or mind maps.

Tacit Knowledge

On-the-job training time - Extending over several months to years

Partners - The Expert and the Recipient

Assistance from a mediator (with training and experience) and a coach (an internal manager with a different field of knowledge)

Focus - Tacit Knowledge

Details of the process:

Structured accompaniment of the specialist and the recipient of knowledge. This process streamlines and enhances normal overlapping processes familiar in organizations, enriching the recipient's knowledge. Possible method: guided experiences

Details of the process:

  1. Creating an action plan to define and implement essential experiences.

  2. Recording observations.

  3. Controlled experiences; Simulations.

  4. Shared troubleshooting.

  5. Taking responsibility for the process and knowledge.

Outbursts: Understanding how the expert reaches results/decisions.

Tip: Actively involve the knowledge recipient in the process.

Management and control


It is highly advisable to gauge the effectiveness of knowledge transfer. This is essential for monitoring progress, ensuring alignment, minimizing knowledge gaps, and fostering a comprehensive knowledge transfer within the organization. Potential methods include:

  • Expertise Level Bar - Defining the Expertise Level Bar and assessing the positioning of knowledge recipients about it (illustrated on p152).

  • Success stories - Collect and disseminate success stories.

  • Learning diary - Collaboratively reviewing the diary at regular intervals to assess progress.

  • Gaps tests - Establish knowledge levels for knowledge transferors and recipients (concerning the table in the chapter on identifying experts) and periodically provide an assessment score for these knowledge levels in the relevant areas of knowledge transfer.

The practice of knowledge transfer extends beyond experts. It should instill an appreciation for every detail, valuing the experience and knowledge in individuals' minds and actions.

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