It's not about knowledge transfer

In 2009 I listened to Peter Senge’s keynote address at the CSTD national conference. His research findings showed that the average life expectancy of large companies is about 30 years, but some are over 200 years old, and the key driver for their longevity is organizational learning. Individual learning in organizations is irrelevant, as work is almost never done by one person alone. Knowledge, Senge said, is the capacity for effective action (know how) and it is the only aspect of knowledge that really matters in business and life. Value is created by teams and mostly by networks of people. While learning may be generated in teams, this type of knowledge comes and goes. Learning really spreads through social networks.

Another point that stuck with me, as I had witnessed this, was Senge’s observation that the field of knowledge management had been co-opted by information technology vendors, and had become useless for organizational learning. I was reminded of this while reading, Lost Knowledge: What are you and your organization doing about it?

Executives have known about “lost knowledge” and retiring Boomers for years, and yet very few companies have taken steps to insure that there is some sort of effective knowledge transfer from Boomers to younger employees.

Knowledge cannot be transferred. This is the big conceit of knowledge management. This “loss of knowledge” when older workers retire is a symptom of a structural problem. It shows that the company never gave any thought to organizational learning.

Successful, and long-lived, organizations do this all the time, not just when a demographic blip hits them.

Retiring baby-boomers are just one more wake-up call to dysfunctional organizations.

15 Responses to “It's not about knowledge transfer”

  1. Rachel Happe

    Such an interesting observation… in part because we see a lot of organizations trying to get into social marketing or social collaboration with technology alone too, in the misguided assumption that technology alone will allow them to build networked organizations. I have a post brewing about how increasingly used technology is for decision-making (a la Klout will tell me what I need to know) which exposes a profound lack of understanding of technology and a profound fear of taking responsibility via the use of human judgement. We want there to be easy answers and it just doesn’t work that way in a complex environment.

  2. Thierry de Baillon

    Decision making… Rachel, I think you just added the missing piece to Harold’s post: as knowledge cannot be transferred, it can only be used and hopefully reused, and this reuse might be a good placeholder for a definition of “organizational learning”.
    The context in which one is most prone to reuse someone’s knowledge is decision making. Giving workers the opportunity to make decisions, individually or collaboratively, is also a way to ensure we don’t rely on technology again.
    But making decisions in an hyper-connected and collaborative environment rises challenges which I don’t see often discussed in my readings.

  3. Mark Sheppard

    “…the field of knowledge management had been co-opted by information technology vendors, and had become useless for organizational learning.”

    This point resonates with me, as well. I think we’ve become so used to our culture of lost knowledge that we’re blind to its dangers and we’re needlessly celebrating “eureka moments” that have likely happened over and over again thanks to our professional ancestors. Technology should have been a way to ease the burden, but it’s complicated the situation to no end. Instead, we’re relying on organizational culture to support the transfer of knowledge and continuous growth, but I think the number of organizations who do this consistently are very, very few in number. Is that too cynical?

  4. Gordon Ross (@gordonr)

    Individual decision-making texts that are excellent and worth mentioning in the context of this thread: G. Klein (Sources of Power, Streetlights & Shadows), D. Kahneman (Thinking; Fast & Slow).

    Collective decision making and its relationship to turning knowledge into action: that’s planning theory. It may have been obscured by the pictures of Greenwich Village and images of Robert Moses, but that was the entire point of my half of the E2Conf presentation with Thomas Vander Wal last November (which I was lucky enough to share with Rachel in person).

    Important texts include Friedman’s Planning in the Public Domain and the work of communicative planner John Forester (Deliberative Practitioner, Planning in the Face of Power), and more recently Innes & Booher and their work Planning with Complexity, which takes a wonderful blend of Habermas, Dewey, Forester, and complexity theory and outlines the concept of “collaborative rationality.”

    Planning theory has typically looked at public decisions – how to achieve decision making in the public sphere (urban planning, land use, transportation, social issues, public policy work, etc) , but as organizations shift towards more collective, networked, non-hierarchical structures, I think this body of literature and thought is the most relevant and important there is – it is the route forward now that some organizations are essentially small publics.

    That’s not to say that planning theory is a panacea; it hasn’t been immune to a similar narrative arc in failed master planning / modernist / top-down / hierarchal / systems thinking schemes in the past 100 years (see James Scott’s Seeing Like a State for what happens when we mistake complex social decisions as being complicated or simple), but planning theorists and practitioners are well equipped with years of both theory and practice and ongoing discussions about these exact wicked problems that we’re working through right now in this social learning / social business / insert-your-favourite-label-here space.

  5. Jay Oza

    Though not business related, but speaks to what happens when you lose people with knowledge and insight.

    When I read David Halberstam’s “Best and the Brightest,” one of the things that caught my attention is that US had purged all the folks who had deep knowledge of that region after the fall of China to Communism. The “China Hands,” were dubbed as Communist for telling it as they saw it that Chiang Kai Shek did not have the support in the rural China to stay in power. They were run out of State Department and blamed for China becoming Communist.

    So what?

    When US goes into Vietnam, they have lost all the knowledge and insight of that region in the State Department after the purge and became dependent on military people who did not understand that region and grossly underestimated the strength of the enemy and exaggerated the successes they were having. The rest is history, as they say.

  6. David DeLong

    I agree that knowledge loss is a symptom of other structural — and cultural — problems. But be careful generalizing about companies never giving any thought to organizational learning. Companies never think. People do. And, in practice, one part of the organization might be very effective at transferring and retaining knowledge, while the rest is terrible. One of the reasons knowledge retention is such a challenge is that it’s such a patchwork problem, given the different “types” of knowledge that need to be transferred. It’s also a challenge that requires both skill and will to solve, as I explained in a recent post ( ) “Is Your Looming Talent Gap a Shortage of Skill or Will?” Different scenarios require different strategies.

    • Harold Jarche

      Well David, I still say that knowledge cannot be transferred.

      “Every amateur epistemologist knows that knowledge cannot be managed. Education has always assumed that knowledge can be transferred and that we can carefully control the process through education. That is a grand illusion.” ~ Dave Jonassen

  7. Frank Leistner

    Harold, I agree fully with the fact that knowledge cannot be managed – it is what is in people’s head, that is why I moved to talk about Knowledge Flow Management instead. What gets transferred is information only, and knowledge can get (partly) re-created at the receiving end. But as it is within a different frame of reference and experience it will always be different. The notion of flow management is about creating the conditions that make it more likely the flow can happen, by for example removing certain barriers (like the stones in a river) one-by-one to make it easier.
    To expect that this flow becomes easier by just offering technology is the No.1 reason why initiatives in this area fail. It needs facilitation and real attention to the human factors at multiple levels of the organization.

  8. Mani vannan

    “The context in which one is most prone to reuse someone’s knowledge is decision making. Giving workers the opportunity to make decisions, individually or collaboratively, is also a way to ensure we don’t rely on technology again.
    But making decisions in an hyper-connected and collaborative environment rises challenges which I don’t see often discussed in my readings.”

    I think there is hope now with the evolution of Collaborative Decision Making (CDM). Finally the BI/ Analytics tool vendors have realized that they have to help organization to improve user adoption after spending millions in BI technology investments. Insights derived from Excel systems are shared in PowerPoint and discussed in emails. We have to integrate BI technology with Facebook like Social layer for collaborative decision making to enable organizational learning. In addition to providing technology, Leadership has to encourage, recognize and reward participation in collective decision making.

  9. Steve

    Transport and transfer are the wrong metaphors to use for resonant forces that propagate critical skill and passdown through an organization. In the language of experience, I think conduction is a more apt metaphor.

    The problem with transfer as a metaphor, in my opinion, is that it puts the emphasis on data and information as the object. The vessel of application and the conduction of the appropriate connection points within an organization matter. Information (data) itself will never perform work. People. Do.

  10. Steve

    I’d be honored:) I have been planning to write about it for a bit at

  11. Gerard

    Great posting.
    My only comment is that where the individuals are the organisation (e.g. Large partnerships ), individual learning is linked to organizational learning. Most of the good ones are over 150 years old.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)