Further Reading » Exploring the Fundamentals of Knowledge Transfer

Exploring the Fundamentals of Knowledge Transfer

More and more companies have instituted knowledge repositories, supporting such diverse type of knowledge as best practices, lessons learned product development knowledge, customer knowledge, human resource management knowledge, methods-based knowledge etc. Groupware and internet-based technologies have become standard infrastructures. A new set of professional job titles – the knowledge manager, the knowledge co-ordinator, the knowledge network facilitator – affirms widespread legitimacy that KM and KT has earned in the corporate world as does the formation of its own professional association. Furthermore, several magazines, journals and newsletters devoted to the field have emerged and almost every leading consulting firm provides some sort of KM service to clients; prominent schools offer business courses and programs on the topic; and many mainstream technology vendors tout the applications of their particular tools to the management of knowledge. Conversely, KT, although it is an important component of KM (Davenport & Prusak, 2000), it has received the least attention in the business community. In the field of psychology, however, the study of KT predates the study of KM by several decades (Argote, Ingram, Levine, & Moreland, 2000).

According to Greenes & Piktialis (2008b), KT can be simple or quite complex depending on

  • why you want to transfer knowledge (the need for the knowledge);
  • the receivers level of expertise (is this person a novice, practitioner or expert);
  • the learning styles and preferences of the intended receivers of the knowledge;
  • whether the knowledge will be applied in the same or a different environment; and
  • the type of knowledge to be transferred.


The internal transfer of knowledge is about finding out what an organization knows, and using it to improve performance. It is about leveraging the value of knowledge an organization already has. Knowledge in action is a lot easier to digest and a lot easier to implement. We can clearly see what works. We can even talk to the people who made it work. An increasing number of companies have come to believe the transfer of internal best practices is the fastest and most effective way to achieve improvements. The key according to Davenport & Prusak (2000) it comes down to finding effective ways to let people talk and listen to one another for the KT to occur. Knowledge is transferred in organizations whether or not we manage the process at all; however its existence does not guarantee its use (Davenport & Prusak, 2000).

In general, KT is characterized as follows:

  • KT may or may not be enterprise wide in scope. It can be as narrowly defined as task, individual or function.
  • Most KT requires a transfer of information between people;
  • A good deal of KT can be task based (e.g., the way things are done) but also profession/knowledge based;
  • There is a “change management” dimension to KT in that KT is generally more than codifying knowledge but capturing the experience that goes with that knowledge;
  • How knowledge is transferred has a major bearing on the cost of this activity. Craft solutions (e.g., face to face instruction) can result in significant delivery costs.
  • As with KM, KT materials must be current and updated frequently.
  • In many instances, considerations such as regulatory requirements, legal requirements and mandatory professional practices need to be integrated and coordinated, adding a level of complexity to the undertaking.


General Theories of the Knowledge Transfer Process

O’Dell et al (1998) have identified the following steps (illustrated in Figure 1) as a cycle for transferring knowledge (which necessarily includes KM): 1) create and identify important knowledge, 2) collect the knowledge systematically, 3) organize best practices and internal knowledge in order to understand what is known and where it is, 4) share the knowledge, 5) adapt the knowledge, and 6) apply or use the knowledge to solve business needs and to apply it to “new situations, and/or create ‘new knowledge’.

Create, identify, collect and organize refers to best practices and internal knowledge so that companies understand what they know and where it is. Identifying, collecting and organizing deal more with the explicit knowledge end of the continuum and the sharing, adapting and using occur more at the tacit knowledge end of the continuum. Once knowledge is shared, then it changes as people understand, use it, experience it and put their own interpretation on it, so it becomes ‘newly’ created knowledge. This is where the payoff really comes - when knowledge is successfully transferred and applied, the knowledge transfer cycle is complete.

Figure 1: Steps in the Knowledge Transfer process


Adapted from: O’Dell, C.S, Essaides, N. & C. Jackson Grayson, Jr. (1998)
If Only We Knew What We Know: The Transfer of Internal Knowledge and Best Practice

A model for KT
According to O’Dell et al. (1998), the key to making KT work is to approach this challenge like the change initiative that it is. First change without purpose, is change without direction or results. The model has three major components:


This model applies to knowledge and practices about customers, products, processes, mistakes and successes. It includes not just explicit knowledge, but also applies to tacit knowledge: intuitions, judgment and know-how.

Figure 3: KT Model


Adapted from: O'Dell, C.S, Essaides, N. & C. Jackson Grayson, Jr. (1998)
If Only We Knew What We Know : The Transfer of Internal Knowledge and Best Practice