How Your Organization’s Experts Can Share Their Knowledge

All companies have subject matter experts who hold knowledge critical to their businesses. As a leader, how can you make sure to not only preserve that know-how for future generations but also multiply its impact? Through something we call a knowledge cascade: the diffusion of experts’ “deep smarts” to and through multiple learners in a way that minimizes the burden on the experts.

Each cascade functions like a telephone tree, starting with one SME and spreading through ever-expanding tiers of learners who become teachers. Instead of relying upon the experts to “push” knowledge out, it enlists learners in “pulling” the knowledge out, then passing it  to others who can benefit. The expert saves time and the learners better internalize the lessons.

In our work with companies of varying sizes across industries, we have observed at least four distinct ways that “nextperts” (the initial mentees of the original experts) create knowledge cascades.

Pay it forward. In this model, the nextpert directly teaches or mentors others, based on what they learned from the expert. For example, at an electronics firm we know, one nextpert is creating a training class for operators and quality technicians on diagnosing and resolving production problems. At GE Aviation, one nextpert took over teaching an internal class on Infrared technology and, according to chief consulting engineer Rob Weisgerber, is “providing industry-level training.”

Present a challenge. This involves a nextpert constructing a scenario, case, or problem-set based on an expert’s experience that introduces a set of learners to a process of discovery. Rather than presenting with the expert’s solution to a commonly encountered but difficult problem, the individual or groups are confronted with the problem itself. Only after the learners have discussed possible solutions, thereby mentally engaging with and exploring the context and complications, is the expert’s opinion presented. Research on memory and cognition has shown that such challenges result in better retention. The case itself can be delivered as text, video, or in photographs for repeated use. At architectural firm Shepley Bulfinch, a senior healthcare planner was videoed presenting photos of existing hospital spaces slated for renovation (e.g., operating or patient dressing rooms) and asking pointed questions about what people saw when they looked at the images. After a pause for discussion, the video presented the expert’s observations of those same photos.

Set up a “campfire.” This is a convened meeting of less experienced individuals or a mixture of experts and others in which nexperts present lessons, then discuss and expand on them, generating new knowledge. More than 30 people in Shepley Bulfinch’s Healthcare practice did this as training for facility renovation. They broke into small teams and reviewed photos of existing facilities, competed to generate a list of problems they saw, then shared with each other.

Translate. The point of this technique is to create an artifact that captures expert knowledge so it can be passed down. It involves eliciting implicit know-how that is not yet expressed or documented and transforming it into explicit form for sharing, such as guidelines, checklists, rules of thumb or wikis. At engineering firm Dewberry, a nextpert created a wiki about the knowledge transfer process he has undergone and the technical expertise he has gained from his expert to successfully design the replacement of large diameter pipes in water infrastructure projects. Communications director Molly Johnson has also created podcasts of interviews with experts for internal use. One set of shows illustrates an expert’s deep smarts in conducting successful negotiations with clients and contractors.

The benefits of knowledge cascades to both individuals and the organization derive not only from the knowledge content diffused but from the processes learned. For example, downstream learners see the value in using photographs to challenge understanding and use that technique in training others. And nextperts become adept interviewers of experts to elicit knowledge. Shepley Bulfinch CIO James Martin insists that any interaction involving the sharing of deep smarts result in some output for future use, either through one of the four techniques noted above or others that the learners can identify. Because nextperts have been learners themselves, they are well suited to package the expertise in a form easily comprehended by less experienced individuals.

It’s true that knowledge passed from person to person can morph as it diffuses. However, you can protect against the most egregious or dangerous distortions in two ways. First, content must be reviewed by the experts before the undocumented know-how is considered gospel and paid forward in training or translated into wikis, repositories, or checklists or becomes the subject of any challenge or campfire. Second, because the knowledge cascade is structured, visible and transparent, it is thus more trustworthy than a more informal, unmonitored, organic flow of information. In cascades set up as part of formal knowledge transfer programs, nextperts’ responsibility for educating others can be acknowledged and assessed through progress reports to management that detail the targeted learners, the techniques used, and progress within the cascade.