Study on knowlegde transfer in companies: Employees want to – but are prevented from doing so by structures

In the summer of 2019, we asked 100 people with and without management responsibility to answer the following questions: How well does knowledge transfer work in your company? What sources do you and your employees use to inform you? How well do you know your colleagues? And would you like to learn more from them? We were particularly interested in whether there were differences between employees with and without management responsibility. For the survey, we presented the participants with a series of statements whose agreement they could weight on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = do not agree, 5 = fully agree).

Knowledge transfer: Different ratings depending on position – and a lot of room for improvement

Only slightly more than a third of those surveyed believe that their company promotes the exchange of information and knowledge, and almost as many responded negatively to this question. The majority (40%) were undecided. A separate look at respondents with leadership responsibility reveals a somewhat different picture: among managers, 40 percent believe that the conditions are right to share knowledge. However, only 22 percent of non-managers think so.

Either way, knowledge and information are THE currency during times of digital transformation. If many employees do not have sufficient access to both, something has to change!

Processes and lack of transparency hinder knowledge transfer

The majority of the respondents stated that they would like to exchange ideas with colleagues on subject-specific topics (response score: 4.1). The statements that colleagues would like to share their own knowledge more frequently/more intensively and to learn from them were also met with great approval (3.98 and 3.86 respectively).

When asked about the obstacles to such exchanges, three main factors emerged:

  1. too little time & freedom in everyday working life
  2. processes and systems are not designed for exchange
  3. missing information on who has what knowledge in the company

Why can’t you have exchanges with colleagues more often?

What’s responsible for you sharing your knowledge with colleagues less than you would like to?

What’s responsible for you learning less from colleagues than you would like to?

Tools are wanted and known – but not anchored in the company

Many formats that promote knowledge transfer are well known to employees – especially the “classics” such as lunch dates, orientation and training for new colleagues, or mentoring. These are also the formats most frequently used. Methods such as peer learning or reverse mentoring, which enable effective and low-threshold learning in the company, are also known to a not inconsiderable proportion of respondents (peer learning: 41%, reverse mentoring: 32%), but they are not used to the same extent for organizational learning (peer learning: 30%, reverse mentoring: only 9%). There is a great need to learn from and with colleagues with the help of these formats – almost every second person expressed this wish. The discrepancy between what employees want in terms of knowledge transfer and what is already being used becomes even clearer in the case of “job rotation & shadowing”: although two-thirds of those surveyed are familiar with these formats and almost as many wish to use them, only one in five have had contact with them in their own organization to date.

Exchange has so far worked particularly within department silos

The question now arises as to the sources from which employees obtain information when there are only a few tools and systems that specifically initiate and promote the exchange of knowledge, and that everyone can access easily. In some cases, there were clear differences between people with and without management responsibility. Thus, managers network more often and better than other employees.

At the same time, there is a great deal of agreement with the statement “I like to ask colleagues”, regardless of whether someone has management responsibility or not. However, both groups prefer to get information from colleagues in their own department rather than from colleagues in other departments. As a result, they rarely ask colleagues outside their own departments for advice, although managers tend to take this step more often than employees without management responsibility.

I ask colleagues from my department:

I ask colleagues from other departments

One possible explanation can be found in the response scores for the statement “I would like to get to know my colleagues better.” There are clear differences between non-managers and people in managerial positions. While employees without a formal leadership role are very interested in their colleagues, managers were rather cautious and did not tend to offer a clear stance.

Knowledge as an instrument of power vs. knowledge as an empowerment instrument

In the second part of the survey, we gave the participants the opportunity to identify their own causes that they felt led their company to promote knowledge transfer well or poorly, depending on how they had previously assessed it. We then assigned the answers to thematic clusters.

The main reasons for poor knowledge transfer are therefore:

  1. the structure of the company: silos, position thinking, distance
  2. corporate culture I: knowledge as an instrument of power
  3. corporate culture II: Ignorance as weakness / exchange seen as creating a “hullabaloo”

Your organization does not promote the exchange of knowledge and information well. What is the reason for this and how does it manifest itself?

Answer 1

“Regular exchange rounds or network formats are only set up in the internal business areas (departments). Cross-divisional exchange does not take place proactively (silo thinking). In addition, it is completely unknown which formats there are and which target groups, contents are addressed. It only becomes noticeable when you want to bring an innovation into the company and unexpectedly encounter resistance from the other departments, claiming that topics were not coordinated with Round X or Round Y.”

Answer 2

“Old school corporate culture, information is like a debt to be collected, guilt always falls on someone else, I am not responsible, information advantage = power, etc.”

Answer 3

“The openness of employees to deal with these topics is low. They feel that this is naive, unnecessary, “has nothing to do with anything…”, something that packs even more into an already full pot and brings them nothing. They don’t know what they are missing and how sick our org is because of it.”

Answer 4

“The workload is much too high because we are too few employees. We can hardly cope with the current tasks.”

Answer 5

“No platform, no exchange culture, no leeway for it, very scattered locations so that you can barely get to know each other personally.”

The following were identified as drivers for good knowledge transfer:

  1. corporate culture I: framework for formal and informal exchanges
  2. technical infrastructure & tools: Wikis, open intranet, chats and platforms
  3. corporate culture III: Independent action is desired and accepted

Your organization promotes the exchange of knowledge and information quite well. What is the reason for this and how does it manifest itself?

  • Knowledge database on the intranet, blogs, competence networks, own employees giving training courses working as power users
  • Knowledge database available, meetings for exchange can be coordinated
  • Space for exchange – temporal and physical, cross-functional teams, internal sourcing
  • Good mood, open doors, personal relationships with colleagues

Conclusion

Knowledge transfer does not work well in many companies.

Employees are always interested in the knowledge of their colleagues. They are also willing to share their own knowledge with others and know the appropriate formats.

However, these formats are rarely recognized by companies or the existing tools that promote internal networking. Instead, many companies still rely on rigid structures, see knowledge as an instrument of power and thus prevent employees from meeting their need for exchange and networking.

When exchange does take place, it preferentially occurs within a department. Ignorance about what other colleagues do and can do prevents cross-departmental networking. However, managers are also most likely to be networked across departments. One possible explanation is that they have to be position-focused and have a better overall view of tasks and skills in the company.

For people without management responsibility, however, the hurdle of asking someone outside the department is comparatively large. At the same time, there is an interest in getting to know fellow employees better.

Managers already network more often and prefer to do so more than other employees. Possible reasons may also have to do with the position itself: having greater knowledge of colleagues in other departments as well as the general tendency of the staff to share information and knowledge with managers rather than with other colleagues – especially in strongly hierarchically organized companies.

Here it would be interesting to know how employees without management responsibility understand “networking”: Who do they consider to be part of their network? Colleagues from other departments with different skills? Only external? Or also colleagues from their own area working in similar topics? Is the term “network” still too lofty and seen as something that one only actively builds up and cultivates in a certain position?

Another interesting question is why people with and without management responsibility assess knowledge transfer in the company so differently. While many managers consider it sufficient, non-managers see a great need to catch up. How is that possible? Is it the hierarchical structures that make it easier for managers to obtain knowledge and information? Is it about saving face, since managers are responsible for corresponding structures and programs and do not want to give themselves a bad review?

About the setup of the study:

In the summer of 2019, we distributed the questionnaire among people with and without management responsibility. The answers were recorded anonymously. A total of 98 people took part. The data situation does not permit any generally valid statements, but gives us and you an idea of how well the transfer of knowledge works in companies. We were particularly interested in the individual evaluations and statements on reasons for good or bad knowledge transfer. With this knowledge, we can find the right levers to make a difference, leading to networked and mobile organizations that help to shape digitalization.

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