Are our knowledge transfer methods mismatched with how people actually learn?

Expert Knowledge transfer

No matter how enlightened we may be as experts in putting time and effort into enabling others to build their skills and know-how in our technical or professional field, they might not end up being productive in the skills being taught.

It’s likely that our current expertise – and our skills and our judgment – were developed over a considerable period of time. It was almost certainly derived in many ways – formal study under other experts, observation, experimentation and practice. Much of it has come from hard experience and trial and error.

We want to be both helpful and efficient. This often means we try to distil all of our acquired knowledge into a documented set of procedures to follow, or we post relevant articles on Sharepoint or a wiki. We might talk people through some slides. Then we wonder why our target learners’ engagement and subsequent adoption and application of what we’ve ‘taught’ them falls short of what we had hoped for.

Lead with the Why

At Expertunity we have worked with hundreds of experts over the last five years. One of the most common pitfalls we’ve encountered in Knowledge Transfer is that experts often presume that there target learners know why we are trying to develop their capabilities. Why are we teaching them what we are teaching them?

The fact is that it is not always apparent. More often than not, we need to do more work in letting them know WHY this knowledge is important. They need to know why it is relevant, what value it provides, and what advantages it brings – to the learner, to the business, to specific stakeholders.

Adult learners apply themselves when they recognise a ‘felt need’ that the new skill or knowledge will help them address. Without a felt need – without knowing why the information is important –  they will probably not pay attention. We all have many demands on our time and our ability to take in new information.

Make the learning action friendly

When we try to teach something to somebody it is usually because we want them to take some specific action. But all too often we teach things as theory. We presume that, as long as we teach the learner the five key steps to follow, or the three basic rules, they’ll naturally have the smarts to do so successfully.

Not so. In our experience, it is best that the learning program includes an opportunity for the learner to practice taking the actions. People learn much better by example.

When we are designing our learning, we need to ask “What actions will this enable learners to take that will prove that they have in fact advanced their relevant skills and knowledge?” And then we need to find a way to recreate a scenario – perhaps a simulation – where the learners can experiment with assessing the needs of the situation and applying their newfound skills. This might include analysing key data or role-playing a vital conversation.

By practising this way in a non-threatening environment, learners quickly figure out for themselves what it all means in practice. We minimise the risk of problems arising from immature judgement or unpractised capability. The learners are able to build new habits, and they will quickly gain confidence, which feeds commitment. They will experience the tangible benefits of the learned skill, and everybody benefits.

DOMINIC JOHNSON is  a Partner at Expertunity, and a master facilitator of the signature program for technical experts, Mastering Expertship. He is co-author of the Expertship Growth Guide, and the forthcoming Master Expert.)