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Structural Solutions and Targeted Knowledge Transfer to Leverage STEM Experts and Accelerate Learning

Tuesday, July 12, 2016
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When your organization has science, engineering, technical, or math experts but they’re already spread too thin, what’s the best way to tap their knowledge to bring others in the organization up to their level?

Recent APQC research unveiled several complementary approaches that enable novices and “nex’perts” (midcareer professionals who are the next generation of experts) to learn from experts and build their own competencies. Among them are several structural and knowledge transfer approaches that best-practice organizations are using to leverage their internal expertise as effectively as possible. 

Structural Approaches 

As demand for expertise grows, many organizations are rethinking how they allocate senior-level staff across projects and locations, as you can see in the following figure.

 

Trees_Structural_Approaches_Figure.png
Today’s technical experts provide high-level support to a broad array of programs and projects. Often, this involves informally guiding nex’perts on strategic planning and design, reviewing their work at key milestones, and helping with any tricky technical problems that arise. By creating explicit roles for experts and assigning them to advise and guide, organizations can reinforce what their senior people are already doing while giving them the time and support they need to accelerate the development of future technical leaders. Here are some approaches we’ve seen at best-practice organizations.

Central and regional technical hubs. Some organizations concentrate all their functional experts in a center of excellence or central team responsible for delivering expertise and technical support. Integrating this type of hub with a repository of technical content and guidelines gives employees resources to find answers on their own, as well as the ability to reach out to an expert for personalized support. Global organizations may also allocate experts as mentors within specific regions or time zones.

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Fellows programs. Firms may designate an elite core of experts as official fellows, making them available to provide short-term consulting across projects, perform risk and quality reviews, and help with problem solving. At Lockheed Martin, fellows interact with one another through conferences and virtual forums, and select nex’perts are invited into their conversations to share and learn. The program brings together the organization’s best minds for targeted collaboration around technical and strategic challenges, maximizing their contributions.

Global standardization. A third structural approach involves creating and embedding standardized design and operational best practices in the work flow and then letting nex’perts apply them to projects that might once have been experts’ exclusive domain. This approach is especially well suited to repeatable processes performed at multiple sites. When less experienced employees have fast, convenient access to proven solutions and lessons learned, they can complete a higher percentage of work safely and effectively on their own, engaging technical leaders only when scenarios deviate significantly from the norm. 

Knowledge Transfer Approaches  

In combination with structural solutions, knowledge-sharing tools and approaches can help address expert shortages and develop the competency of newcomers and midcareer professionals. Three particularly effective options are highlighted below.

Communities and technical networks. These groups bring together colleagues working on similar topics in different functions and business units, giving them opportunities to engage in professional development, cross-boundary collaboration, and networking. Whereas some communities are officially responsible for stewarding bodies of knowledge, others focus on more spontaneous opportunities that emerge when diverse groups come together to share and learn. APQC’s research shows that 86 percent of STEM organizations have communities in place, and more than half consider them effective for bridging expertise gaps.

Expertise location. To tap the hidden knowledge and expertise within your organization, you need to know who and where your experts are. Many organizations have made people search a high priority, adopting technology and other approaches to ensure that nex’perts and newcomers know whom to ask for help and advice. APQC’s research suggests that the best approaches combine profile-based expertise locator tools with opportunities for group interaction using communities of practice, discussion forums, and collaboration sites.

Knowledge capture and transfer. To capture and communicate essential, at-risk knowledge, some organizations have formal, top-down processes to identify experts, pull that knowledge out of their heads, and share it with the nex’perts who will eventually take the helm. Other best-practice firms rely on more organic, grassroots knowledge transfer through cross-functional communities, expertise location tools, technical forums, enterprise social media groups, and wikis.

My next post will share more of APQC’s research about cross-functional strategies to support the development of STEM experts. Until then, if you’d like to learn more about the approaches best-practice organizations use to make the most of their internal expertise, download APQC’s whitepaper, How Smart Leaders Leverage Their Experts.

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About the Author

Lauren Trees is the research program manager for knowledge management at member-based nonprofit APQC. In this role, she identifies trends in enterprise knowledge sharing and collaboration, researches ways to improve knowledge flow, and shares the findings with APQC members and the business community at large. She has served as project manager for two large-scale collaborative research projects— Transferring and Applying Critical Knowledge and Connecting People to Content—and led additional research on expertise location, competency development, content management, social media, gamification, mentoring, and the future of knowledge management. Lauren has written for media outlets including Industry Week, Strategic HR Review, KMWorld, and Pharmaceutical Engineering, and her research has been cited by Inc. and TIME. She is also an experienced speaker, having presented at global conferences as well as numerous corporate meetings and webinars. 

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