Prompted by one of my FaceBook Community and LinkedIn colleagues – thanks Matthew Percival – I started doing some reading about tacit knowledge, in particular how common it is to lose this wealth of knowledge and experience when people leave the organisation.
Tacit knowledge is intangible knowledge acquired from experience and insight (Leonard, Swap & Barton, 2015) and an important strategic resource. But how do you capture this type of knowledge? What systems can you put in place to ensure your organisation doesn’t lose critical tacit knowledge because it is not passed on to others?
This got me thinking about mentoring and coaching, and how the leader as mentor is an excellent vessel for passing along their tacit knowledge to the mentee. Having a mentoring and coaching programme in place helps to expand the transfer and reach of expertise and experience across an organisation.
When I read through the numerous suggestions for how to transfer tacit knowledge, I kept thinking of how they are all excellent and manageable strategies that can be embedded within a mentoring and coaching programme. And what better use of a mentoring succession plan to ensure this knowledge is not lost but rather passed on, shared and used widely. By this I mean the mentees who eventually take on the role of mentors and how they become the transferrers of tacit knowledge.
Here is my take on how mentoring is a mechanism for tacit knowledge transfer:
Transfer Strategy: Collaboration and networks
Mentoring Strategy: Community of Learning Groups (CoLG)
(Let me know if you would like to receive a copy of my white paper on CoLGs if you are interested in knowing more about these and how you can establish CoLGs as mentoring support mechanisms in your organisation)
Transfer Strategy: Show your work
Mentoring Strategy: Mentee shadowing their mentor; mentor sharing their expertise and real examples with their mentee in mentoring meetings
Transfer Strategy: Storytelling
Mentoring Strategy: Mentor-mentee partnership meetings; mentoring programme communication strategies spotlighting leaders’ stories within the organisation
Transfer Strategy: Guided Experience
Mentoring Strategy: Reciprocal observations of practice, review, and reflection;
The mentoring partnership is a perfect conduit for the leader as mentor to tell their story, share their knowledge and impart their wisdom, with the intention to support the mentee’s development and success. The partnership isn’t a grandstand for the mentor to wax lyrical about themselves every time they meet with their mentee. The stories they tell always aims to help the mentee meet their needs, which could be navigating a journey towards goal achievement, finding courage to address a workplace issue or gaining confidence to make a decision about their future career.
Within all this altruism – which I believe mentoring and the mentor role is all about – how do you capture the wisdom, knowledge and stories of the mentor? I think this is a missing link in many mentoring programmes and, more broadly, a missing piece of an organisation’s strategy, i.e., securing the experienced leader’s expertise before they leave the organisation. Sure, change is rapid and constant and therefore knowledge content and innovative practices are always changing to keep up; we all know this. But there are the fundamentals that are invaluable and can be passed on to inform and nurture the next generation. For example, how the leader-mentor makes decisions, how they have developed and sustained excellent leadership skills, what they do to create effective teams, how they garner and transform through their leadership acumen.
A mentee learns invaluable lessons and collects a raft of tools from their mentor that supports their professional practice and helps them step up to the next challenge in their career. Unless this mentee becomes a mentor, or there is a system in place to capture and document the lessons learned, it is too easy for that knowledge to be lost instead of leveraged. When systems and processes are established in a work environment, it is easier to share tacit knowledge and people are more motivated to do so. A mentoring programme actively operating in your organisation is a great example of a system and process that works o achieve this.
Reference: Leonard, D., Swap, W., & Barton. (2015). Critical knowledge transfer: Tools for managing your company’s deep smarts. Harvard Business Review Press