Formal versus informal knowledge transfer – there’s no substitute for structure

When a coach conducts a workshop, a teacher gives a lesson, or a university student reads a book in the library, knowledge transfer is happening—within a clear structure.

Most of the time, teachers and coaches prepare for their work. Books are written according to a structure, and they get edited at least once. But at the office, knowledge transfer happens in a very different way. The effect this has on everyone from new hires to senior staff is visible any time people look for information on products, processes, services, and more.

But how do we define knowledge transfer outside of classrooms, workshops, and libraries? What does knowledge transfer within a company involve, and what’s the best way to structure it? With the fast pace of information most businesses experience, it’s crucial that the right recipients get high-quality knowledge, and fast. So, what’s the best way to institute sustainable knowledge transfer in an environment in which change is constant?

Informal knowledge transfer works something like this: Someone, let’s say a customer, asks an employee a question they can’t answer. The co-worker who does know the answer is on vacation. It’s an urgent matter, so the first employee starts the process of gathering the necessary information themselves. This takes time and causes frustration because staff have to drop other work to do the research. But in the end, the employee gets to the bottom of things. They make a note in case the question comes up again. It feels like something has been learned, but there are nagging doubts that the answer might be incorrect, or that something has been missed.

So, the employee sends an email to everyone just in case they ever need the answer to that specific question. The only problem is, that email is destined to get lost in the flood of messages people deal with every day. A training session on the new knowledge might help, but that would require many people to sacrifice their time. Maybe the next staff meeting is the best place to show off this new expertise? Everyone respects an expert, right?

But as we’ve seen, experts tend to take their knowledge with them, for instance on vacation. One last option would be to store the knowledge as a note on a file server or SharePoint.Now we’ve arrived at an idea that can lead to formal knowledge transfer in the organization. When we move from informal to formal knowledge transfer, implicit knowledge is made explicit, accessible, and easy to understand for everyone.

Ten steps to set up formal knowledge transfer in your organization


  1. You need a central repository that is quick and easy to access—a knowledge base—that lets you provide information to everyone and keep that knowledge up-to-date. Individuals within the organization then manage the knowledge in clearly defined roles such as “editor” or “knowledge manager.”

  2. Before any new knowledge is saved in the knowledge base, it goes to a knowledge manager or editor.

  3. That person prepares the information according to a style guide.

  4. Next, they organize it within a clear and intuitive structure.

  5. Then an experienced co-worker checks the content before it is approved for everyone to use.

  6. After a specified amount of time has passed, the information is re-evaluated to ensure it is still correct and current.

  7. Users can offer suggestions or even question the validity of the existing information at any time. But a fixed team of editors and knowledge managers always has the last say on the content in the knowledge platform.

  8. Those who have the necessary expertise decide whether the information is correct.

  9. It’s important that any knowledge management initiative be implemented by a team, not one person acting alone. To ensure knowledge transfer can happen at the rapid pace that’s required, you need a knowledge management team that’s always active and able to respond. Even in small organizations, a knowledge manager needs at least one person who can stand in for them in their absence.

  10. With formal knowledge transfer, knowledge managers ensure information is concise and easy to comprehend.
    1. That requires tossing out or updating any information that is no longer current or correct.
    2. It also means writing the content in a way that cuts out any unnecessary fat. The goal is good readability that lets users quickly understand the topic and use the information.

How does this type of formal knowledge transfer help companies?

The more these 10 steps become standard procedure, the better. As the process picks up pace, quality improves. Because the faster information can be found, the more efficient employees become. And if someone happens to go on vacation, their knowledge is still available. This approach helps alleviate bottlenecks, too.

Formal knowledge transfer isn’t something you can just improvise or accomplish by setting up a Wiki. Getting as many co-workers as possible to participate is important. Formal knowledge transfer also demands structure. All the way down to the wording of each sentence. Just like a well-structured book or a properly organized lesson.

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Hendrik Buske

Written by Hendrik Buske

For Hendrik Buske, Customer Service Management is not only a job, it is his passion. For years he has supported and transformed the customer experience management and cusomter service strategies in leading service organizations. It comes as no surprise that he - trained industrial engineer that he is - sooner or later found his way into the field of Customer Service Management in the software industry. At Serviceware, he deploys his knowledge and vigor to support strategic developments for Customer Service Management products.

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