Blog post

Knowledge Transfer the U.S. Army Way

By Darin Stewart | May 07, 2013 | 1 Comment

Knowledge ManagementCollaboration

Most organizations recognize, at some level, that creating and sharing knowledge is a worthy endeavor. Unfortunately, efforts to promote knowledge sharing rarely go beyond mission and value statements displayed in the break room and silk-screened on coffee mugs. Organizations want to do it, they just don’t know how. It is ironic that while there is a large body or best practices demonstrating how to address this issue, we still haven’t quite figured out how to transfer knowledge about how to transfer knowledge. It can help to start with the basics.

The most common form of knowledge transfer is, more than anything, a means of preserving expertise and experience. When a team accomplishes a new task, usually learning dos and don’ts along the way, it is obviously desirable to preserve that knowledge within the team so that they don’t make the same mistakes the next time they must perform the same task in a different setting. This is serial knowledge transfer. The critical factor is that individual knowledge must be disseminated across the entire team. If Bob learns a new trick, he needs to share it with Sally, Umar and Greg. Likewise if Umar makes a mistake, he must warn his compatriots of the potential pitfall so they avoid the same error in the future.

The United States Army has formalized serial transfer in the form of After Action Reviews (AAR) in which they standardized three key questions: What was expected to happen? What actually happened? What accounts for the difference? In the course of the AAR, each of these questions are answered, but within certain ground rules. First, meetings are held regularly. A kickoff meeting and a post-mortem are not sufficient. Weekly reviews, or at least after each milestone or project phase, are necessary. Frequent meetings are also necessary in order to keep them brief. The more focused the meeting (limited scope and agenda) the more useful the knowledge produced tends to be. Everyone involved in the task under review participates in meeting. If you don’t show up or are silent during the proceedings, the implication is that you did not contribute or worse do not care.

Interestingly for the Army, recriminations of any sort are not allowed. The Army has a very clear rule: Nothing said in an AAR can be used in any kind of personnel action. This “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” dynamic is critical to effective knowledge transfer. If there is fear of adverse consequences arising from information shared in the meeting, the truth will be supplanted by blame shifting and overly optimistic distortions in the finest C.Y.A. tradition. Once team members are truly convinced that they will not be penalized for honesty, the quality of information will improve dramatically.

It is important to remember that the goal of serial transfer is to build and preserve knowledge within a unit or team. As a result, summary reports are not forwarded beyond the actual participants. If fact in many of these meetings, no written record is kept. If notes are taken they are retained only for local use and distribution. In the case of the U.S. Army, AAR notes are not sent through reporting lines but through a “knowledge line.” Finally, it is essential that meetings be facilitated by a member of the team. This increases ownership and trust among the members. It will also allow internal expertise and orientation to shape the form of the documentation in a way that is most appropriate to the team as its primary consumers.

While the military is generally not considered a particularly “safe place” to “honestly share ones feelings and frustrations” it has found an effective way to learn from mistakes (at least in some cases).  It is essential for staff to be able to share concerns, observations and failures along a complete knowledge line, even if that knowledge line runs through your commanding officer…or the CIO.

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1 Comment

  • Hi Darin
    Thanks for writing this up. I am writing to respond to your note:

    “Organizations want to do it, they just don’t know how. It is ironic that while there is a large body or best practices demonstrating how to address this issue, we still haven’t quite figured out how to transfer knowledge about how to transfer knowledge”

    After nearly 20 running a global consulting practice on the topic of knowledge transfer, we still find lots of people who don’t know that knowledge transfer can be quick, clear, methodical and measurable. Check out the white paper on my website and then I’d love to write a guest post here or collaborate with you on one.

    Steve Trautman