Is it knowledge transfer or learning transfer? How to avoid the confusion.

Not so long ago I was reminded of the need to use standardised language in discussions with clients. Why? Well, because we all live inside jargon-filled bubbles that sometimes touch, but rarely converge. Let me throw out an example where we recently talked to a CLO about a ‘transfer’ project. For a while it seemed that we were agreeing about the approach to take, until suddenly we were stopped in our tracks when she asked “So, should we curate all knowledge that needs to be transferred or set up peer-to-peer exchange sessions?”. 

I immediately realised that we were talking at crossed purposes even though we seemed to be using the same language. The meeting started out well. We understood that we were going to talk about transfer initiatives, and so we proposed that the strategy should depend on the type of training content that needs to be transferred into performance. I asked what kind of training they were thinking of implementing. The response included topics like exception handling, market knowledge, customer preferences, etc. We nodded while taking notes, and finally I said that the topics seemed very information-heavy, and that people easily forget information they learned. The CLO gave us a funny look, and that’s when the bombshell question came. 

Looking back, we should have clarified what we understood ‘transfer’ to be at the beginning of the conversation, learning transfer – the transfer of learning content into on the job performance. Or, should it have been knowledge transfer? – the handing over of experiences from veteran employees to the next generation before they retire. 

The strategies for both are very different, even though they sound quite similar. Here’s what the differences are…

Learning transfer is a strategy for improving the chances that learning will get used correctly in the workplace once learning is done. To achieve that, the strategy has various tactics depending on the category of learning. In the case of our CLO, the category was knowledge-heavy learning, or learning that is mainly dense information. The tactics of knowledge-heavy transfer are to use tools and mechanisms that aid the recall and use of information from memory. In other words, throughout training and once it’s done there should be ways that participants are supported to remember information, show how it can be applied in actual work, and describe how to adapt broad knowledge and information to suit specific scenarios.

On the flip side, knowledge transfer is about not losing information that is stored in people’s minds when they leave the company. So, before people leave with all their smarts companies try to find out where all the smart information is, document it, curate it, and then teach people how to pass on knowledge to the next generation. In some cases, they also teach the next generation how to coax out valuable information from senior employees.

Here’s how things ended up…

In the end, our CLO friend wanted Knowledge and Learning Transfer, but what a mix up in the beginning. This definitely justifies the need for a common vocabulary not only between learning and business people, but also between people in our own industry as the lexicon changes or develops. At least in this case, no more confusion about the difference between learning transfer and knowledge transfer. 

Have you ever encountered this type of cross communication problem? What learning jargon do you know that frequently gets misinterpreted? What advice do you have about how to avoid this kind of misunderstanding?

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