Signals solution development team

How to transfer knowledge within your development team and cross-teams

When you pay your developers, you also pay for the knowledge they invest in your company. You’d be surprised how much money you lose when they leave and their expertise is gone.

Find out how to avoid such situations, build a robust knowledge transfer culture, and keep your product documentation comprehensive and clear. Discover the main challenges in transferring knowledge and how to overcome them.

What is knowledge transfer?

Knowledge transfer is a vital process in software development. It involves deliberately sharing skills, information, and insights between teams or companies. This seamless exchange includes assets, tools, documentation, and project-related details, ensuring the continuity of projects.

Without adequate knowledge transfer, developers may struggle to contribute to the code, leading to missed deadlines and compromised quality. The process employs mentoring, training, coaching, and communication channels to facilitate a smooth knowledge transition. Any disruption in this flow weakens product quality, financially impacting both companies and their clients. 

There are two types of knowledge to be transferred: tacit and explicit. I’ll explain what either of them entails in a few moments. But first, let’s find out why bother with knowledge transfer at all.

When knowledge transfer can occur

- A big piece of functionality is being developed, and each developer builds a part of their own. 

- The same, but the work is distributed among several teams, not just developers. Things get more complex when the teams are of different parties, e.g., your company and an outsourced team or another company post-acquisition.

- Your team member quits, and there is a need to ensure the unique knowledge they possess about the company processes, products, etc., remains when they are gone.

- A developer with unique knowledge gets sick or goes vacationing, and another temporarily takes their place.

Case (1)

Why your teams need to pass down knowledge

Software development relies heavily on knowledge creation and sharing among the team and external stakeholders.

  • A well-structured knowledge transfer process is essential to prevent inefficiencies and potential project halts. 
  • Implementing a knowledge-transfer plan has numerous benefits, including effective dissemination of project knowledge, improved onboarding experiences, consolidation of distributed employee knowledge, and retention of expertise.
  • Such a plan helps your team avoid the need to reconstruct knowledge from scratch. 
  • A robust knowledge base allows teams to leverage accumulated insights and best practices. Knowledge sharing between teams mitigates the risk of missed deadlines, fosters collaboration, and promotes continuous improvement. 

Finally, this democratization of knowledge empowers each team member, enhances job satisfaction, and fuels career advancement. In software development, knowledge transfer isn't just powerful; it's the currency driving growth, innovation, and success, making it an integral part of any organization's business strategy.

Types of knowledge

Tacit knowledge encompasses the expertise, industry insights, and business acumen employees acquire through experience, primarily shared through direct interactions like pair programming or one-on-one meetings. Conversely, explicit knowledge is documented, digitized information easily accessible to all team members, including documents, reports, and coding standards.

The choice between tacit and explicit knowledge management strategies in software engineering hinges on your organization’s development methodology. 

Agile development leans heavily on tacit knowledge due to the challenges of effectively transferring such knowledge through written or visual means. In contrast, plan-driven development emphasizes explicit knowledge, as capturing information in documents aligns well with this methodology. 

The balance between these two forms of knowledge is crucial in tailoring knowledge transfer approaches to the specific needs and dynamics of the development process.


Best practices for knowledge transfer in a development team

The tips below cover more than the transfer process itself. You will learn how to build a solid base to facilitate future knowledge transfers and simplify them for your team.

- Before building the architecture, create its visual representation. Then, show it to all the stakeholders during a demo, gather feedback, and adjust if necessary. Only when you put "check" next to these steps it is wise to start the development process. 

- Ensure a series of calls as part of offboarding. When a team member leaves the company, these meetings will help identify and transfer unique knowledge. It's essential to have a final call to review all the transferred knowledge and ensure no valuable information is left out. The knowledge will be shared with a new team member or mediator, depending on the situation.

- Develop detailed documentation. When a knowledge transfer occurs between two companies, like in a post-acquisition or outsourcing scenario, the role of well-written documentation increases. Key stakeholders from both sides need to conduct a series of meetings to review documentation, show demos, and exchange product and company insights and nuances for better cooperation. Comprehensive visual materials like chats and diagrams created using BPMN best practices greatly simplify the transfer.

- Explain the specifics of system architecture. For instance, these are new services, created using up-to-date tools and well-documented, and these are the old ones where documentation is missing. The latter is the risk worth mentioning.

- Include business logic. When documenting the technical part, your team should make sure to explain how each process and feature works from the product and business point of view.

- Avoid duplication of the documentation. Teams can often copy and paste the requirements when creating tickets for tasks and breaking them into subtasks. But if the documentation gets updated, each task must also be updated. My experience shows that at least one of them will go unnoticed, leading to inconsistency, mistakes, and code rewriting.  So, it's better to link tasks to have one source of trust and avoid the tricky copy-and-paste routine.

- Record important calls, like demos. These will be crucial sources of information on core features and capabilities for other teams and new team members. 

- Public API documentation must be as extensive and transparent as possible so developers outside your company can easily understand it. This point is critical for an external  (between your company and partners, etc.) knowledge transfer. To save time and keep documentation up-to-date, use tools like Swagger.

- Create separate chats for each feature. These will be super important sources of information where you can search for hints on the purpose of changes made, sequence of actions, or virtually anything subject-related. To keep communication clear and structured, instead of deleting chats, you can archive those no longer active and open them in an emergency.

- Jot down the reasons. For any significant change made, make sure to include reasons. Chances are, sometime later, new team members will come up with a new idea... and make a mistake their predecessors managed to avoid.

Key points for creating documentation

Of course, your teams should not become obsessed with instant documentation updates and shift their focus from the actual development. To avoid being absorbed with documenting things, establish a clear documentation process and decide on the regularity of documentation updates. For instance, document changes at key points for your solution:

- Before the beginning of the product and its core functionality creation

- When a team member responsible for the development of a particular feature is temporarily absent. Depending on the responsibilities and volume of work, the team will need a few updates in documentation or just a recorded call with explanations.

- When a team member with unique knowledge quits.

Knowledge Transfer_ The Liyanage Framework

Challenges in knowledge transfer

- More than one team working on the project. If several teams are involved in the software development process, their processes may differ, and they move within different timeframes. For instance, one team finishes its part, and another picks it up only a month later. Lots of time to forget all the essential details if they are passed down orally, with no or poor documentation.

- Team members with unique knowledge. To simplify knowledge transfer when a key developer leaves or takes a time out, establish a culture of knowledge sharing. This will help you ensure knowledge is passed and used timely and nothing gets lost in the haste of offboarding.

- Poor code writing culture. Good code writing culture presupposes code is self-documented (logically written and easily understandable) or has comments in its key parts. Both variants make code comprehensive and exclude the necessity to refer to code authors for explanations.

- Difficulties in cross-team communication. For instance, you have several tech teams in various parts of the globe; they are not native English speakers, and their speaking skills need improvements. In such a situation, the devil is in the details lost in translation. To minimize risks, pay special attention to visual documentation and multiple media. Detailed visuals are easier to understand than long texts or oral explanations.

How company context affects knowledge transfer

Startups live through constant changes and have small teams. In this case, creating highly detailed documentation in most cases simply prevents them from the actual development. The best fit for startup teams is drawing diagrams, recording calls, and saving chats. 

Enterprise knowledge transfer, on the contrary, requires detailed documentation. In big companies, decisions tend to be more strategic and have long-lasting effects. That’s why well-documented knowledge will be a treasure after several years and when teams might have changed dramatically.

Wrapping it up on knowledge transfer

Effective knowledge transfer is crucial in software development. It safeguards the valuable expertise developers invest in your company, ensures improved onboarding experience, and brings together distributed employee knowledge. 

Best practices for knowledge transfer encompass:

  • Visual representations of architecture
  • Offboarding calls
  • Detailed documentation
  • Explanations of system architecture and business logic
  • Avoidance of duplication
  • Recording important calls
  • Creating extensive API documentation.

Challenges, such as multiple teams or team members with unique knowledge, highlight the need for a proactive knowledge-sharing culture and robust code writing practices.

Depending on your company size and context, you may need to prioritize practical methods like diagrams and calls or aim for extensively detailed documentation for strategic decision-making.

If you need a team that can accumulate and transfer knowledge effectively, INSART can help you with expertise-based development.    Sign up for a free consultation to explore how our decades of experience can benefit your team.

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