Transferring and communicating knowledge among team members is a crucial part of collaboration in any software development team. But doing it manually with each team member is generally not a sustainable method. That’s where different knowledge transfer methods come in. Having a centralized and unique ecosystem for coordinating tasks and transferring knowledge among team members not only makes existing developers’ lives easier but also promotes smooth onboarding of new teammates.
How? Let us explore. A systematic knowledge transfer process accommodates all the team members’ knowledge in a concise manner. A unique knowledge base for the whole company decentralizes teams and provides easy-access to everyone – new and old.
Wondering how you may create a unique knowledge transfer method that works for your business and make your employee onboarding experience smoother and faster? Then read on!
Understanding the importance of knowledge transfer
Can you efficiently work with a development team without optimizing knowledge transfer? Our answer would be ‘no’.
Software development is a knowledge-intensive activity. The process involves constantly creating and sharing knowledge among the team members and stakeholders. If the knowledge transfer process is not optimized, more often than not, the majority of the knowledge is in possession of one or two key employees. Which means, the departure of those employees can bring disaster for the whole team, even halt the project’s progression completely.
On the other hand, having a solid method for knowledge transfer will decentralize your team’s work and streamline training processes of new employees.
Let’s look at some benefits of having a knowledge transfer plan.
- Circulation of project knowledge and technical expertise among developers.
- Consolidation of all knowledge across the company into a centralized database.
- Improvement in the onboarding process of new employees.
- Retention of knowledge created and possessed by former employees.
- Upgradation of skills and expertise in a continuous manner.
Tacit knowledge vs. explicit knowledge
Tacit knowledge is knowledge possessed by employees which they gained through their work and experience. This type of knowledge consists of technical expertise, industry knowledge and business insights and is usually transferred through direct contact among people such as pair programming or one-to-one meetings.
Explicit knowledge is, on the other hand, knowledge that is recorded and communicated through documentation. For a development team, it may look like pre-defined coding standards. This type of knowledge is easily accessible throughout the organization and promotes asynchronous knowledge transfer.
Generally, agile development relies primarily on tacit knowledge making it quite difficult to transfer one employee’s knowledge to other members of the team. If your development process is rather plan-driven, your employees can make the most out of explicit knowledge sharing by leveraging the people-to-document approach within the organization.
Agile businesses require documentation too
The agile method of development promotes people and interactions over procedures and tools. Building a working software quickly and efficiently is more emphasized than creating documentation in this process. However, this does not mean that project managers or select members of the development team should keep all the information in their heads. This can lead to unnecessary pressure on the lead developers, inefficiency at using human resources throughout the team and loss of crucial information in communication. A robust documentation system takes pressure off the people working on a project and somewhat future proofs the team against unexpected changes.
However, experts are divided on their opinion towards implementing explicit and tacit knowledge in the development process. According to Alistair Cockburn, one of the pioneers of the agile development method, development teams should create a balance between the two forms of knowledge sharing. On the other hand, Haridimos Tsoukas, an organization and leadership theorist, believes that the two forms are just two sides of the same coin. He says that even a comprehensive and elaborate documentation requires an experienced reader to interpret it.
All this ultimately means that explicit and tacit knowledge coexist in the world of knowledge sharing. To use them to your benefit, you need to focus on finding the right balance. This balance can not be achieved in one go. But communicating with team members and gathering feedback on the helpfulness of different knowledge sharing methods are quite likely to help you build a smoother onboarding process.
Knowledge transfer through interactions
While onboarding a new employee, one of the most important things to focus on is to transfer the existing knowledge base to the new hire. On top of this, the new employee must be integrated into the structure and vision of the organization.
Interaction with coworkers and managers is important to achieve these goals. It is a well-established practice to ask for help from a coworker when being stuck on a problem. In fact, data shows that 46% of developers call either a coworker or a friend while facing issues with their work. Getting a workplace mentor and daily meeting with coworkers can enlighten a new team member on their coworkers’ responsibilities and technical expertise. They will learn who can help with what domain of technology in an organic way as well as be in sync with the project’s progress.
These one-on-one meetings will answer questions and clarify goals for the new employee ensuring an effective knowledge transfer and a smooth onboarding.
What knowledge transfer methods are used in software development teams?
One-to-one communication is generally more comfortable for humans, especially in a new environment. Being assigned a mentor whom the newcomer can trust with all their confusions and queries can be an effective way for knowledge transfer while onboarding. This way, the learning can be personalized to the learner’s needs while creating a sense of comradery with a teammate from the get go.
The primary difficulty in this situation is to find the right mentor for a particular new hire. While selecting the mentor, keep in mind that understanding documentation and business logic should not be the only deciding factor. The mentor should have experience working with the team and ability to motivate others to succeed.
Pair programming sessions can be another efficient way to transfer project-specific knowledge while building team spirit by working on the same task with a teammate. These sessions consist of two programmers writing the same code together.
While working from the same office, it can look like two employees working using the same computer and the same keyboard. On the other hand, remote teams can use screen sharing tools like the Live Share extension for Visual Studio in order to collaborate among multiple developers in real-time.
Pair programming leverages the ‘learning through experience’ aspect of development. By working on the same code with an existing member of the team, a new employee can learn how the code is organized, variables are named and problems are solved giving them a first-hand look at the work they are going to do.
Pair programming sessions can be made more efficient by using AI tools such as GitHub Copilot. It accepts comments describing the logic a developer needs and suggests code based on the project’s style and context.
According to this article by Atlassian, code reviews have proven to facilitate conversations about the code base. A lot of important information can be hidden in the code of a software that can be uncovered through this process. Senior developers can mentor newcomers to help them find important nuggets of knowledge. On top of that, a code review session can not only benefit the learning process of a new hire but also help find clumsy code fragments or provide a new perspective by the new pair of eyes.
Code reviews are important even without a new employee to onboard. Regular code reviews within a team can help decentralize work so that only one developer does not have all the knowledge of a project, it’s shared throughout the team. As a result, if the leading developer takes time off or leaves the company, the team is not at a loss and can pick up where it was left off.
Usually conducted by the team leader and held in a one-to-one setting, these meetings introduce a new hire to the company’s structure and culture while setting expectations and goals. Such meetings can also be held to follow up on how the other knowledge sharing techniques are going and where the newcomer is fitting in.
During these meetings, team leaders should explore any confusions or questions the new hires might have regarding their work or the project. Pointing out where gaps remain in knowledge sharing and figuring out how to proceed can ensure a faster and effective onboarding process.
Of course, it had to be on the list. Documentations are necessary to help a new person working with the software understand its features and functions. Such documentation can be divided into two types – process documentation (test standards, project plans, meeting records etc.) and product documentation (description of the product).
Product documentation comes in two forms, one for end users and the other for developers. While manuals for end users and system administrators are familiar to most of us, other system-related documentation for developers needs to be much more detailed. These documentations usually include:
- Product requirements
- Architecture design
- Key files
- Details on functions and subroutines
- Key algorithms
- Release notes
As these documentations can be quite technical and difficult to read by nature, visual elements like illustrations, infographics and fun formatting are quite important. Making the documents visually interesting can help readers render the information better.
Comments in code are important as they provide context about what the code entails. They can communicate the programmer’s intention or point out optimizations and constructs that are not immediately apparent. Comments improve code’s readability which in turn improves maintenance, upgrade and reusability of it.
However, a bad comment can be worse than no comment in some cases. Stack Overflow suggests writing comments that dispel confusion, explain substandard constructs and provide links to the source code when applicable. Moreover, commenting should be prioritized when fixing bugs or if an implementation is incomplete.
Tutorials that are custom and pre-recorded can give a new hire detailed context about an organization’s structure and culture while not taking up a lot of time out of a mentor’s day. The time and effort required to create custom tutorials might be over-the-top for startups or small businesses, but in the case of large corporations, this is one of the most efficient ways of onboarding. Google Codelabs is one of the most well-known examples of this knowledge sharing method.
A comprehensive knowledge base and a practicing mentorship model can make onboarding new employees faster and smoother, especially in case of steady projects that have accumulated a vast amount of information. Every member of a team should be skilled enough to handle emergencies instead of relying on the team lead.
After all, a team that efficiently collaborates is a team that succeeds.