We have all experienced this: a key contributor announces their departure and a mad scramble ensues to transition their knowledge to the rest of the team.
But does this change when the team is using an agile lifecycle?
On the surface, it might appear that there wouldn’t be any significant differences in how it is done regardless of the nature of the work or how it is performed. After all, knowledge transfer is usually a case of a subject matter expert educating others through either a live session or through some sort of persistent record such as a wiki, a video or an audio recording.
While this is true, there are characteristics and specific practices in agile delivery which can impact knowledge transfer.
Traditional delivery usually relies on individual specialists who remain focused on their role and area of expertise. On the other hand, agile delivery encourages the development of generalizing specialists who will develop a broader set of skills and knowledge. Higher levels of collaboration are also expected in such contexts which increases the amount of exposure that individual team members have to each other’s knowledge.
While this won’t translate into full fungibility across a team, there is less likelihood of only one team member possessing critical information. This won’t happen over night. It will take many weeks of working together as well as explicit encouragement by supporting stakeholders such as functional managers for generalizing specialists to develop.
Another enabler is non-solo work – pair programming, hackathons, mob programming and model storming are all practices using this principle. While the primary purpose of these practices is not knowledge transfer but rather quality and speed, it is a valuable side benefit. Rather than having experts share knowledge in an academic manner, demonstrating how their knowledge can be applied towards completing work items is more effective.
Whereas traditional delivery tended to emphasize documentation as the medium for passing work between roles, agile approaches focus on minimal sufficiency. While a newly formed team might require more documentation to facilitate shared understanding, a long lived team might successfully deliver with much less. The challenge becomes when a new or junior team member joins as there may be insufficient reference material to enable self-learning. But this should not cause any major issues if someone on the team volunteers to pair up with the newcomer to help fill in the blanks.
While the need for shared knowledge is there in all contexts, effective agile delivery can reduce the critical of explicit knowledge transfer.