Challenges and practices for effective knowledge transfer in globally distributed teams

A recent systematic literature review examines knowledge transfer in globally distributed teams (GDTs) in the context of global software development (GSD).

The systematic literature review was conducted using established guidelines. A keyword search of five major digital libraries identified 674 papers. Inclusion and exclusion criteria were applied, reducing the number of papers to a final list of 67.

From the review, knowledge transfer (KT) challenges and practices were identified.

Knowledge transfer challenges

Coordination challenges

  1. Temporal distance: Due to time zone differences, teams do not have enough common working time or synchronous meetings.
  2. Diversity of organizational environments: Process mismatches, differing technical and domain vocabularies, incompatible environments and conflicting assumptions can be problematic in the GSD.
  3. Geographical distance: Inter-organizational boundaries get blurred and relationships become complex. This makes collaboration and KT between the parties difficult.
  4. Infrastructure to support KT: Systems did not always support project-level KT. It may have negative impact on training and KT.
  5. Expertise in applying the knowledge and level of experience: Differences in skills, expertise, infrastructure, tools and methodologies hinder KT. In addition, the lack of prior experience of working together and changes in team membership hinder KT.
  6. Lack of awareness and control: The client has minimal awareness of the status of KT and, therefore, no basis from which to manage it.
  7. Coordination and integration of multiple knowledge sources: Different locations and departments use different terminology and tools, making KT across departmental boundaries a challenge.
  8. Content, location and use of knowledge: In GSD, many people are involved in the development activities, and thus organizations tend to have problems in terms of content, location and use of knowledge.
  9. Staff management: Cross-site coordination of roles and responsibilities of the team members can hinder KT between GDT.
  10. Costs management: Costs of KT are not known.
  11. Unwillingness to communicate: The fixed organizational routines and rigid structure caused, to a certain extent, an unwillingness to share vital knowledge.
  12. Structure of the development network does not nurture KT: The “tacitness” and stickiness of knowledge cause problems for KT.
  13. Changing vendor: Lack of clients’ operational knowledge needed by the change of a long-time vendor to a new one vendor.

Communication challenges

  1. Language differences: Information may be written or spoken in a language that is a foreign language for the team members and thus will be hard to understand. The information may be also represented from different perspectives than expected leading to misunderstandings.
  2. Poor communication: The effectiveness of KT in virtual organizations is limited because people tend to simplify knowledge when using technology as a communication media, and communication messages can lose richness in these settings.
  3. Mental models: Differences in absorptive capacity between knowledge provider and recipients (personal attributes).
  4. Lack of appropriate tools: A few tools support KT in GDT and some of them were not developed for KT purpose.
  5. Knowledge types and needs: Knowledge needs vary from person to person.
  6. Poor or lack of documentation: Documentation is an important means to share and transfer information, and its quality is essential for success.
  7. Transfer technological knowledge: Technological knowledge between the different organizational units is particularly challenging when employees have to delegate sophisticated individual software development tasks to offshore workers, which requires constant communication and adjustment processes.
  8. Complexity and stickiness of knowledge: The diversity of contexts exacerbates the ‘stickiness’ of information.
  9. Inadequate understanding of the customer’s business: The shared understanding may not reflect the original needs.
  10. Loss of knowledge in project hand-off processes: Different locations and departments use different terminology and tools in handoff processes making KT across departmental boundaries a challenge.

Cultural challenges

  1. Cultural diversity: Cultural barriers negatively affect face-to-face interaction, communication and collaboration.
  2. Social rules: Cultural rules, habits and subconsciously accepted rules affect offshored business process and IT outsourcing.
  3. Trust and motivation to transfer and share knowledge: Knowledge source may be not trustworthy, and trust affects co-operative learning.
  4. Incentives and priorities: Incentives and priorities for taking the necessary time to engage in the KT.
  5. Climate: Working conditions and physical surroundings in GSD projects.
  6. Political philosophy: Political issues cause rigidness and routine in the operating models.

Knowledge transfer practices

Practices for coordination challenges

  • Use of enabling technologies: different technologies must be employed to successfully ensure that various offshore sites can efficiently share knowledge resources.
  • Transactive memory system: it can be developed and maintained to support KT through the propagation of certain rules and standardized work that can overcome differences in local contexts, skill levels and work routines.
  • Adoption of common platforms and tools among sites: the organizational unities should provide a common infrastructural platform, which makes use of different project-specific and generic environments in which members of projects can interact using collaboration tools.
  • Adoption of personal coordination mechanisms: mechanisms such as routines that encourage personal interfacing have a direct influence on KT effectiveness.
  • Mitigation of project issues: project guidelines should define the teams’ participation in requirements elicitation and mapping during KT and weekly meetings.
  • Share point-based knowledge portal: it provides specific information to all employees.
  • Development of guidelines and handbooks: describes architectural solution, quality conformance rules, configuration tools.
  • Project knowledge: all the knowledge generated in the project should be made as accurate, complete and updated as possible.
  • Promote staffing motivation: individual motivation stimulation, mentoring and shadowing, and credible knowledge sender.
  • Increase personal attributes: education in business processes, technology management and interpersonal skills.
  • Mitigation of project issues for requirements: conducting oral and written tests/quizzes, reverse presentations for requirements validation, support simulation, playback or replay sessions.
  • Mitigation of project processes: understanding the organizational learning sub process, leveraging knowledge base and experience of peers, dynamic navigation aids to search information, modularization, use of outside expertise, joint collaboration, personal identities at work.
  • Requirements understanding: for newcomers is important to experiment with the system than to have up-to-date and complete documentation. Newcomers need to have ways to find and access relevant documentation.
  • Adoption of traditional mechanisms: coordination and control frameworks, combined with appropriate integrated voice, data and video communication technologies could be effective methods and tools for KT in projects.
  • On-site customer: when customers are working on-site with the team, collaboration can be enhanced through effective participation in release planning, daily meetings, review meetings and retrospectives.
  • Jointly modelling processes: it can be an appropriate solution to enhance KT if the effort is not too big in comparison with the project itself, which can be the case, especially if the involved companies are not process driven.
  • Team set up and adjustment: it is obtained through the learning of agreement roles, responsibilities and authorities, definition of an explicit statement of the project goals, communication about the design rationale, management of resources and aligning teams.
  • Team synchronizing: definition of clear and fixed requirements, a common shared understanding of the architecture and information about the performed tests and test results, the compatibility of the partners’ development tools and environments, and the identification of cultural differences.
  • Implementation of virtual environments to develop competences: if individuals possess more of a certain type of competence, they will be able to achieve higher performance.
  • Define responsibilities: it includes asking directly when problems occur, asking emergent people, when required.

Practices for communication challenges

  • Communication tools: it includes document management, video conferencing, e-mails, wikis and instant messaging can support communication.
  • Awareness improvement: frequent meetings can improve awareness among distributed sites.
  • Face-to-face interaction: it facilitates effective KT between team members.
  • Explicit KT: it can be successfully transferred in the form of documentation and data.
  • Informal communication: the offshored teams should continually have on going informal conversations with onshore teams.
  • Adoption of a centralized communication structure: it can help new teams to remain aware, whereas a decentralized structure decreases communication.
  • Community of practice: define a community of practices to share common interests and have face-to-face meetings.
  • Social media tools for urgent requests: adoption of social media tools provides services for distribution of information as an urgent request mechanism for KT.
  • Discussions: it facilitates openness and communication between teams in different locations. Discussions with subject matter experts on specific issues faced in the teams provide opportunities to refine, reprioritize, and generate requirements and solution.
  • Information though magazines: monthly quality magazines to disseminate best practices.
  • Communication between remote teams: remote team members shall find a way to socialize, interact virtually and perhaps even simulate a shared space for creating and exchanging tacit knowledge.
  • Email lists: e-mail lists are characterized by frequent discussions and questions on a specific topic related to project. These topics are not further structured, but allow for fellow practitioners to share experiences and respond to questions.
  • Implement a knowledge repository: a centralized knowledge repository shared by client and vendor is considered important for successful KT.
  • Group problem solving: it is obtained through the adequate communication means and information sharing and management of collaboration related risks.
  • Division of work and responsibility into smaller units: minimizing communication-related problems is to decrease communication needs and contact points to a minimum by splitting the project into smaller, independent units managed by a local manager. If no local project manager can be appointed, at least a contact person should be named for answering questions and acting as a contact point.

Practices for cultural challenges

  • Cultural bridges: cultural bridges can be established by creating collectivist culture, onsite visits and replay sessions, and cultural workshops.
  • Visits: GSD teams should visit other members in different locations when and as needed to gain better understanding of critical situations through face-to-face interactions that offer rich communication and effective KT.
  • Rotation: rotation of team members between different locations, often between 3–6 months, promotes the distribution of the business and domain knowledge across the teams.
  • Creating a common culture: to create a common culture, one needs to choose a specific, common language that is to be used within the organization.
  • Establish relationships among team members: the success of implicit KT is further moderated by the quality of the relationship among group members. If knowledge recipient and source do not have a trusting relationship, willingness to transfer background information and implicit knowledge is inhibited.
  • Promoting trust: understand the language and business culture of the clients, reinforce communication, pay attention to client relationship management, frequent travelling, and private contacts.
  • Mentoring technique: mentoring has been identified as one of the leading success factors in expanding the organizational culture.

Conclusions

A number of conclusions can be drawn from the study:

Conclusion 1 — The temporal, geographical and socio-cultural distance of GDT may limit KT: The review has revealed that there are several contextual factors of a project that may impact on the KT in GDT. Some of the factors are identified as challenges in the reviewed studies.

Conclusion 2 — Agile practices can promote effective KT in GDT: Based on results of the review, agile practices are helpful to support KT in GDT. However, the differences between software development processes for KT in collocated teams and GDT are still not clear. KT can be approached in a different way in GDT.

Conclusion 3 — There is no one size fits it all solution to solve the KT challenges in GDT: The review has revealed that there is a number of KT challenges in GDT. However, additional research is needed to define, when and which KT practices may be seen as best practices for GDTs.

Conclusion 4 — A deeper understanding about the characteristics and the effects of challenges is needed for GDT: The results of this review provide information that can be useful for GSD practitioners’ understanding of the various challenges that may impact KT in distributed settings. However, the difference between the two types of challenges is needed to be able to develop suitable strategies to mitigate them.


Originally published at RealKM.