Teaching Junior Engineers How to Author Requirements: A guide to knowledge transfer
It’s important to learn from our mistakes, but even more valuable to learn from the mistakes of others. In many cases, best practices develop from what industries or organizations learn from these mistakes.
Transferring knowledge from seasoned requirements engineers to junior requirements engineers can be a challenge for many reasons. Documentation cannot capture the finer details, and even then becomes outdated quickly.
Engineers come and go, along with their knowledge. Some folks are better teachers than others – and some better learners than others. Without effective knowledge transfer, you risk the loss of important organizational knowledge and the associated competitive advantage.
WHY KNOWLEDGE TRANSFER IS IMPORTANT
In today’s knowledge economy, a company’s most valuable assets are not usually physical assets. Rather, its competitive advantage lies in the ideas and knowledge that reside in its people.
Yet, this new economy also consists of employees who are more mobile than in the past and who often do not stay with the same employer for their entire career. Combine all of this with the possibility of an expanding company and new employees joining, and it is clear why knowledge retention and knowledge transfer are important.
Knowledge transfer should not be left to chance. It must be planned and will include more than one of these methods to form a comprehensive strategy.
At first glance, it can seem to be a waste of time, both from the company’s standpoint and in the minds of those who must take time out of their schedules to pass on the knowledge.
Some may even keep their knowledge held closely in an attempt to make themselves indispensable. Managers might find it necessary to include knowledge transfer duties in their team’s performance goals and expectations.
When most people think about knowledge transfer and training, they think about the experienced engineers who have been battle-tested and pass on their hard-earned knowledge to the engineers fresh out of school. This is frequently the case.
Remember, too, though that everyone has something to share. Even junior engineers bring a fresh perspective to share with senior engineers.
It can be tempting to solve the problem of a heavy workload by outsourcing, and outsourcing certainly has a place. However, it is important to consciously decide which tasks can be done by anyone and which are competitive advantages or are much more efficient if done in house.
Make this a part of your knowledge retention strategy. Do not let a third party be the only one who knows how to perform your organization’s core functions.
WRITTEN PROCESSES AND DOCUMENTATION
A common initial reaction to the concept of knowledge transfer is to write it down. Some knowledge does lend itself to being written down or turned into processes.
Generating documentation gives you a standard, repeatable process that can ensure your processes do not fall apart when a key person leaves. The downside is that it can be difficult to transmit finer details, experience, and the nuance of the skills necessary to be successful.
Written documentation is most useful for process requirements, for example:
- All requirements must be written in the EARS format in Microsoft Word, using QVscribe.
- Before finalizing any requirements document, it must be reviewed by a requirements engineer senior to the primary author.
These types of process requirements, while seemingly simple, can be important to the organization by ensuring that key steps are consistently applied.
Companies that rely on documentation for knowledge retention and transfer must keep in mind the challenge of maintaining the documentation and updating it when new knowledge is gained and best practices change. In most cases, someone must be assigned this responsibility.
Ideally, each document will have an owner named who must revalidate the document regularly. Most organizations will balk at the resources and cost it takes to keep documents current, so it is best to minimize reliance on written documentation except for core processes.
LIVE DOCUMENTATION SYSTEMS
Knowledge capture systems can be helpful. An internal wiki system can be a great way to document knowledge and allow others to learn from it. One risk inherent to wikis is that anyone can make edits.
If there is not sufficient employee engagement with the system, errors and outdated information can live on in the system indefinitely. The amount of time it takes to update wikis (with little immediate benefit to the contributor) usually discourages meaningful contributions.
There is also the problem of finding useful information in the wiki. The volume of information can be overwhelming, and it is mostly unstructured. Even with good search functionality, engineers may not know what kinds of information to look for. They don’t know what they don’t know. It is often the nuanced learnings from the past that provide the most value, and that is precisely the information that is difficult to pass on effectively in a written format.
If you do implement a live documentation system, some options include the traditional wiki as well as various knowledge base systems.
If your team is already on a platform such as Slack, consider using it as the basis for your knowledge retention wiki. There are several wiki apps available for Slack. By having a single platform, everyone sees the wiki in the same system they use every day, making it easy to engage.
Industry best practices are easily shared through formal training. If you choose to outsource formal training, one advantage is that the responsibility to stay up-to-date on current industry best practices is on the shoulders of the training company. Larger organizations may find they can justify internal resources to provide their own formal training. In this case, they can include company-specific knowledge and provide a comprehensive training program.
Although formal training seems to be an obvious method of knowledge transfer, most people find that it is merely the basis for ongoing learning that occurs through other methods. It should be only one component of a comprehensive knowledge transfer strategy.
A system that guides engineers as they write requirements will make your senior engineers’ jobs easier and will instill good habits in your junior engineers.
QVscribe is a tool for Microsoft Word, Excel, Polarion, IBM DOORS Next, and Jama that uses Natural Language Processing to proactively check for compliance with best practices as the requirements are being written. QVscribe flags potential problems, allowing the author to see where their requirements could be written more effectively or in better compliance with best practices.
CROSS-TRAINING AND MENTORING
Although it can seem inefficient – and in the short term it is inefficient – an effective way to pass on best practices to junior engineers is through cross-training and mentoring. It is one of the more difficult, time-consuming, and therefore expensive methods; but the long-term benefit is great and forward-thinking companies see that.
Some ways to implement cross-training and mentoring programs include:
In a mentoring relationship, a senior engineer is matched up with a junior engineer. They schedule regular meetings, giving the junior engineer an opportunity to ask questions and learn from the senior engineer. Mentoring is often used for career development along with technical development.
Unlike mentoring, which pairs a senior engineer with a junior engineer, peer coaching pairs two engineers with similar experience levels. Again, they schedule regular meetings to give each of them an opportunity to share knowledge and problem solve with one another.
A peer coach is a perfect person for questions like, “How would you do this?” and “I have a problem I’m having a hard time-solving. Do you have any ideas?” Combined with mentoring, this gives a junior engineer two great resources – someone who has been there and someone who still is there.
A company that values knowledge management understands that every important task needs a backup and that there should never be only one person who can do a task successfully. Providing engineers with the opportunity to learn someone else’s job will give them the experience and practice necessary to eventually move into that role and serve as an emergency backup for the role if the current engineer is unavailable. Cross-training is similar to apprenticeships, which have been used for centuries to pass on nuanced knowledge.
Wide Meeting Invitations
If there are regular meetings of senior engineers or project-specific meetings with more complex issues, consider inviting junior engineers to occasionally sit in and observe even if they are not directly involved. Observing how experienced engineers work together to solve a problem can be a great learning experience.
The best learning opportunity is old-fashioned networking. Networking provides a great outlet for best practices sharing, especially for the details that can’t be captured on paper as well as they can through tribal knowledge. This is a great way to pass on information that engineers did not even realize they did not know – the “unknown unknowns”.
Simply having an open discussion about a current problem can easily result in someone responding with, “I remember running into that problem in a similar situation several years ago” and providing their perspective. For those who have certifications requiring continuing education, such as a P. Eng certification, time spent networking can be a great way to find an industry mentor.
There are many different networking methods:
Trade shows, conferences, and local professional societies are great ways to meet other people, trade ideas, and develop ongoing relationships. External networking is beneficial, but for larger companies and those that want to make sure their internal knowledge is preserved, internal networking is just as important.
During team meetings, put time on the agenda for engineers to describe their projects and problems to their coworkers. This is a fantastic way for everyone to see the bigger organizational picture, generate ideas, and facilitate problem-solving.
Dispersed teams do a lot of work remotely. While modern technology makes this easier than it used to be, remote teams always work together more effectively if they have the occasional opportunity to see one another face-to-face and develop relationships. Bring your remote teams together in the same room as often as you can.
Internal Chat Boards and Social Media
Internal discussion boards and social media, such as Yammer, Slack, or Skype provide a way to ask questions of the broader organization to crowdsource solutions and avoid re solving problems that someone else has already dealt with.
A great way to get people to show up to networking or training sessions is to provide food. Hold short training sessions over the lunch hour. Bring in an outside expert or take turns presenting on different topics. Not only will information be exchanged, but the team will gain experience in public speaking.
Implementing diverse and comprehensive knowledge transfer strategies will create a kind of self-healing knowledge network, with important organizational knowledge duplicated and dispersed throughout the organization. Ultimately, successful knowledge transfer can improve organizational efficiency and profitability by embedding best practices and enhancing the reputation of the organization.
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