Mentoring for knowledge retention and transfer

IMG_1113You want to improve knowledge retention and transfer within your law firm. You may have a strong supervision programme for junior members of staff, but do you need to do more? Would a mentoring programme help?

Firstly, do you really “get” the difference between mentoring, supervision and coaching? They have similar elements, but which is useful for transfer and retention of knowledge?


A supervisor is responsible for overseeing the supervisee’s work and ensuring that he/she does their job as expected: mistakes are spotted and corrected, KPIs are met. Supervision is about monitoring.

A mentor is a guide or trusted advisor who interacts with the mentee in order to help them to succeed. Mentors have generally “been there before” and know traps and pitfalls. Mentoring is about relationships and guidance.

Coaching is about asking questions to help someone question their own actions and goals, in order to help them find the solutions they need by themselves. Coaches don’t advise, but they tend to be task oriented and often work with people for a limited time, until the task in question is complete. You can use a coaching style in either a supervisory or mentoring relationship.


Once you clarify the difference between the roles, it becomes more apparent how supervision and mentoring can help you with knowledge retention and transfer.

Firstly, ask yourself what kinds of knowledge you need to transfer/retain. The dividing lines aren’t as obvious as this suggests, but as a guide…

Supervision is often useful for transfer of:

  • explicit knowledge and some tacit knowledge,
  • declarative and procedural knowledge,
  • embrained, encoded and embedded knowledge.

Mentoring can be particularly useful for:

  • hard-to-reach tacit knowledge,
  • causal and relational knowledge,
  • Deep Smarts (see D Leonard’s book),
  • embodied, encultured and embedded knowledge.

Which types of knowledge does your firm struggle with retaining/transferring? When you understand that and understand the differing approaches of supervision and mentoring, it becomes plain whether you should work on improving your supervision process or whether to improve/start a mentoring scheme.

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Do you struggle a bit with the definition of “knowledge” and what tools and techniques to try?  You aren’t alone, many KMers in law firms have no formal training in Knowledge Management theory. For this reason, I run a day-long course specifically looking at the basics of legal sector KM in London each January, May and September. More info here.

About knowledge4lawyers

I am a lawyer and a Knowledge Management expert. Through The Knowledge Business I help law firms improve their efficiency and profitability through knowledge services - consultancy, training and implementation help.
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