Knowledge Transfer: The Ultimate Message In A Bottle

As a leader, perhaps nothing is more important to your organization than protecting the legacy of your expertise — making sure that the deep knowledge you've acquired is successfully passed on to those who come after you.

Knowledge transfer doesn't only happen when someone retires and another takes their place. It's just as critical when key people are moved into new positions or locations, and in the inevitable shuffle when companies merge. But regardless of the situation, it is a leader's responsibility to make sure that the transfer of information is as clear, concise and enduring as possible.

What is the line between excessive information and leaving things out? Is the delivery person-to-person or in a manual? All at once or through an ongoing relationship? These are hard decisions because knowledge transfer always involves a trade-off between too much and not enough. But it can be done, and it can be done well.

40 years ago, a small team at NASA lead by astronomer Carl Sagan faced the ultimate challenge of knowledge transfer — encapsulating the essence of humanity and life on earth for eternity. Preposterous, almost. But what they did and how they did it offer us a model that we can still learn from today.


On August 20 and September 5, 1977, Voyager 1 and 2 lifted off from Cape Canaveral on a journey to explore Jupiter, Saturn and the outer planets. Voyager was (and still is) an unprecedented mission — not only because of the sheer number of scientific targets, but because both spacecraft, after close brushes with Jupiter, would accelerate beyond the grasp of our Sun's gravity, destined to wander forever amidst the stars of our Milky Way galaxy.

The Voyagers are now at the very farthest edge of our solar system, racing away from us at 40,000 miles an hour. Soon their power will run out and our radio transmitters and receivers will be unable to make contact. Then our connection with these spacecraft will end. Or maybe not.

Perhaps millions of years from now an intelligent civilization on a planet circling a distant star will find one of our Voyagers. And when they do they will wonder who we are, or who we were. This was the unlikely scenario that Sagan's team was asked to contemplate. What do you put in a cosmic time capsule that can only weigh a pound or two, take up less space than a small pizza box and remain intact for a billion years? The answer was a golden record, a twelve-inch metal disc etched with the sounds of Earth and humanity.


Think about where you work. Bring to mind every aspect of your organization — its people, location, expertise, process, systems, relationships — and imagine distilling that information to its essence. How do you share that concentrated information with someone who has no history in your organization? Maybe they're from another industry, have a different background, come from a foreign country, or are a generation or two younger.

The Voyager golden record team weren't knowledge transfer experts — but what they accomplished in 1977 is worth examining, not only for what was created, but for their focus on two fundamental questions: Is there a common language in the universe, and can we use that language to tell a story?

An alien civilization that comes across our spacecraft will not know English or any other language spoken on earth. What will be universal, though, is the vocabulary of physics, including the vibrations of sound. And so the case of the golden record has etched on its surface a diagram of a hydrogen atom, the most common element in the cosmos, followed by pictures of the record and stylus in their playing positions and the binary code to indicate speed of rotation. It's a remarkably concentrated guide, but if extraterrestrial beings are advanced enough to capture Voyager, it will be sufficient.

The Voyager golden record captures in its grooves the sounds of planet Earth — the songs of birds, wind rushing through a stand of trees, waves crashing on a beach; also the beating of a human heart, laughter and a kiss. And it concludes with music — the meditative tones of a Japanese Shakuhachi flute, the intertwining melodies of an Indian raga, the exuberance of a Mexican Mariachi band and Chuck Berry's driving Jonny B. Goode. In 90 minutes nearly every corner of the world is represented. The final two selections, though, are an expression in sound of what makes us uniquely human. Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night" and Ludwig van Beethoven's "Cavatina" from his Opus 130 string quartet are musings in sound of those who have endured tremendous loss yet still have the will to create. Without words, just the vibrations of sound in air, they tell a story of humanity's perseverance to reach beyond our limitations.

Carl Sagan's team understood that the odds Voyager would be found by an alien civilization were infinitesimal. Yet they took seriously the challenge of distilling the essence of our world onto a thin disc of gold plated copper. Even if these two spacecraft wander forever between the stars, the stories on that golden record should inspire us to treasure what we've learned and then pass it on to those who will bring it into the future.

Published here on
September 11, 2017