Onboarding: Welcome and Performance

A three-pronged framework can help you create an effective onboarding process that enables new hires to learn and then apply what they know to their work.

I worked for pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. for 18 years, but I will never forget my first day.

I was very excited when I arrived at work, stepped out of the elevator, and approached my office. I saw my name on the door and my office neatly set up with everything I might need, including my new laptop computer. I then looked around my department but could find no one. Finally, I looked on my desk and found a note on a stack of papers welcoming me, asking me to please read the materials, and letting me know my boss and department would be in sometime later that week. It was quite a letdown!

Luckily, an administrative person in the adjacent department mercifully showed me the location of the men’s room and then had lunch with me in the company cafeteria. Later that afternoon, I met with HR and completed forms.

I think you can guess how valued and welcomed I felt after my first day. I had a great office, but no one cared enough to say, “Good morning and welcome!” It took a long time before I felt like an integral part of the team or the company.


HR consulting company Sapling surveyed the literature and listed some of the following statistics:

  • Glassdoor found that a strong onboarding process improves new hire retention by 82 percent and productivity by more than 70 percent.
  • Workflow technology company Digitate found that employees who had a negative onboarding experience are twice as likely to look for other career opportunities.
  • The Human Capital Institute (HCI) found that 87 percent of organizations that use an assigned ambassador or buddy program established that it was an effective way to accelerate new hire proficiency. They further determined that 81 percent of organizations believe onboarding is just as important to internal transfers as it is to new hires.

Clearly, the effectiveness of an onboarding process makes a difference.


The two overarching goals of an onboarding process are to:

  • Integrate the individual into the company.
  • Get the person to become productive as fast as possible.

Onboarding is applicable not only to new hires, but also to people who are staying within the organization but in significantly different new positions.

A recent Training magazine article by Axonify’s JD Dillon highlights the fact that onboarding never ends (https://trainingmag.com/trgmag-article/bestonboarding-never-ends/). It starts with the job offer and then uses a structured approach to accelerate the person’s integration into the company.


A framework will ensure your onboarding process is on target. Here is a three-pronged approach that will help you create an effective onboarding process that enables new hires to learn and then apply what they know to their work.

1. Knowledge transfer, the first prong in the framework, is key. A number of years after my first day at Pfizer, we identified four types of knowledge necessary for successful performance:

  • Leadership/Relational Knowledge: The knowledge of building “social capital” is the how, why, and who to work with to be effective, develop credibility, and build the capacity to influence decisions. It includes the creation of the expert network (external and internal) an individual uses to develop and share innovative ideas.
  • Organizational Knowledge: The operational and cultural knowledge of “how to get things done” comprises leading people, staffing, budgeting, standard operating procedures, systems, and the formal and informal way decisions are made and implemented.
  • Industry/Business Knowledge: This business/ industry-specific or strategic information includes understanding competitors’ products, how the company’s products and mission fit within market trends and strategies, and how to succeed within the context of local business customs and practices.
  • Technical/Scientific Knowledge: This expertise is part of the individual’s profession and includes functional knowledge, tools, and approaches specific to the discipline and connections to experts in the field.

2. The second prong in the framework requires an understanding of the explicit and implicit/tacit knowledge required for successful performance. Each of the four areas in the knowledge transfer model comprises explicit and implicit/tacit knowledge.

Explicit knowledge generally can be found in documents and often concerns information about the formal organizational structure. It includes documented rules and guidelines, as well as physical aspects of the organization. It is about what you need to know.

Implicit or Tacit knowledge is information that generally is unspoken and is learned through discussion or experience. It might concern the informal relationships people have or the underlying rationale for a strategy. It is about how to do something. A mentor can highlight the tacit components of the work critical to successful performance, so many companies consider mentoring an important addition to the onboarding process.

The figure below (and downloadable at the end of this article) illustrates the priority and relative emphasis between the two types of information over time, with tacit knowledge eventually predominating in importance:


3. The third prong in the framework is the developmental nature of the entire process.

The new person will be knowledgeable about some parts of the job, but will need to learn other components. The developmental approach addresses the specific knowledge needs of the individual.

When someone is new to a job, he or she needs to start with explicit knowledge. My first day at Pfizer focused on learning what was on my floor and completing forms so I would receive my pay and benefits. Generally, once the individual has the necessary explicit knowledge and technical competence, then the onboarding process can shift to ensuring acquisition of the implicit or tacit information required for the individual to be successful.


Combining the three approaches—knowledge transfer model, a focus on explicit and tacit information, and taking a developmental approach—provides a framework for choosing the sequence of presenting the content and deciding on a learning approach.

A recent search for “best employee onboarding checklists” yielded 635,000 entries. There is an abundance of useful, but one-size-fits-all, generic checklists and resources. The three-pronged approach provides a framework so you can create an onboarding process that is personal and gets the individual to be productive as quickly as possible.

Core to the creation of any new process is project management. The six P’s of project management apply to the creation of an onboarding process: Prior Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. A second key to onboarding is providing the individual with the knowledge, information, or skill when he or she needs it. The third critical success factor involves the people who should be enlisted into the onboarding process and the broader network of people who will be important to the person’s future in the organization.


Because of their expertise in learning and instructional design and their capacity to cross functional boundaries, trainers are uniquely positioned to create and support the onboarding process. Trainers must partner with learners’ managers and the organization to create a process that is both holistic and personal to ensure participants become productive as rapidly as possible.

Ross Tartell, Ph.D., is currently adjunct associate professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University. Dr. Tartell also consults in the areas of learning and development, talent planning, and organization development. He received his M.B.A. in Management and his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Columbia University. He formerly served as Technical Training and Communications manager – North America at GE Capital Real Estate.