This post was originally published on lessonly.com.
Sharing knowledge in the workplace. It seems straightforward, right? Well, you may be surprised to learn that it’s actually one of the biggest hurdles businesses face today.
This is because not all the knowledge we have inside our heads is easy to put into words and pass on to others. Some knowledge can be very hard for team members to explain and share successfully. This is called tacit knowledge. It’s one of the most valuable assets for any company and one of the hardest to manage.
That’s why we’re going to compare tacit vs. explicit knowledge, explain why tacit knowledge is so important, and how best to capture it.
In other words, we’re going to share our knowledge on knowledge with you! Lucky you!
So, here it goes…
Explicit knowledge vs. tacit knowledge
Explicit knowledge is the simplest type of knowledge to share. It’s easily defined, explained, and stored. This is because it’s fact-based. It includes rules, instructions, data, and policies, which are clear-cut pieces of information, making it easy to put into words, either verbally or written down. You can find it in company manuals, documents, databases, how-to videos, white papers, guides, either in electronic or physical form.
Now, here comes the tricky part. What is tacit knowledge? The easiest way to think about it is as “hidden.” Has anyone ever asked you, “How do you know that?” And you reply, “I don’t know, I just do!” Friends, that is tacit knowledge. With explicit knowledge, you know what you know, and how you came to know it. Tacit knowledge? Not so much.
This type of knowledge is very hard to explain. After all, it’s based on feelings, social interactions, attitudes, and experiences over time that are personal and social. This means that not all tacit knowledge is simply black and white.
Let’s take dancing, for example. Someone may never have taken a dance class in their life, but they’re an amazing mover. Now, how can they pass this knowledge to someone else keen to learn? Sure, they will have some success teaching the best styling, rhythm, and movements to follow, but so much of being a good dancer is based on natural skill, intuition, and experience.
This also shows that while tacit knowledge lives in our minds, we observe and teach it best through action. It’s common to hear the phrases, “I learn through doing” or “I can’t explain it, but I can show you,” and this is often the case with tacit knowledge.
Other tacit knowledge examples in the business world are expert leadership or sales skills. There are endless books which try to explain how to be great at sales, but reading one of these alone just isn’t enough.
When the best sales rep is asked, “How did you manage to develop such a good relationship with that tricky client?” they likely have a bank of knowledge in their mind about the client’s specific sense of humor and behavior, which they picked up on using their high level of social and emotional intelligence. But, explaining this subtlety to someone else is really hard, or maybe they aren’t even aware that they know it!
This is what makes tacit knowledge so valuable. It adds a competitive skill to a person, as it’s so difficult to mimic. While explicit knowledge accounts for just 5% of total knowledge, tacit knowledge represents a whopping 95%! This is why capturing it is so important.
How to capture tacit knowledge
Understanding what tacit knowledge means is only half the battle. Now, it’s important to know how to capture your organization’s tacit knowledge for success. Here are three things we strongly suggest for an effective knowledge management process.
1. Embrace tech
Capturing tacit knowledge is tricky at the best of times, but it’s become even more challenging since the boom in remote work has reduced everyday face-to-face contact. Team members now can’t just pop over to their teammate’s desks to gain extra understanding in person. This makes it harder to form close bonds and to learn by doing, both of which are critical aspects to building tacit knowledge.
But, technology is also a vital tool for making internal communication easier than ever! Knowledge management software can streamline the gathering, storing, and sharing of knowledge. Automation helps teams find the right learnings right when they need them. This frees up knowledge managers and their teams to focus on the more complex and personal parts of the process—like how to capture tacit knowledge!
2. Encourage team storytelling
No, we aren’t saying teams should sit around a campfire and tell ghost stories (although this would be a great bonding exercise). Tacit knowledge is learned through experience, and people share their experiences through storytelling. The best way to do this is through person-to-person interviews with a knowledge manager, who tries to gather all the tacit knowledge a team member has inside their heads.
A good interviewer will ask the right questions that uncover what the worker knows, without them having to try and figure this out for themselves. Here, the interviewer can focus not just on the words they say, but their body language, expression, and tone, which adds further context and important information.
In this casual and conversational setting, they are more likely to express their observations and feelings. These interviews can be recorded and stored for a later date, especially when the worker leaves the company.
3. Create a knowledge-sharing environment
Tacit knowledge is very personal, but it’s also social and collective, where so much is learned through interaction and relationship building. So, it’s vital to create a company culture that encourages knowledge sharing. One key way to do this is through Communities of Practice (COPs). These are physical or virtual spaces that help teams get together in formal or informal groups and share knowledge on certain tasks, issues, and subjects.
Action Reviews (AARs) are also a popular way of capturing tacit knowledge. They encourage both individual and group reflection on a project after it has been carried out, to put into context what went well, what could be improved, why certain decisions were made, and how clients felt—all of which contain vital answers rooted in tacit knowledge.
Capturing tacit knowledge is never going to be easy, but there are many strategies and practices companies can adopt to make hidden knowledge a lot more visible and accessible.
While it’s so important to put sturdy systems in place, sometimes tacit knowledge is best created in an organic, informal, and unordered way. Companies just need to understand it and react to this to their advantage. At the end of the day, it’s about accepting that tacit knowledge is personal, fluid, and complicated, and so some limitations and uncertainties are unavoidable.