Knowledge Management professionals acknowledge that the two main types of knowledge are tacit and explicit. The differences between the two are vast, yet only one is the most important: tacit. Despite the fact that many Knowledge Management (KM) researchers believe that around 80% of organizational knowledge consists of tacit knowledge, there are far more KM tools available for capturing explicit knowledge. Why is this?
The Challenges of Capturing Tacit Knowledge
By nature, explicit knowledge is easier to capture, distribute and share. It is the obvious state of knowledge, which is why it gets all of the attention. The downfall to this is the fact that explicit knowledge is only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Most of the knowledge that you need to effectively run your business falls into the category of tacit knowledge, that is, it is in the “hidden” 80%. Many KM professionals or business executives want to obtain that tacit knowledge. They are eager to unlock it, along with all of the managerial powers that it contains. However, knowing where to begin with this seemingly arduous task is the problem. They are not sure where to begin. Not many people know that in order to start the process of capturing this tacit knowledge, they first must scale the cliffs that prevent it from being easily spread.
“We Can Know More Than We Can Tell”
The above quote, by Michael Polanyim, sounds awkward, doesn’t it? But Polanyim, who is the scholar who came up with the term “tacit knowledge,” is right. If you are wondering what tacit knowledge truly is, all that you need to do is ruminate on the words in the quote, as it sums tacit knowledge up quite nicely. It also explains why this is the fundamental challenge that KM professionals must overcome.
It sound strange, but it is entirely possible for people to have knowledge, and not know how to share it, or to know even know that they have that knowledge in the first place. That is why tacit knowledge is referred to in KM circles as “hidden knowledge.”
This hidden knowledge needs to be unlocked, which it is not an easy process. KM professionals must understand how people interact within a workplace. They also need to know that sometimes people share their tacit knowledge without even realizing that they are doing so. In order to solve this problem, KM professionals need to start at very specific interaction points.
Tacit Knowledge is “Pulled,” Not “Pushed”
There is a right way and a wrong way to encourage employees to share their tacit knowledge. The sharing process needs to be set up specifically so that the knowledge is “pulled,” not “pushed.” This is due to the fact that people do not intentionally “push” tacit knowledge out in the same way that do explicit knowledge. Instead, this tacit knowledge must be “pulled” out of their heads by people asking the right questions. Through the use of these questions, people get the chance to apply this tacit knowledge to specific business cases. As the tacit knowledge is passed around, people then consciously or subconsciously absorb it for their own use, while sharing it through interactions with their colleagues.
The challenge to KM professionals lies in knowing how to simultaneously capture and record the knowledge that appears during these person-to-person interactions.
The “People” Issue: Motivation and Trust
The problem with people is that they simply do not share knowledge just because you ask them to. Instead, they share knowledge when they are with people that they trust, and are in an environment that they feel comfortable in. It is far more likely that people will share their knowledge if they are in a company with a collaborative culture. Unlike a company with a competitive culture, the collaborative set up encourages sharing and prevents employees from competing directly with each other. On top of this, KM professionals need to have the proper motivation in place before their employees will begin to share their knowledge.
Morten T. Hansen’s T-shaped management structure is a great approach that will help managers and team leaders tackle this challenge.
Think of Tacit Knowledge during your KM Strategy Development
The last piece of the tacit knowledge puzzle lies in what is called the “People, Process and Technology Framework.” This is a simple, pervasive and powerful framework for developing Knowledge Management strategies that work for every company. KM professionals need to be aware of the challenges that lie in tapping the tacit knowledge of their employees, as this knowledge will help them to develop a much more well-rounded and thriving KM strategy for their companies. And a business with good KM strategies is a very successful business, indeed.