Tacit knowledge

Tacit or Informal Knowledge

Every few years Knowledge Management appears on the top of the list as part of organizational objectives. KM as it is usually abbreviated is not a clear cut thing and people struggle with it. That is mainly based on the two very different types of knowledge that exists. Explicit knowledge is what we can easily document and explain to others. Tacit or informal knowledge is the tricky part.

The Business Dictionary says Tacit knowledge is the unwritten, unspoken, and hidden vast storehouse of knowledge held by practically every normal human being, based on his or her emotions, experiences, insights, intuition, observations and internalized information. It is integral to the entirety of a person’s consciousness and is acquired largely through association with other people.

Or in clear English: With tacit knowledge, people are often not aware of the knowledge they possess or how it can be valuable to others.

Let me give you an example:

When you intend moving to a new city  or neighborhood,  you do your research where you want to live. Say you have kids, are into sports and have a dog. This drives a bit of the selection and the information about schools and the like can be found in explicit knowledge systems like maps, council websites, the local library,  and the like. Now very likely this is not sufficient. You may want to know what the neighborhood is really like, so what streets to avoid, like “don’t go there it’s a high crime area” or “the views are fantastic there! although the cold easterly makes it nearly impossible to enjoy it.”  This is not written down anywhere and it can make a decision go the other way.

Organizational Knowledge

This occurs in organizations a lot. People know a lot of things. Just think of the time when you started a new job. How much did you find from the policies and procedures repository, the intranet or by talking to people? Right, the policies! Of course!

Just kidding, you probably haven’t even looked at these lately unless somebody pointed you to it. In New Zealand that happened just recently when the copyright law changed and most companies adjusted their Internet use policy.

What to do?

Researchers came up with a neat model. They said tacit knowledge becomes over time explicit knowledge through sharing and telling. Explicit knowledge snippets get connected with other snippets and build an interwoven encyclopedia (Wikipedia comes to mind, right?). Then people start and continue using this information. They learn. And they combine it again with their experience, emotions, and other sources. It becomes tacit knowledge again for each and everyone of us. And the circle continues.

Where do people find the time

.. and document that tacit knowledge? Do they have a surplus of time? How many are contributing? Public systems like Wikipedia or Facebook thrive. They must be doing something right.

Most organizational KM systems are boring, tedious and not fun. They don’t animate people to contribute, share, or simply search for information. The systems are complex and over-engineered. Because they are not loved and not used the data stores are incomplete. And instead of growing they become stale and practically worthless.

People like to produce, to share, and to make something. I believe all people are interested in making that stuff happen within their organization. Rules and regulation, compliance requirements and the odd person who doesn’t like can spoil the party quickly. Hence it becomes a balance act what do you (as an organization) regulate and where do you leave it to the community to regulate itself. At some stage you have to trust the person to do the right thing.

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