The ultimate guide to capturing and sharing tacit knowledge
8 mins read
Wed, Jun 14, '23
The challenge of knowledge transfer in evolving workplaces
In the post-COVID world, the hybrid work model looks like it’s here to stay—with more and more organizations embracing remote work.
This shift has forced organizations to rethink the way they capture the knowledge of their collective workforce, and orchestrate knowledge-sharing across the organization. That's because when people are physically together in an office, they naturally share knowledge in unexpected ways, but when they're separated, information silos are more likely to occur.
In Deloitte's Global Human Capital Trends survey for 2021, 75% of business leaders said that creating and preserving knowledge across evolving workforces is important to their success. But only nine percent of surveyed organizations said that they were ready to address this challenge.
This is surprising given that 54% of employees regard organizations that prioritize knowledge sharing as more innovative, competitive, as well as an attractive place to work.
So why do so many organizations not have a knowledge-sharing culture in place?
One reason is that the type of knowledge that gives organizations a competitive edge is so hard to teach: tacit knowledge.
What is tacit knowledge?
A good example of tacit knowledge is riding a bike. When you first learn to ride a bike, you start with explicit knowledge, which includes understanding the concept of balance, pedaling, and steering. You may receive instructions, watch others ride, and practise these skills until you gain proficiency.
But as you continue to ride, you develop tacit knowledge, which is the ability to ride without consciously thinking about it. You no longer need to remember each step or consciously focus on your balance or pedaling. You just know how to ride a bike and do it effortlessly, almost on autopilot.
In short, tacit knowledge is the “muscle memory” gained through experience and practice.
Examples of tacit knowledge in the workplace
Tacit knowledge allows your employees to perform tasks and make decisions instinctively, without consciously thinking about each step. Here are some examples of tacit knowledge in an organization:
Sales techniques: Sales people often acquire tacit knowledge through their experience during the sales cycle. This can include building rapport with clients, objection handling, and closing strategies.
Leadership and people management: Leaders gain skills in team building, coaching, and motivating employees. This tacit knowledge is developed through their experience in managing and leading teams and seeing how employees respond to certain techniques and strategies.
Customer service skills: Employees in customer service roles who interact with customers on a daily basis usually develop tacit knowledge in customer service skills, such as active listening, empathy, and conflict resolution.
The importance of tacit knowledge in an organization
Even though tacit knowledge is a less-tangible form of knowledge gained through personal experiences and individual contexts, it’s still highly beneficial to your organization as a whole.
When an employee spends time getting to know how an organization works, they can learn a lot of valuable information that isn't necessarily written down. This tacit knowledge can actually help the organization become much more efficient in its operations.
For example, new employees are usually less effective at the start because they’re not familiar with the company’s internal structure or how decisions are made.
Experienced employees on the other hand, who know the informal structure of the company, become a lot more effective at solving problems and driving change.
Here are four more reasons why companies should capture tacit knowledge:
1. It helps you gain a competitive advantage
Let’s imagine for a moment that there are two companies selling sports shoes. A new market trend emerges—a growing demand for lightweight running shoes—and both companies scramble to get a new lightweight running shoe to market.
Both companies have similar equipment, technology and access to the same raw materials, but Company A has an employee with 20 years of industry experience, while Company B does not. Company A’s employee has developed tacit knowledge about the intricacies of shoe design, materials, and production processes, allowing Company A to quickly adapt to this market trend and design a version of the lightweight shoe before its competitor.
Additionally, if Company A has made it clear how the company approaches making strategic decisions—who to talk to, how to build business cases, who makes the decisions—then Company A is more likely to get the product to market quicker than Company B.
2. It helps boost innovation
Tacit knowledge can foster innovation by promoting creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. Experienced developers with tacit knowledge can come up with novel ideas and solutions based on their intuitive understanding of the software development process, industry trends, and customer needs.
For example, a seasoned developer may suggest a unique approach to solving a complex technical problem or propose an innovative feature that could differentiate the company's software product in the market.
3. It helps to facilitate learning and development
Tacit knowledge can be a valuable resource for learning and development within an organization. By sharing tacit knowledge, experienced employees can mentor and train junior employees, helping to build a skilled workforce, improving employee performance, and increasing overall organizational capacity.
For example, in a consulting firm, a senior consultant could share their tacit knowledge about effective client communication and negotiation techniques with junior consultants during regular mentoring sessions. This helps junior consultants develop their skills, enhances their performance in client engagements, and accelerates their professional growth.
4. It helps boost productivity
In tech companies, the constant need to address questions about the technology or product can hinder productivity and slow down the sales and/or onboarding process.
New employees often turn to more experienced colleagues for answers, which damages their productivity because they spend time answering the same questions over and over.
By implementing strategies and tools to capture this tacit knowledge, organizations can create a centralized repository of information that supports efficient knowledge-sharing. By doing so, they can reduce the burden on experienced staff, speed up onboarding, and increase overall productivity.
How to capture and share tacit knowledge: our tips
Let’s return to our shoe brand example from earlier. If Company A’s employee suddenly decides to leave or retire, how do you keep their valuable tacit knowledge inside the organization?
In our experience, there are three things that play a huge role in capturing and sharing tacit knowledge: a company’s culture, the tools for knowledge sharing, and ways of working.
Addressing these areas can help you preserve decades of industry knowledge and tricks of the trade acquired by your employees. While a solid knowledge-sharing culture lays the groundwork for this, you still need systems and tools to encourage the transfer of information. Here are our tips for capturing and sharing tacit knowledge in your organization.
Implement a mentoring scheme
As tacit knowledge includes personal experiences, insights, and intuitions that are unique to individuals, it’s difficult to transfer to others through formal language or written procedures. That’s why it’s important to facilitate informal meetings between employees where they can share their insights and knowledge.
An example of this is the “reverse-mentoring” scheme, practiced by companies such as PwC and Estée Lauder, where junior employees are paired with senior executives. This program allows senior employees to tap into the insights and perspectives of younger employees in order to make more informed decisions about the organization’s strategy and operations.
A reverse-mentoring meeting can take many forms. For instance, it could be a virtual coffee on a video call or a face-to-face meeting. It’s a good idea to capture the key knowledge shared in the call, either by recording and archiving the video conversation, or documenting the important discussion points.
Use a knowledge management tool to capture and share knowledge
A knowledge management tool stores information, keeps it organized, and allows users to search and interact with it. These systems can be used to create a knowledge repository where employees can document their experiences, best practices, and insights.
A knowledge management system can be a useful tool for capturing tacit knowledge, even though this kind of knowledge can be difficult to articulate or codify. Here are some ways in which a KMS can help capture tacit knowledge:
- Communities of practice: A KMS can facilitate the creation of communities of practice, where employees can come together to share their experiences and expertise. These communities can provide a space for individuals to share tacit knowledge, as well as for others to learn from it.
- Expert directories: A KMS can include expert directories, which provide a way for employees to find and connect with colleagues who have expertise in specific areas. This makes it easier for individuals to connect with colleagues who could share valuable tacit knowledge.
- Blogs and wikis: Most KMS include blogs and wikis, which provide a platform for individuals to share their thoughts, ideas, and experiences. A good idea is to record Q&A-style interviews with employees to dive deeper into the specifics of their day-to-day role.
- Social networking tools: Features such as forums, channels, and instant messaging facilitate communication and collaboration among employees, making it easier for individuals to share meaningful tacit knowledge with one another.
Facilitate tacit knowledge transfer through hands-on training
Workshops can be a useful way to share tacit knowledge in the workplace because they provide an opportunity for employees to share their experiences, insights, and expertise with others in a structured and interactive setting.
In a workshop setting, employees can share their tacit knowledge through various means, such as group discussions, case studies, and interactive activities. These activities promote ‘learning by doing’ which is one of the best ways to develop tacit knowledge.
If your team predominantly works remotely, you can host workshops virtually on an intranet platform via a live-streaming tool. Most intranet tools make use of interactive elements such as discussions and channels where employees can discuss any challenges they’re facing and share potential solutions.
Make use of after-action reviews for key projects
After-action reviews (AARs) are structured debriefings that occur after a project or event. They provide an opportunity for team members to honestly reflect on what went well and what could be improved. AARs can be a useful way to capture tacit knowledge, as they encourage team members to share their experiences.
For example, a team member who had a successful approach to solving a particular problem can share their approach with others. This sharing of knowledge can help to build a shared understanding of how to approach similar problems in the future.
In order to document this process for future reference, you can create a survey in your intranet or knowledge management system. This allows your team members to have easy access to the learnings of previous projects.
Here are some questions you could ask in an after-action review:
- What were the challenges we faced during the project or event?
- How effective was our communication during the project or event?
- What could we have done differently to achieve better results?
- What were the unexpected outcomes or consequences of the project or event?- What lessons did we learn from this project or event?
- How can we apply these lessons to future projects or events?