Knowledge, they say, is power and like power, you can share it, capture it, create it, measure it, apply it and sadly, hoard it. Knowledge can hurt, heal, horrify, and open a mind to new perspectives. What do you do with your knowledge? What kind of knowledge do you value?
In the early days of the American economy, practical knowledge, known today as tacit knowledge was the name of the game. The work world valued the marriage of labor and raw materials more than the ability to create new knowledge. Tacit knowledge has been called the “know how” kind of knowledge based on common sense, practical action, and intuition. It was passed on through stories and hands-on experience from master to apprentice, worker to worker, farmer to his sons, women to girls. Tacit knowledge just was. It wasn’t necessarily written down and how it was carried out could change based on who was carving the wood or making the lace. Tacit knowledge is fluid.
With the rise of industry and larger organizations, explicit knowledge became king. Explicit knowledge moves attention from people to a document approach; it is more academic, more process focused. It is the “know what” type of knowledge. Processes were documented, standardized. The individual was taken out of the equation. With the rise of explicit knowledge, tacit knowledge became less valued in the workplace.
What is needed today? Is one kind of knowledge more valuable than the other? In today’s fast-lane business environment, both tacit and explicit knowledge have critical roles to play. In our information-overloaded world, skills are needed to discern what information is “right” for the task or situation at hand. The “right” information can come from an SOP and it can also come from an employee of long tenure who has what has often been called “institutional knowledge” of what may work in a certain environment.
Explicit knowledge with its grounding in documentation is less vulnerable to being lost. Tacit information, often not expressed openly or recorded, is in danger of being lost just when an organization may need it most. It’s often said that what differentiates one company from another, when raw materials, shipping, and technology resources are virtually the same, is a company’s employees. Employees are the repository of tacit knowledge.
What does this mean? Tacit knowledge is lost every day through downsizing, outsourcing, mergers, terminations and the imminent retirement of 76,000 Baby Boomers. Studies have shown that up to 2/3 of workplace information exchange happens in face-to-face encounters. When people go, what they know, their tacit knowledge goes with them. Harnessing this knowledge is a key to organizational success. For individuals, tapping into the tacit knowledge of a company’s culture can make the difference between success and failure.
The relationship between the practical and the approved corporate process has always involved tension. In the training room, facilitators often here, “Yes, but in the real world…” Can tacit knowledge be converted into explicit knowledge? How does a culture of silos, risk aversion, fear, and competition obstruct the exchange of valuable tacit information which may, in today’s world, be called “best practices”?
Some companies harvest tacit knowledge through recording best practices and interviewing employees who “have the ability to express the inexpressible”. Others have encouraged the spread of tacit knowledge through the creation of open, trusting environments where knowledge exchange is encouraged and in some cases rewarded as a part of the formal performance appraisal process. (Smith, Elizabeth A., “The Role of Tacit and Explicit Knowledge in the Workplace” Journal of Knowledge Management, http://www.uky.edu/~gmswan3/575/KM_roles.pdf)
How does your workplace manage knowledge? Does it work to capture the rich and varied tacit knowledge employees bring to their work? What do you do with the knowledge you possess? How do you use its power?