Tapping Tacit Knowledge

tap in head

Most of your organization's valuable knowledge is tacit - in the heads of your people. That makes knowledge management something of an 'oxymoron', since you cannot manage it like you do explicit knowledge or information. How, then do you tap into this knowledge, to make it more readily accessible by others?

This is where two of Nonaka and Takeuchi's 'conversion processes' - socialization and externalization - come into play. But first you have to know whose knowledge to tap.

Know Your Know-Who: Locating Your Experts

You get a fair idea of where your key expertise lies from a knowledge audit. But you will need ways of locating expertise on a day-by-day basis that is usable by everyone. The methods generally fall into four categories:

  1. Declared - individuals declare their skills in an expertise directory or on their personal home pages
  2. Referred - you ask a knowledge navigator (a good networker) who doesn't have the expertise themselves but know a person who does
  3. Inferred - from analysis of documents they have written or citations of their work; typically this is automated using special categorization software
  4. Reviewed - a more human form of the above, in which users provide ratings and reviews of various content.

Many organizations have at one time or another embarked on the first approach in the form of an expertise directory ('Yellow Pages'). The best manual expertise systems are those that are voluntary, mix structured fields (e.g. contact details, department, current projects, qualifications, skills) with free-form text (in the participants' own words), and give employees their own 'home page' on the organization's intranet. However, maintenance is always a problem, which is why the other methods have their attractions.

Here are a few ideas of some things you might want to try:

  • review the format, usage and feedback of people's personal profiles
  • ensure that every document and every section of your website has an identified owner (who if not the expert, knows who the experts are)
  • put in place as part of your performance management system a place where each department's management team is asked to identify their 'star experts'
  • conduct a social network analysis (who communicates with whom) - the resultant network diagram quickly shows you who the key people nodes (many are probably navigators and not the exterts themselves; no matter - they will point you to the experts)

Knowledge Sharing - Socialization

There are many ways of sharing knowledge across an organization. The intranet is a widely used one. But that is the sharing of information - explicit knowledge. Here we are concerned with the transfer of knowledge from one person to another in a more direct way. Nonaka and Takeuchi's term 'socialization' describes it well, since it mostly involves face-to-face interaction (though auite a lot can be done person-to-person electronically or by videoconferencing.

The KM Practices part of this website (under development) will go into more detail on each of the methods, but here are a few to think about:

  • Workshops - when well facilitated, a workshop is a good way to share knowledge. Even better if the key points are written down, and then circulated
  • Mentoring and 'buddying' - this goes some way to replacing the highly effective apprenticeship schemes that have traditionally been a good way of imparting knowledge from the expert to the learner
  • Work shadowing / observing - where for a specific type of task, the person who wishes to acquire knowledge sits alongside the expert who talks them through what they are doing
  • Forums - where members of a cross-departmental community of practice meet in face-to-face mode
  • Share Fairs - a specific event with presentations and exhibition-type 'booths' that allow people to meet the experts
  • Seminars - this requires the experts to structure their knowledge around a specific topic, and also gives opportunity for questions and answers with participants
  • Co-location - sitting a person in another group, rather than alongside members of their own team, for their everyday work.

None of the above are particularly novel, but it is amazing how often organizations let their staff spend most of their time at their desks or in unproductive meetings. Just giving a little thought to how to encourage more face-to-face interaction between people who have useful knowledge to share will go a long way to developing that all important knowledge-enriching culture.

Knowledge Articulation and Harvesting

This aspect of tapping tacit knowledge is where it is 'externalized', i.e. turned into an explicit form. Articulation is where the expert takes a pro-active rôle in writing down their thoughts. Writing is actually a good discipline, since it forces the writer to structure their knowledge and also to put it up for scrutiny, thus making it even more useful. Harvesting is the process of elicitation, where a learner or facilitator, has a structured dialogue with the expert to extract the knowledge required.

The expert systems of the 1970s and 1980s attempted to harvest expert knowledge by "tapping the expert's brain and putting their knowledge into the computer". It largely failed (though for certain types of problem, it is still used). Sensible approaches use the following strategies:

  • Focus on a specific problem, task or process
  • Consider how to record the information; typically have a note taker but rely on vocie recording (or even video)
  • Think who should be present - often it makes sense to have a new learner alongside a facilitator, since they have burning questions to ask; it could even be a group learning session
  • Generally use open-ended questions, such as "what do you do next?" "what usually happens?" "what would you do if…" "who is usually involved" etc.
  • Encourage the expert to make full use of flip-charts and wall boards to express his/her concepts
  • Towards the end, ask the expert to go through the main points again and highlight the cirtical success factors.

A realted and highly effective approach is that of storytelling - where the expert tells a story around an actual case. Such stories can then be put into a narrative database and codified for later access. As noted before, the more personable you can make the approach, the more will users respond. Therefore supplementing written material with good visuals and video clips will bring the knowledge to life.

Last updated: 19th March 2011


KM: practice and pitfalls
KM presentation

A presentation (PDF) that goes through the elements of a KM initiative including several of the most useful practices for sharing and managing knowledge


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