"Tacit Knowledge Emerges in Context"
Like expertise, tacit knowledge emerges in context - in other words when there is a real need, challenge or problem to be solved requiring specific knowledge and expertise. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to assess the extent of a person's knowledge through general conversation or through artificial question and answer based interviews, as there is no authentic context (or motivation) for the individual to apply and demonstrate their knowledge.
When people are engaged in solving meaningful, authentic challenges they naturally draw upon their collective base of knowledge in order to find a solution.
What does this mean for organizations looking to advance their KM practice?
Integrate Learning and Work
Let me provide an example. A little over a year ago I was working with a client who was tasked to improve the project management discipline within his engineering firm. When I met him (let's call him "John"), he was struggling to create a Community of Practice (COP) between project managers across divisions of the Company located in different countries. It was John's plan to have experienced and inexperienced project managers come together to share their "best practices" with one another, and then use these insights to develop a formal project management training program and subsequently host this on the Company's Learning Management System. (LMS)
John expressed frustration that very little meaningful collaboration or knowledge exchange had taken place within the COP - Why? - No authentic context, no problem or challenge to be solved, and therefore no catalyst for bringing forth tacit knowledge let alone to motivate individuals to share knowledge.
I suggested that instead of separating the two activities (the COP and the training course) that he combine them. Use the LMS as the environment for managing a real client project. In this way experts and non-experts work together within an authentic context (the project).
With a shared goal and collective responsibility for the outcomes, you create the necessary context for tacit knowledge and expertise to emerge.
Adopting this integrated approach provides a snapshot of the full life cycle of the project (process. decision making, new ideas and outcomes etc.) Additionally, if you involve the client in the development process you not only extend accountability and capture valuable client knowledge, you begin to see how project team members adapt their processes to accommodate the needs of the client.
As each client is unique and the likelihood the team will face challenges they have never encountered before is great, new ideas will emerge and be captured as team members combine their collective knowledge to advance their understanding of the problem or challenge, and work towards a viable solution.
Through this "Window to the Workshop" approach, John will capture the tacit knowledge of experts and non-experts alike, gain a clear picture of the strengths and weaknesses of his project management processes and his team - how well they work together, who are the top performers, influencers etc. and best of all this will become a valuable part of institutional memory and can be referenced at any time in the future.
With these insights, John is in a much better position to develop an effective, formal training program targeted to address shortcomings in his Company's current project management processes; identify and align experts with non-experts to support effective knowledge transfer, and drive better training and improved performance outcomes.