tacit knowledge
Business woman idea bulb on the blackboard

By Scott R. Schreiman

Every company has its store of knowledge. I’m not talking about its intellectual property, but the company’s collective know-how. We try to write it down in workflows, project templates, best practice guides, so anyone on the team can access and use that knowledge. It helps our companies find efficiencies and maintain standards.

Yet a company’s formal knowledge doesn’t tell the whole story of how it achieves its goals. We shouldn’t overlook the vast stores of tacit knowledge our employees hold in their heads and rely on every day without even realizing it. Tacit knowledge is the accumulation of experience coupled with insight. This knowledge manifests in knowing not to bother Finance Sally before 10 am because she likes to review company statements and reports first thing in the mornings. But tacit knowledge is also more amorphous. Things we “know” practically at the level of instinct, which makes ferreting out this knowledge difficult.

Making matters worse – it’s estimated that as much of 90% of an organization’s knowledge is buried in people’s heads. That hardly makes for peak efficiency or smooth sailing through people or company changes. Organizational leaders need a plan for extracting all that great, individual, tacit knowledge for the benefit of the company. It usually isn’t the easiest task, but here are five tips to set up a space where identifying and sharing tacit knowledge is more likely to occur.

  1. Make sure everyone understands what tacit knowledge is and how it’s different from explicit knowledge. Your people can’t identify it if they don’t know what they’re looking for. By nature, tacit knowledge is slippery. Everyone has some, but we may not even know what our own tacit knowledge is until we have to express it.
  1. Increase the conversations among team members. Since tacit knowledge can be so embedded in our brains it feels like instinct, the best way to extract it is through conversation and questions. The more team members talk with each other, ask for help, ask why certain choices are made and others are rejected, the more opportunity for pieces of tacit knowledge to come out. These conversations are how this knowledge gets transferred more widely in your organization.
  1. Build trust among team members. Simply sharing tacit knowledge isn’t enough. That knowledge has to be accepted and retained. Without trust, it’s unlikely that one team member will accept and retain the knowledge. Trust is also needed to get people to be willing to share in the first place. Why share a great trick with a team member you don’t trust? Exactly.
  1. Keep the context of the conversation. Studies looking into how tacit knowledge travels through organizations have found that the context – “the particular time and space” of the conversation is fundamental to changing information to actionable knowledge. The context provides the insight. Without insight, the tacit knowledge can’t be used in other situations because people won’t understand the context in which that guidance works.
  1. Provide a framework where these conversations and context can be had and captured. A framework, both organizationally and technologically, has to exist where people are having these conversations. It promotes the culture of discussion and collaboration that lays the groundwork for identifying and transferring tacit knowledge. It also helps preserve it for wider benefit. It’s a challenge, knowing where to look for the right past conversation. That’s another reason why using a tool that can keep the conversation connected to its most specific context is vital to preserving and transferring the deep, core knowledge your team has. And using a collaboration tool that makes it easy to find past conversations centered on projects, or that deal with specific files (no matter how old they are) would be a huge asset.

Don’t expect to turn tacit knowledge into formal company knowledge. Even when it can be shared and used among team members, tacit knowledge by its very nature remains hard to document in a project checklist or best practices guide. Understanding the “tells” of an external partner and how to react, or being able to explain why certain visuals better express your brand than another similar one can’t be easily codified.

The best way we’ve found to capture tacit knowledge at Samepage is through our own collaboration tool. Our employees, partners, and customers are constantly having formal and informal discussions using our chat features. And because all these conversations are captured in real time, and attached to teams and work products – it’s become easy for us to document our knowledge and even search through it to find what we need. Is it perfect? No. But although this tacit knowledge doesn’t all get formally codified, it does start to become a company asset that can be used to speed up productivity, improve decision-making, and spark innovation.

Scott Schreiman is the founder and CEO of Samepage.io, an online collaboration solution. Follow him at @scottschreiman.