Post 1 of 3: Organisational knowledge and innovation: the difference between tacit and explicit knowledge

Knowledge in organisations can either be explicit or tacit, or a mixture of the two. Let us first try and sort out the difference between explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge.

Explicit knowledge is easier to identify and is typically captured in processes, systems, routines, documents, guidelines and so on. Some explicit knowledge from outside the organisation can also shape the internal environment, such as regulations, standards, professional codes and broadly accepted practices. Explicit knowledge flows in society, over organisational borders through channels like the media, the education system, professional bodies, accepted good practices, conferences, manuals, trade journals or the appointment of new staff, and so on.

Tacit knowledge is much harder to detect, capture and disseminate. It spreads slower, both because of the difficulties of detecting and transmitting it, as well as the challenges of absorbing it and figuring out how to use it. Most people are not fully aware of the value or perhaps even the existence of this kind of knowledge. What you do and why you do it in a particular way is shaped not only by the task at hand, but by your experience, your own values, your education and the current environment. Often when you ask a person how they knew what to do in a unique situation, they merely shrug and say “it felt right”. Tacit knowledge is often hard to explain and even harder to document or capture.

We gain, absorb, leverage and integrate these two kinds of knowledge in rather different ways. For leaders this distinction is important, as it provides clues on how knowledge that enables adaptation, improvement and innovation can be created or harnessed.

We pick up explicit knowledge from our environment, even if this process is imperfect and prone to all kinds of errors. For instance, we may misinterpret rules, overlook a regulation, or use the wrong form. With the dramatically increased amount of information that is now available in many organisations, we find that people often simply don’t know which explicit or codified knowledge to use. This applies to individuals, organisations and in some cases even industries. We can simply become overwhelmed by contradictory information, even if it is well articulated or explained in detail. The fact that it is sometimes very difficult to know which explicit knowledge to use gives rise to the use of brokers and gatekeepers, which could be a good thing or a bad thing. For instance, when rules are not clear, or are inconsistent, individuals might use their insight into the workings of the system to their advantage in return for favours.

But here is the rub. Tacit knowledge, as far as I can tell, starts mainly within individuals, and then spreads to teams. If we draw an arrow representing knowledge flow, we see that the arrow moves from the individual to the organisation, that is if the organisation is aware of the existence and of this knowledge and is attentive to its value. Many organisations are managed in such a way that tacit knowledge is suppressed, even if this is unintentional. Tacit knowledge is personal, although some of it may be shared with some close co-workers or trusted people. Tacit knowledge mostly spreads through personal exchange, trust, close observation or working closely with colleagues. For instance, one way in which tacit knowledge spreads is by mimicry, where you copy how other people behave or carry out a task. When people are able to express their insight into tacit knowledge, they do so conditionally, depending on their assessment of the intent and trustworthiness of the person asking for advice.

Many organisations have no way to determine the value of the tacit knowledge of their employees, and often the value of an employee’s contribution is only realised when they leave. It is these people who are sorely missed when they leave. Neither is it as simple as merely asking people to write down what they know – we’ll discuss this in more detail in the next post.

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