Post 3 of 3:What can leaders do to embrace tacit knowledge more

My original name of this post was “What can leaders do to embrace tacit knowledge more to enable innovative organisational cultures?”, but this is too long!

This is the third post in the series. It is about some of the “how” questions that leaders should consider if they want to create more innovative organisational cultures. This is not an exhaustive list, but it covers some of the ideas tried by some of the leaders and organisations I work with.

How can leaders embrace the tacit knowledge in their teams?

Firstly, leaders must recognise the value of dissenters, namely those people who are expressing their opinions based on their different experiences and perspectives. Space must be created for those who think differently to make their contributions. In a learning organisation, different perspectives and views are valued above title and qualifications. Furthermore, people must be encouraged to express their enthusiasm or concerns without the need for “facts”. Intuitive remarks should be treated as hypotheses and leaders should encourage people to investigate these hunches so that plans and activities can be adapted to address them.

Secondly, leaders must create space for people to learn. This learning must not be limited to the core functions that people are responsible for. A learning mind set requires constant and wide-ranging learning, not only at the level of individuals but also at the level of teams. Furthermore, employees should be encouraged to read, explore and discover during work time. This means that managers must also create space for people to think individually and collectively. One way to encourage stronger social networks in organisations is to encourage people from different work areas to cooperate on solving a problem or developing an idea.

In my opinion, leaders must also ensure that their workers are balanced in how they work. For instance, workers who take loads of work home will not be able to be creative, playful or serendipitous during work time. This means that leaders must also lead by example, and not send long e-mails filled with detailed instructions after hours.

Thirdly, leaders must promote this learning culture by allowing for serendipity. This means that leaders can lead by example and allow workers to explore by themselves how things can be improved, changed or tweaked. Simple ways in which this can be encouraged are to provide teams with a small budget to try things, model things, explore ideas, jointly participate in online courses or invite a speaker to address staff. This kind of exploration cannot always be planned, but it must be encouraged within certain boundaries. Leaders must encourage teams to stretch their thinking or challenge their beliefs. This increases the stock of creative and imaginative ideas that people can generate in their daily work. While some exploration can be related to official plans, much exploration is about forming new social ties, self-expression, curiosity and even personal fulfilment.

Fourthly, great leaders can sense tacit knowledge in their people, but only if they are close enough to them. Teams and co-workers can figure out when somebody uses tacit knowledge to solve a problem or propose an idea, and can draw in people with different perspectives. Great team leaders know that tacit knowledge is an asset when people are encouraged to disagree or think out loud, when the voices of dissenters are taken seriously, and when diversity is openly embraced. Sensible leaders know when to trust their people and when to use explicit knowledge to shape the behaviour of their people.

Fifthly, the stories that people tell are important. Instead of trying to suppress gossip, leaders should listen and reflect on their own values and how these are perceived by their teams. Office gossip is a powerful form of tacit knowledge transfer, and it is not all negative. When people are talking about somebody’s misfortune, hurt or distress, leaders can step in with empathy and encourage teams to support people who are experiencing problems in their lives. This might even be an opportune moment to reflect on how organisations function within a broader societal context. Workers are extremely sensitive to the gap between what managers say they value and how they behave. When people talk about office relations, or breaches in values by any rank, leaders should step in and make sure that rules and regulations are adhered to, regardless of the seniority of the people involved. These are the moments where real organisational values are refined.

When co-workers start to influence each other negatively, leaders should step in and separate people or re-arrange them to break up negative cells. All of this is only possible when leaders listen to what their people are talking about, and then being trustworthy and responsible in dealing with what they hear.

Lastly, leaders should take care not to over-formalise. Formal rules often communicate mistrust and reduce the ability of people to exercise judgement. When everything is fixed in a rule, regulation or process, organisations’ ability to respond to sudden change is reduced.

Perhaps leaders can ask their teams “Is there something we must do less of to be more innovative?”. This question often targets excessive rules, policies and guidelines. I always encourage the leaders I work with to openly state when they have to make a decision for which a precedent or rule does not exist. We then encourage their teams to generate well-thought-out portfolios of options, or a portfolio of small experiments that can be tried. These portfolios must leverage the formal and informal capabilities of the organisation and individuals. This is one way that tacit knowledge becomes more explicit. One benefit is that by building the adaptive capability of their teams by not always taking the lead, their workers are encouraged to come up with ideas, solutions or options. When people understand that they have a role to play in formulating options, they are also better able to reflect on why some things works and others do not. This makes the organisation more agile, as people learn to work together to solve novel problems, and they become better at detecting when things are not going according to plan. Because they are co-designers, they are also better able to generate and evaluate alternatives, which means that the organisation has a greater stock of options that it can combine and execute. If too much formality is enforced this ability will not emerge.

In my view many leadership teams are too focused on explicit knowledge, and that tacit knowledge deserves more attention. For organisations to innovate now and in the future, the development of tacit knowledge formation must be encouraged and embraced. This means that opportunities must be created for people to self-organise around ideas, projects and topics. This builds trust, even if it does not always add directly to the bottom line. It also makes it easier for the finance people to team up with the technical people, and for people to get better at drawing on the experiences and perspectives of others.

Post 2 of 3:Why explicit knowledge dominates organisational cultures

In the previous post, I argued that tacit knowledge gets absorbed into the environment of the organisation (and society), but only if the right conditions prevail. It is futile to ask people to record their experiences or report on lessons learnt. Tacit knowledge is highly contextual, and it is nearly impossible to describe all the factors that an individual has to consider in an instant when deciding on a course of action.  Obstacles to identifying or sharing tacit knowledge include, for example, language (not knowing the appropriate words or not being able to explain something adequately), lack of self-confidence, fear of being ridiculed and a multitude of other factors.

Even when leadership is willing to listen to the concerns, ideas and anecdotal explanations of employees, many errors occur in this absorption process. Errors are caused both by the difficulty of the sender to explain or share what works and why, and because the recipient, in other words the broader organisation, might not be able to absorb this knowledge due to technical difficulty, the inability to appreciate the value of what is communicated, or often the inability to understand the relevance of the knowledge being shared. In South Africa this absorption process is often exacerbated by race, gender, hierarchy and various social factors.

Leadership of organisations, in pursuit of different kinds of innovation, must purposefully set out to create a learning environment. This does not mean that people only learn in the context of official projects, but that everyone is given the opportunity to experience the self-fulfilment of exploring ideas, trying new combinations, engaging with others, working together to improve productivity, and playing together to increase creativity. Practically this means that leadership must allow people to learn about topics where the value of the learning is not immediately clear to the organisation. Leaders must understand that people who are frequently learning new concepts, even if these are unrelated to their core functions, are better able to connect the disconnected, to reframe problems as solutions, and are more willing to embark on a process of discovery with uncertain outcomes.

When the innovation strategy of the organisation is too narrowly focused on project plans, milestones, etc., tacit knowledge usually suffers. Those who are more senior or more articulate crowd out the voices of people who may have great insight but no safe way of expressing their thoughts. The result is that although a successful product or process may have been completed, employees do not feel self-fulfilled or that they have learned anything of value. They may even feel neglected or isolated. This often happens when organisations strive to become leaner. Then all the connectors and generalists are replaced with specialists who have a direct contribution to make in key processes. This may result in organisations losing their agility to respond to changes in their context.

Due to the formality of the planning process, codified knowledge is valued above instinct; accuracy of information and planning metrics are more important than the views of people who express doubt, but who cannot explain why something does not seem right. The practice of learning, reflecting, arguing, rough prototyping and then adapting the process is often neglected, or allowed only in brainstorming sessions that are vulnerable to manipulation or group thinking. It takes sensitive leaders to recognise that some experienced people are holding back their thoughts, or that somebody from a different background could perhaps share a valuable insight or alternative perspective. Individuals may feel that their ideas are not valued, or perhaps because they struggle to express what is in their minds articulate people lose patience and just disregard the less articulate people. Or perhaps people with great ideas are simply worried that because time and resources are finite, they may derail the process or decelerate the momentum or change the direction of a certain train of thought.

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