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.

The next step in systemic change

Over the course of 2016, Marcus and I worked on a piece of research on systemic change in market systems development, funded by the BEAM Exchange. In this work, we question the utility of the concep…

Source: The next step in systemic change, an update on our research written by Marcus Jenal on the Systemic-Insight.com website

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.

New series: Organisational knowledge and innovation

In the next few posts I will elaborate on the role of knowledge in enabling learning organisations. In a previous post (here), I have concentrated mainly on how knowledge for innovation is generated in organisations. The response from readers was very positive, and as I worked with management teams to strengthen their innovative culture I realised that there are some further concepts that I must elaborate on. It is not only about what workers do, it is also about the environment created by leaders.

The first post in this series will look at the difference between tacit and explicit knowledge, and how both are formed. The second post explores why explicit knowledge dominates organisations. The third post will discuss how leaders can embrace tacit knowledge and encourage their teams to create new knowledge together.

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” 
― Confucius

Radio interview on technology

Following the interview on Cliffcentral.com two weeks ago on innovation during The Leadership Platform show, I was asked to return. This time the conversation was about technology. You can download the podcast here.

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Richard, Shawn and Daniel (left to right)

 

After 30 minutes, the attention switched to a small and medium enterprise. I had invited Daniel Paulus, one of my clients, to the show to be interviewed. Daniel is one of the founders of the Louie Daniel jewellery company, a speciality retailer of custom made jewellery and diamonds. They are one of the leadership teams that I have been coaching on technology, innovation, strategy and culture.

I promise to reveal more about my formal coaching programme shortly.

 

Linking: Changing the world and no one notices

If you want to feel inspired by a great story of innovation, then take a look at the great post by Morgan Housal. It is about the Wright Brothers and the consequences of their innovation and also their vision. If you are inspired by this story, you will also enjoy the Knowledge Project Podcast where Shane Parish from the Farnhamstreet blog interviews Morgan about his way of reading, writing and doing research before writing. You can find the podcast here . From his writings I have learned how to filter a lot of information, and how to supplement what trusted sources claim by my own research. For instance, I have unsubscribed from many newsletters and now only read curated news sources that I trust.

Interview on knowledge for innovation

I had the privilege of being interviewed by Richard Angus (CEO The Finance Team) on the Business Masterclass programme on Cliffcentral.com. The topic of the interview was about concepts on knowledge and knowledge management that are relevant for business leaders. Listen to the podcast here.

During this 30 minute interview we talk about several knowledge concepts, like the distinction between tacit knowledge and codified knowledge and why this matters. I explained my favourite concept of how knowledge creation can be enhanced to improve innovation.

This interview is based on the article that I wrote earlier this year for the University of Stellenbosch Business School Executive Education newsletter.

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Thank you to Richard and the show host Adriaan Groenewald from the Leadership Platform for this opportunity to talk about a topic that I love so much.

 

 

 

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