Tacit knowledge to the rescue

Tacit knowledge to the rescue

You are seating in front of your work station, staring at a message on your screen, “Error 1306”. The programmer who wrote this part of the system has left the company several years ago. He did leave some remarks between the lines of code and some general documentation on what the program supposed to do. However it does not help you fix the issue.

You almost give up, you do not possess the knowledge to fix the issue and you cannot find it anywhere.

Then you recall learning about knowledge management and that there is explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. You acknowledge there is no explicit knowledge around to help and you think , “If only my company could manage the tacit knowledge better!”

But what exactly is tacit knowledge, how it differs from explicit knowledge, and can an organisation retain it?

Explicit knowledge can be codified and transmitted through documentation or other formal means. Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, cannot be articulated and codified. (Roberts 2015).

After acquiring knowledge, organisations need to retain it. Explicit knowledge can be retained using different methods of documentation including manuals, work instructions, or even remarks embodied in lines of code.

Retention of tacit knowledge, however, is more elusive. Methods of reserving tacit knowledge can include the creation of knowledge communities, efforts to keep vital employees or experts within the organisation, and investment in converting tacit knowledge to explicit. (Roberts 2015).

The retention of tacit knowledge in IT environment is at times crucial. In many cases the IT systems are too complex to be documented from every possible angle and to cater for every possible occurrence. For some systems the documentation is so detailed and overwhelming that is actually hard to find the needed information when required.

Thus IT organisations need to have a good strategy of knowledge retention. Such strategy can be based on the following four concepts ( Liebowitz 2009 ):

  1. Recognizing and rewarding employees for
  2. Gaining support and knowledge flow both from senior and more junior employees.
  3. Both person to person transfer of knowledge and system oriented codification.
  4. Filling knowledge and skills gap by bringing back employees who left the organisation.

Specific techniques which can be used to implement these concepts include interviews, mentoring, story telling, cheat sheet, exit interviews, “bibles” or “Books of Knowledge”, after-action reviews, online communities, wikis, and blogs ( Liebowitz 2009 ).

After answering these questions to yourself, you ponder how your company might have retained that tacit knowledge you now need.

No one from the original system developers stayed in the company. There is no community of programmers as each one works in a different department and you do not really like each other. When you joined you received only basic training on the system and no hand over from a more experienced developer.

In your despair you ask your coworker from the next pod. He is an accountant who has been with the company for almost ten years now. He of course know nothing about how to fix the system error, but he does remember seeing the veteran programmers looking from time to time in ring binder they kept in the filing cabinet.

You race to the cabinet, your heart rate sky rocketing, you find the binder, and quickly scan through the hand written notes. And there it is, on the fourth page there is a two lines explanation of what to do if error 1306 appears.

Yes, the old guys did convert their tacit knowledge into explicit one by writing instructions on how to solve common errors in the system. But even more important, there was at least one person with the tacit knowledge of were the explicit knowledge can be found.

Tacit Knowledge To The Rescue.
References:

Roberts, J. (2015), ‘A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Knowledge Management’.

Liebowitz, J. (2009), ‘Knowledge Retention : Strategies and Solutions’.

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