I was doing some work on knowledge transfer at Erickson in Sweden. As I interviewed technicians I kept hearing Hans’ name come up as the person to go to if a technician had a question about the computer language C++. Finally I checked with someone, “So Hans must be the resident expert on C++?” and was quickly told, “Oh no, the resident expert is Joachim, but he’s not very good at explaining. Now Hans, he can really help you understand how C++ works with our switches.”
Later when I interviewed Hans I told him that I kept hearing his name as the person a technician should seek out if they want to understand C++. I asked him how he got that reputation. Modestly he said, “Well, I’m not sure how I got the reputation, but I’ll tell you how I try to help people who come to me with a question. Is that what you want to know?” I agreed it was what I was after. So he explained, “When a technician comes to my office he usually starts by explaining what he wants to know about. But before I try to answer his question, I ask a few questions to see how much he already knows about C++. Then I ask a few more questions to find out what he’s planning to do with the information. By that time I’ve formulated an idea about where to start and what I need to say. And we just go from there talking back and forth.”
Now when I’m asked, “What's the most effective way for people to share their tacit knowledge?” I always think of Hans and the answer I give is: “Tacit knowledge needs to be shared through conversation.” My reasoning is as follows.
Our tacit knowledge is drawn from our experience as well as our years of study and is stored in bits and pieces in our brain, that is, it is not stored as answers or explanations but as fragments. What we call “tacit knowledge” is the human ability to draw on those fragments to construct a response to a new problem or question.
Tacit knowledge is particularly useful when we are faced with a complex problem. By complex I mean a problem that does not have a factual, right or wrong answer, for example, "What architectural design would best fit this physical space and meet the needs of the client?" or “How would you stop an oil leak 5000 feet under water?” When an expert like Joachim faces a complex problem he brings together those bits and pieces of his experience and study that are relevant to that specific problem situation and puts those together to form a solution. Because he is embedded in the situation he knows the context and the end goal. In bringing together those bits and pieces that are in his head, he conducts, what Don Schon would call, a “reflective conversation with the situation.”
But when someone like Hans is asked a complex question he faces difficulties that Joachim does not have to deal with. Hans knows very little about the asker’s situation. Without that knowledge he can only provide a general answer - rules of thumb, for example. But he can’t give an answer that takes into account the asker’s situation. If Hans wants to respond to a specific situation he will have to learn much more about it. To share his tacit knowledge he will first have to have a conversation with the asker and then create the knowledge that applies to that situation in the moment of answering the question. The knowledge he supplies never existed in that form before he spoke it aloud. If he were to be asked the same question tomorrow his response would likely be different because he would have new fragments of knowledge stored in his brain. One of those fragments might be more recent and so more readily come to the fore. Tacit knowledge, then, is constructed in response to a question or to a problem at a specific moment in time. It is a magnificent human capability we have to be able to continually reconstruct what we know into new forms to face new situations.
The conversation between an asker and an expert is necessary because it affords the opportunity for a number of important exchanges:
o the asker can offer information about the situation in which the knowledge will be applied,
o the expert can probe deeper about that situation,
o the expert can gain a sense of what the asker already knows so the expert can determine at what level to construct his/her answer,
o the asker can ask the expert about the meaning of a term or concept the asker is not familiar with,
o the asker can seek the reasoning behind a conclusion that the expert has offered, when it is not evident to the asker,
o the expert can correct any false assumptions the asker is making about what the asker needs to do or about concepts the asker holds,
o the asker can correct any assumptions the expert is making that do not fit the asker’s situation,
o and on and on
It is in the back and forth of conversation, that is, both parties actively trying to understand the meaning the other is attempting to convey, that tacit knowledge is exchanged.
The reasoning I’ve just offered begs the question of whether the conversation can take place virtually, in other words, “Does it have to occur face-to-face?”
From my perspective, there is a great deal of useful information that people can share virtually, for example, in an on-line discussion or a list-serve. I’m a great advocate of such discussions and have written in CompanyCommand about their value. Members of the community can share their experience, support others, and provide solutions or answers to some types of questions. For example, a member can write, “I need some new ideas about how to do a safety briefing, because having given them too many times, my briefings have become old and stale.” then others can respond by describing how they do safety briefings. Or a member can ask, “Has anyone had trouble making an HP printer scan from a Mac?” and others can offer their own suggestions.
However, my experience with these kinds of on-line discussions is that members who respond to a question rarely ask for any context. Rather they respond in declarative statements about their own experience or they offer their own rules of thumb. Seldom is there an attempt for asker and responder to probe the meaning that the other is attempting to convey. For this reason I think on-line discussions are not an effective way to share tacit knowledge.
What about phone or email exchanges?
A phone call has greater possibilities for sharing tacit knowledge than does email, but still has limits that can reduce the extent of the back and forth of conversation. Any conversation has two levels of meaning that are constantly being conveyed. One is about content and the other is about who the asker and responder are in relation to each other. The second conveys such information as, “Can I trust you to not think less of me if I don’t understand immediately?” or “I don’t really have time to answer your question in detail.” That conversation is expressed through intonation, gestures, and facial expression, little of which can be conveyed over the phone and none of which can be conveyed by email – thus the profusion of misunderstandings that email generates! Either medium is more likely to serve the transfer of tacit knowledge if the two people are well acquainted, which provides past experience with which to fill in or interpret the second conversation. But by-and-large, email and phone are less effective mediums for transferring tacit knowledge than is a face-to-face conversation like Hans had with the technician.
As I studied the way Hans transferred tacit knowledge, I identified two simple elements that helped Hans earn his reputation for being good at explaining C++, 1) he conducted his conversations face-to-face, and 2) it was an exchange in which Hans took the time to understand the current knowledge level and the context in which the question was situated.