In Part I, I explained why “we know more than we can say” including, 1) how our brains store knowledge, 2) how we create knowledge 3) the values and relationships that are involved in tacit knowledge. I gave examples of situations in which knowledge workers, who understood something very deeply, were unable to clearly articulate what they knew to others, although they were themselves able to act on their deep knowledge.
If, as these examples illustrate, you can’t just write it down, the question remains, "How do we make use of our tacit knowledge?" In this post, Part II, I suggest two important ways that can occur. The first is to draw on someone’s tacit knowledge for an answer to a pressing question or problem. And although we may never fully know the deep understanding that forms the basis of their response, we can take action based on their advice. I suggest two pathways that are useful when there is a pressing question or problems
The second way to make use of the tacit knowledge in the organization, is to grow it in employees so they have the capacity to solve complex problems themselves and here again there are multiple pathways to this end.
I - Drawing on the Tacit Knowledge of Others
There are two ways to draw on the tacit knowledge of others. The first assumes an individual has a question or problem he or she needs some help with, the second assumes a larger issue, perhaps a team that is starting a new project and needing to draw on the collective knowledge of those in the organization to plan or develop a strategy for it.
- An individual with a question or problem
The first way is to hold a conversation with a colleague or expert (the source) to draw on his/her tacit knowledge. Email won’t work because the source will have to spend some time learning about the asker’s context in order to draw on patterns within his/her experience that fit that context. A face-to-face conversation is optimal because it allows the give and take that Hans described or that we saw Fred engaged in with Alice. A conversation could certainly begin with an email, or a question asked in a CoP, and then continue over coffee or, if simple enough, by phone. But here we run into the issue of values and relationship. To be willing to invest conversation time, the responder has to have a sense of who the asker is. This, of course, is where building a network is critical; having met the individual face-to-face at a network meeting, or being a part of a community where people are committed to helping each other, increases the likelihood that the responder will expend the necessary time and energy.
Rob Cross and Lee Sproull conducted a study in 2004 that looked at the benefits that accrued to people who had a conversation with a colleague about a relatively ambiguous issue each was facing. These seekers were project managers in a large consulting firm. They had access to first-rate company repositories of best practices, case examples, reusable work products, methodologies and tools, discussion forums and expertise databases. In spite of such tools, overwhelmingly they preferred to take the issue they were wrestling with to a colleague.
Cross and Sproull conducted in-depth interviews with each of these project managers to explore what they learned through the conversations they chose to have. Then they sorted the responses into five categories, which I outline here. I’ve also embedded my own thinking related to the categories- so they are not pure Cross and Sproull.
Answers: Not surprisingly the seekers got answers to the questions they asked. Some of the answers were factual in nature, but more often what was asked for and received was procedural or methodology based. The seekers were looking for the application of facts or principles in order to develop a solution.
Meta Knowledge: This category was about where to go to get more information on the issue, or conversely where not to go because a certain report was out-dated, or superficial. Also in this category was the identification of specific work products and the names of other people who could be helpful, along with an introduction. Meta knowledge is incredibly useful, but only if the source knows enough about the issues the seeker is facing, in order to sort through possibilities based on, 1) the seeker’s level of expertise (absorptive capacity) and, 2) the applicability of the meta knowledge to the seeker’s specific situation.
Problem Reformulation: This occurred when the source suggested a different way to look at the problem or issue, a way that might even have invalidated the original question. Problem reformulation tended to broaden the thinking of the seeker or to approach the question from an entirely different angle. Also in this category was helping the seeker become aware of potential unforeseen consequences of specific actions, as well as increasing awareness of issues that were likely to be particularly sensitive.
To gain meta-knowledge and/or problem-reformulation requires the source to be willing “to understand the problem as experienced by the seeker and then shape her/his knowledge to the evolving definition of the problem” and is best served by the give and take of conversation. And as Cross and Sproull point out, to provide meta knowledge also demands a strong enough tie with the source so that he or she is willing to invest the necessary time in the seeker’s issue.
Validation: This is assurance that the approach the seeker is taking, is on course. And it is the expression of appreciation for the seeker’s thinking behind his or her planning. Validation builds the seeker’s confidence and allows him or her to move forward with greater certainty and perhaps even be more self-assured when approaching a client. Validation also provides seekers the certainty that they have done enough background work, saving the seeker the time it would take to gather further data.
Validation has an emotive content that comes across most fully through the facial and tonal cues we pick up in face-to-face conversations. Like most feedback, validation provides greater assurance when it references specifics rather than generalities. For example, “Great plan” is less validating than is, “The logic of your argument is well sequenced which adds to its face validity.” But to offer that level of specificity takes in-depth understanding on the part of the source.
Legitimizing: Legitimizing is the expression of approval by a person in authority or with known expertise, which the seeker can then use to influence others. As with validation, legitimizing can save the seeker time by reducing the amount of proof or data that may need to be collected before the client is willing to act. It also serves to head off arguments others might raise.
The greatest benefit of an exchange with a colleague is that it produces five categories of responses, not just the answer. So much more is available from conversation, e.g. an unexpected insight, a sense of affirmation that inspires the seeker to new heights or equally useful, having to confront a realization that he or she has been trying to avoid; deepening the relationship with a colleague; or the introduction to a collaborator the seeker would never have discovered on his or her own; and on and on.
2. A Team or Group Requesting Help on Broad Issues Such as a Plan or Strategy
Here the technique is to bring together a group of colleagues that can provide multiple perspectives on an issue. We often think of this as a Peer Assist, that is, drawing on the knowledge of peers who do similar work. But just listening to others present, as happens at most conferences, does not constitute a Peer Assist because to make use of the tacit knowledge of another requires an in-depth conversation and that does not happen in presentations, even with Q&A tacked on at the end. Nick Milton tells this story about a Peer Assist in South America.
company had moved into a South American country through acquisition. They had
taken over a chain of local dealers, and needed a business information system
up and running. The vendor said, 'This will take you 10 months'. Management
said, 'We need it in 6 months if we are to capitalize on this acquisition.' Although the implementation of a business information system was new to that
country office, it was not new to the company. Offices in Eastern Europe and
the Middle East, had done this sort of thing recently, a team in the head
office were working on standard processes for business systems, and there were
several vendors who offered these systems. The country office decided to tap
into this knowledge through a [face-to-face] 2-day Peer Assist. They held video
interviews with the participants to develop a shared context in advance, and
built a careful agenda of knowledge sharing and solution creation.
An email from the country manager afterwards confirmed that they had benefited from applying the knowledge management principles, starting with the peer assist, which produced a much improved project plan, reducing the time-scale from 10 to 4 months. Examples of processes/procedures and technical templates were lifted from Poland and Russia to start the project off. External benchmarking suggests that the costs would have been up to $500,000 higher without the knowledge transfer. So a direct benefit of $500,000 was realized, with the additional indirect benefits of accelerating proper governance by 6 months compared to the original vendor estimate."
A second example of a type of Peer Assist comes from Healthcare.
In 1987 the US government started requiring Medicare to publicly report hospital death rates in all regions of the country. One of the figures reported was on bypass surgery, one of the most frequently performed surgical procedures. For the hospitals in the Northern New England region the reported death rate was 4.3 per hundred operations. The cardiac surgeons in the hospitals began to realize that there was great variability among individual hospitals, ranging from 2 to 9 deaths per hundred patients. Up until this time surgeons would have been aware of their own death rate, but would not have known how it compared to others – after all some deaths are not preventable, no matter how skilled the surgeon.
The surgeons in the five largest hospitals in the region took this information very seriously and voluntarily created a study group to do something about it. The action they decided on was to observe each other operating on patients and after each operation meet to discuss the case.
Because of these many “peer assists,” between 1991 and 1993 the death rate across the region fell from 4.3 to 3.3 deaths per hundred operations, resulting in 74 fewer deaths in that two-year period than what the trend line would have predicted. By the end of the study in 2002 the death rate had fallen to 2.1 percent across the region, which translated into 811 fewer deaths.
In both of the examples the requirement is conversation and in the last, observation as well. In the Peer Assist examples, multiple perspectives were involved because the receivers needed more than an answer, they need a deeper understanding to guide many actions they would take in the future.
II Developing Tacit Knowledge in Others
What organizations have learned, through twenty years of attempting to transfer an expert's broad base of tacit knowledge to less experienced others, is that it is not possible. They have found, what we already knew as parents attempting to transfer our own life experience to our children, that everyone has to develop tacit knowledge for him or her self. And that our role as parents is, 1) to provide as rich an experience base as we can, through such events as, travel to different environments, engagement in activities from cultural arts to sports, opportunities to try out new ideas and even to fail and learn from those failures, and 2) to offer coaching, most importantly our own, but also through competent teachers, sports coaches, counselors, etc. that provide a broader perspective and new ways of understanding the world.
So the second way to draw on tacit knowledge is to grow the tacit knowledge of employees, so they have the capability to solve problems themselves. Organizations need to offer, 1) opportunities for experience and 2) structures through which coaching can occur. These two elements would sound familiar to any HR person, but to grow tacit knowledge these elements must be designed based on what we have learned about 1) how our brains store knowledge, 2) how we create knowledge, and 3) the values and relationships that are interlinked with tacit knowledge and that were elaborated in Part 1 of this article.
- Experience and reflection
People learn from experience, when 1) they have to opportunity to try different ways of doing things and 2) they have the time and opportunity to reflect on what they did. To develop tacit knowledge these two actions must be paired. Little learning results from experience without reflection, likewise reflection is empty without new experiences that serve to test the knowledge that reflection has brought forth.
The opportunity to try different ways of doing things occurs both at the individual and the group level. At the individual level it means employees have the opportunity to try out their own ideas for improvement or innovation. In some companies this is labeled “empowerment,” but whatever the label, it means employees are able to make use of their own judgment in determining what actions to take.
A well known example is the 3M Corporation that has encouraged deliberate experimentation by offering employees at all levels 15% of their work hours to develop and test their own ideas. The 15% program has generated some of the company’s best selling products such as, post it notes, clear bandages, optical films that reflect light and painter’s tape. 3M’s successes inspired Google to offer 20% time and that has been as fruitful, producing Gmail, Google Earth, and Gmail Labs.
But experimentation does not need to be individual to build tacit knowledge. Teams that have the flexibility to test new ideas, with members offering their own thinking and the reasoning behind that thinking, serves equally well to build tacit knowledge. What does not build tacit knowledge is for a team or an individual to be told what to do, without the ability to impact those instructions and with little understanding of the reasoning behind the decisions. In such situations, neither success nor failure will yield tacit knowledge in the participants.
The second half of the pair is reflection. Experience is gained, not through one occurrence, but over enough occurrences that patterns begin to emerge across all of the actions taken. Reflection requires thinking back on the actions taken, the reasoning behind the choice of action, the context in which the action took place, and the outcomes that resulted from the actions, many of which are unintentional. While experience is inevitable, learning is not. To learn from experience requires deliberate reflection.
Reflection is most effective when it is done in the company of others who are involved in the same kind of work. When we summarize what happened for another, we begin to understand it better ourselves. We learn when we talk. Each practitioner functions within a somewhat different context, and responding a bit differently. Consequently the learning of each practitioner is unique. When those practitioners reflect together on their actions, “creative abrasion” (Leonard) occurs, which leads to greater understanding in those engaged in the conversation.
The relationship between cause and effect is always complex. Most of the outcomes of a team’s actions have multiple causes and it takes the thinking of the whole team to tease cause and effect relationships out. A group discussion moves the knowledge each individual holds into a group or public space where it can then be integrated and made sense of by the whole team. The team then draws on the shared knowledge the next time it takes action.
The US Army took reflection to a new level when, in the 1970’s, it instituted the After Action Review (AAR) to be conducted at every level following any engagement. In each AAR session the army drew out three levels of lessons:
1. Lessons for the platoon (or battalion or company) that would lead it to take more effective action the next time it was engaged in a similar maneuver - typically a facilitator wrote these lessons on a flip chart for everyone to see.
2. Individual lessons that each soldier learned, that would lead him/her to act more effectively the next time that soldier was involved in a similar maneuver - each soldier carried a pocket notebook to write these lessons down during the group meeting
3. Lessons that could be generalized for the use of others – a subset of what was learned in the meeting was sent to the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) to be made available to other platoons.
Formalizing lessons learned, as the Army did, is useful because, teams don’t often take the time to pause and think through, “Now what did we learn out of that experience?” “What would we do differently next time?” Consequently teams frequently find themselves making the same mistakes over and over again. Even for individuals, the reflection process is more effective when it is formalized, for example, keeping a journal or a holding a regularly scheduled conversation with a colleague or mentor who can help the individual think through the lessons.
According to Nonaka and Takeuchi, “The key to acquiring tacit knowledge is experience. Without some form of shared experience it is extremely difficult for one person to project her or himself into another individual’s thinking process. The mere transfer of knowledge will make little sense, if it is abstracted from associated emotions and specific contexts in which shared experiences are imbedded.”
Leonard describes a top consultant who was asked where and how he learned his skills in closing deals with clients.
“‘I had an excellent teacher,’ he replied. He explained that when he joined the company, an elder statesman in the firm had asked him to set in on clients meetings. ‘You don’t have to say a word,’ the older consultant told him. ‘Just listen and learn.’ The junior consultant rightly took that directive as more than a suggestion and sat at the back of the room. After each client meeting, he and the older consultant discussed what had occurred. ‘I learned more from those briefs,’ he said, ‘than in four years at my prior company and two years of business school.’”
The US Army has long used coaching as a critical part in the development of military officers. Nate Allen, one of the founders of CompanyCommand, an on-line community for Company Commanders, describes the Leadership Challenge as a “simulated, Cognitive Leadership Challenge. A platform where Soldiers can construct solutions to various scenarios presented to them by their peers and/or predecessors.” The challenge is a short video of a soldier presenting a real situation he or she has faced - one in which there was no clear-cut or obvious answer. For example a U.S. Army Platoon Leader serving in Iraq describes this situation in a video:
“We were headed out to a pretty easy mission. My front truck reports that there’s a dead body under a car in the middle of the road. He was on the ground. He had been in his car and he had been shot. At that point, the gunner from my lead truck noticed a double-decker bus that had stopped. And there was a guy up on the top deck who appeared to have a blue video camera, and he was just hanging out the window video-taping us. Our rules of engagement permitted us to engage anybody video-taping an attack. I looked down my sight and noticed the same thing. The gunner looked through binos and noticed the same thing. He asked me, ‘Hey sir, can I go ahead and shoot him?’
The viewer is then asked, What are the considerations? and What would you do? After answering the viewer then reads a set of 3-5 sample responses and is asked to rate each. Follow his response, the viewer can then read the responses other viewers have written. Before the final step views are provided resources that broaden their understanding, such as army manuals, interviews with other soldiers in a similar situation and news articles. Finally the viewer sees “the rest of the story” of the original video. Viewers can then make changes to their original answer and participate in a threaded discussion with their peers about the issue.
This sequence of experiencing a realistic but ambiguous situation described by someone much like the viewer, planning an action, and exposure to others’ thinking, develops the tacit knowledge of the viewers. The situation is one in which the viewers recognize they will likely find themselves in the future. They are required to envision a course of action and then to learn what others would do in that same situation, but more importantly they learn the why of others thinking, a tactic that broadens their own view. When they have the opportunity to review their original response, 40% percent make changes, a strong indication they have broadened their tacit understanding.
Borrow Forward is an example of the development of tacit knowledge that comes from Kaiser Foundation Health plan (KFHP) and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals (KFH). The health care system employs a form of Process Improvement called “adaptive design” that requires employees from a unit, for example the emergency room, to work together as a team. Alide Chase, Senior Vice President of Quality and Service, explains the joint experience each team has before beginning their Process Improvement (PI) training.
Before each new team begins their PI training, they engage in “Borrow Forward.” A team of 4-5 persons from, for example the Emergency Department, makes a visit to an Emergency Department in another location that has already successfully implemented adaptive design. The visiting team goes in a state of inquiry. Each visiting team member shadows his/her counterpart for 2 to 3 days. Before leaving, the visiting team holds a meeting with those they shadowed to talk with them about the observations and insights they experienced. This is a reflection meeting in which both parties learn. The visiting team articulates their insights which helps them clarify what they learned for themselves and the host team gains new understanding of their own processes by seeing those processes from a new perspective.
After their return, the visiting team begins their PI training and implementation. They hold weekly meetings to reflect on the actions they have taken and the results achieved. Borrow Forward provides a shared experience from which they derive shared meaning, and provides a lens through which they are able to think about their work.
A final example comes from the consulting world. Leonard describes the way SAIC, a consulting firm that works primarily with the US government, prepares “knowledge consultants.”
“Knowledge consultants learn their trade from more experienced consultants through first observing the expert help a client learn a particular knowledge management process, next practicing the skills by leading a client session and receiving feedback from the coach, and then teaching the skill to another consultant. This process is one of SAIC’s most useful knowledge transfer tools not only in-house, but also for coaching clients. The knowledge consultants take their clients through the same “see one, lead one, and teach one” processes of learning.
Coaching can come from many quarters. The first example is a typical one, where a mentor helps a junior consultant gain tacit knowledge. The second example of the Army’s on-line peer coaching is very carefully crafted sequence of steps, the third involves a team conducting an in-depth observation and the fourth, is the well known process of “see one, lead one, and teach one.” In each, coaching involves observing, conversation and doing.
In Part I, I described the research basis for why it is difficult for people to write their tacit knowledge down; 1) that our brains store what we have gained from experience in bits and pieces and then reconfigures those elements when faced with a problem or question, 2) that we create knowledge by finding patterns in our experience, 3) that values and relationships impact our willingness to share our tacit knowledge with others and their willingness to trust that knowledge.
In Part II, I offered two ways to make use of tacit knowledge, given that it is not effective to ask people to write it down. The first was to call on the tacit knowledge of others when faced with a problem or question and to probe for understanding through an in-depth conversation with them – one in which the resource has the time to understand the context of the asker. The second way was to develop tacit knowledge in others which occurs through 1) providing opportunities for employees to initiate actions and reflect on those actions, and 2) providing opportunities for coaching from experts and more often, and more usefully, from peers.