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Sharing Tacit Knowledge

Can You Transfer Tacit Knowledge?

In our organizations, there's a lot of hype and confusion about how to access expert tacit knowledge. We want to get hold of that knowledge so we can innovate and solve problems faster and more effectively. Everyone has seen the iceberg image that depicts the vast amount of tacit knowledge below the waterline, and we're hungry to make use of that wealth of knowledge. The iceberg is an accurate image in that it shows a much greater proportion of tacit Screen Shot 2022-03-02 at 1.55.55 PM knowledge than an individual's explicit knowledge. But the appearance is deceptive in that it depicts tacit knowledge as residing in a large storage area, like a structure that's somewhere in our brains. The reality is that our tacit knowledge is more like LEGOS scattered across the living room floor. Our tacit knowledge is made up of many bits and pieces located in different places in our brain - related to different experiences we've had, some of which might have occurred a long time ago. They're not connected to each other and are relatively dormant until they get activated by a problem or idea. That's why experts don't respond Scattered Legosvery effectively to the request to "Tell me everything you know about X." The expert has no problem to trigger those connections. Nevertheless, we're fascinated when an expert facing a problem reaches deep and pulls out an idea that "just might work" in response to a puzzling situation. We'd like to transfer that deep knowledge to others.  

A second characteristic of tacit knowledge is that there's something very personal about it. We've worked hard to gain the knowledge we have, and it's precious to us - a source of pride and ownership. One study* found that employees distinguish between tangible information such as written documents or computer programs and intangible information embodied in human memory. The former they see as belonging to the company, while the latter they see as part of themselves, directly reflecting on their identity and self-worth. The study showed that we're not likely to share that knowledge unless we know it will be respected and appreciated.

Think about what you know about being a good facilitator or a good leader. Much of that knowledge came from experience. It's not just a list of practices that you've learned; it's something that's now part of you, that resides not only in what you do but in who you are. The Center for Creative Leadership conducted a now-famous study** to determine how outstanding executives gained their knowledge. Not unsurprisingly, only 10% of that knowledge came from training. A larger 20% came from relationships, that is, from working for an outstanding manager, likewise working under a really poor manager. But a whopping 70% came from experience, that is, a start-up for which they were responsible or taking the lead of a challenging project. It came from trying out things, stumbling, succeeding, and sometimes figuring out the hard way what not to do. If you asked one of those executives to say what they knew about being good at their job, they could probably tick off a number of items. And if you said, "Ok, is that it?" It's likely they would say, "No, there's a great deal more, but it's more of an attitude or a way of interacting that I just don't have words to explain" - that's tacit knowledge.

So can you transfer tacit knowledge to others?

Yes! It's possible to transfer some of what a person knows; after all, that's what apprenticeship is all about. Medical students do "rounds" with a senior physician, and student teachers spend a semester with an experienced teacher. The best way to transfer tacit knowledge is to put people together over a period of time, so they can observe, ask questions, try things out and get corrections. (I've written about some systematic ways to do thatSo, yes, you can transfer some of a person's tacit knowledge, but it takes time, not just days, but weeks and months. Can you transfer all of the tacit knowledge an expert has? Sorry, no.

But, it's important to remember that someone doesn't have to learn all of the knowledge that an expert has because it's quite likely that many employees, within a given practice or subject area, already know 80-90% of what the expert knows. What they're after is that last small percent. In that sense, if an organization wants to "transfer" the knowledge of an expert that is leaving the organization, it's best to partner the expert with someone that already has a great deal of knowledge, a "nextpert," and to do so well before the expert is going to leave. That doesn't mean the "nextpert" has to be with the expert every moment; the "nextpert" can plan to join the expert when he or she is working on particularly challenging problems. 

Another way to think about using tacit knowledge, and perhaps a more realistic way in the long term, is lateral transfer. It's not just experts that have tacit knowledge; all of us have a great deal of unique tacit knowledge born out of our life and work experience. The question is how to trigger that knowledge for innovation and problem solving. One of the most effective ways is to create diverse teams; members from different cultures, disciplines, and work experiences. As they work together to find solutions, one team member may say something that triggers a piece of tacit knowledge I have, and I may be able to put those pieces together to come up with a novel idea. In other words, to make use of the tacit knowledge in an organization, create an environment where there is a rich and diverse supply of ideas within teams AND where the team members have enough time together to puzzle over the problem. The possibility of triggering tacit knowledge is significantly increased in a diverse group over a homogeneous group. That's probably why studies show that diverse teams are more innovative.*** Both time and diversity are critical components in making use of tacit knowledge across an organization.

One of my favorite examples of making use of cognitive diversity and time to solve problems was told to me by my mentor, Reg Revans. In the 1930's Reg was a doctoral student at the Cavendish Laboratories in Cambridge. There he rubbed shoulders with the greatest scientific minds of the age. He studied under Rutherford and JJ Thomas, both considered fathers of nuclear physics. There were five Nobel prize Screen Shot 2022-03-02 at 2.54.08 PM winners (or physicists that would later become winners) at the Laboratory while Revans was a student there. John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton were working on the first nuclear particle accelerator, which allowed them to split the atom. Appleton was working to demonstrate the existence of a layer of the ionosphere that could reliably transmit radio waves. Sir Mark Oliphant pioneered the development of microwave radar and, of course, Rutherford himself, who would discover the structure of the atom.

Every Wednesday, there was an afternoon tea attended by the five Nobel Prize winners and a few lucky doctoral students. Rutherford had one rule for the afternoon tea, no one could speak about their successes. But they could raise issues about tricky problems they faced in their research, puzzles they had not been able to solve. The others would listen, ask questions and offer perspectives that the problem owner could not have thought of on his own. One afternoon, following a particularly long and difficult discussion, Reg recalled Rutherford remarking, "Well, gentlemen, what has impressed me most these last few hours is the extent of my own ignorance... What does yours look like to you?" 

There are several important lessons I learned from hearing Revans tell that story many times:

  1. The cleverness of Rutherford to know he needed to design a way to put the scientist together to take the time to learn from each other (with the small inducement of iced cakes and tea).
  2. His recognition that each had a different base of knowledge, with a different set of problem-solving skills and different heuristics that could be useful to others.  
  3. The third lesson was humility – the willingness of these great men to acknowledge a problem and to seek help from others.

Out of that experience, Revans developed a process much like what he had participated in at Cambridge. He called it Action Learning, where small groups of employees/managers from across an organization met every few weeks to help each other with problems they were facing. And it works, just as it did for the Nobel prize winners. If you want to know more about Action Learning or the other processes that make use of tacit knowledge, give me a shout at [email protected].


*Constant, D., Kiesler, S., and Sproull, L. 1994. 'What's mine is ours, or is it? A study of attitudes about information sharing'. Information Systems Research, 5:4, 400−421.

**McCall, M. Lombardo, M. et al.  1988. Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop on the Job, Center for Creative Leadership. 

 ***Rock, D., Grant, H.  2016 "Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter." HBR November 04, 2016

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