Tranquility. Lonely Pier towards Tahaa Island. © 2009 Mlenny Photography (iStockphoto)

“Facilitating Tacit Knowledge Exchange” but nothing beats personal contact

Forrest Christian Computers/IT, Knowledge, Organizations, Reviews - Articles Leave a Comment

In his recent article for Communications of the ACM (“Facilitating Tacit Knowledge Exchange”), Kevin C. Desouza makes a difference between tacit and explicit knowledge. We’re mostly comfortable with explicit forms of knowledge, forms that can be shared and transmitted easily (“easily parsed”, per Desouza, which is just so funny) such as textbooks, spreadsheets, measurements, etc. We’re less comfortable with tacit forms, which he describes as highly personal, difficult to communicate, subjective insights such as intuitions and hunches. Tacit knowledge is what you hear when you ask an expert what is going to happen and he or she says “it’ll fail” but will have to sit and think for awhile if you ask why. “[T]acit knowledge is deeply rooted in each individual’s actions and experiences, as well as in the ideals, values and emotions they embrace.” [Pp. 86]

He argues that management needs to make a place in both physical space and within the organizational culture for emergent mechanisms for tacit knowledge exchange. Emergent mechanisms are those that are bottom-up, grassroots structures that just seem to happen. It’s similar to Jane Jacobs idea of the crossroads in the city, that you really do need to be physically near things so that you can run into tacit knowledge.

Big Investment Bank has this type of thing going with an extensive chat facility that they’ve built over the years. People there will chat about almost everything, and it is quite useful in ways that it wasn’t intended, transmitting tacit knowledge across the organization’s IT department, at least. However, I noticed that the value of the answers I got went up dramatically if I had spent some time on the phone with the person or had seen him face-to-face. I worked days but the second level support team in the States worked swing shift. I’d stay in for awhile if I had something to watch over and get to talk to the person stuck with the night duty. It wasn’t so much that I got so much done then; moreso that I got so much more done during emergencies and deadlines. They were more likely to provide their tacit knowledge over chat when I had shown a personal interest.

Desouza’s emergent mechanism for tacit knowledge was a game room and internal chat. He describes the need for management use of the mechanism because of the fear of reprisal for “not doing my job”.

(Regardless of what Peter Block says, and I do love his stuff, punishment is one of the most effective ways to control behavior. It only lasts as long as I am being watched, but it will keep me from using some sort of new emergent mechanism.)

Desouza also understands that all management can do is create the environment. “Let nature take its course,” he writes. He also cautions against the normal condition in management:

In organizations there is a tendency for some people to over or micromanage. Knowledge management cannot be fostered under these settings . . Secondly, changing to a [KM] culture does not happen overnight.

True words, amigos.

Go get the article. If you have to choose ACM or IEEE this year, I’d go with ACM membership.

Source: Desouza, Kevin C. “Facilitating Tacit Knowledge Exchange”. Communications of the ACM. 46(6) [June 2003], pp. 85-88.

Image Credit: Tranquility. Lonely Pier towards Tahaa Island. © 2009 Mlenny Photography (iStockphoto)

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