Harnessing Tacit Knowledge with KMS

In the business world and especially in sales, tacit knowledge is one of the most valuable interpersonal currencies. Tacit knowledge is that knowledge which isn’t easily acquired through studying books and is difficult to pass on to other people en-masse; the cumulative store of someone’s subjective or experiential learning. For a salesman, it might be the knowledge that Client A has two children aged 10 and 7, enjoys football, and doesn’t like feeling patronized. The sales organization obviously can’t put that knowledge in a book of standards for all of its employees as for 99.9% of them, it’s useless. Nevertheless, taking advantage of tacit knowledge is how we all turn mundane, robotic tasks into artistry.

Nigiri, not a hand roll, is my preferred method of fish delivery to my mouth.

As an example, take cooking. A few years back, I watched a documentary called Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It’s about a sushi chef in Japan who has elevated his craft to near-perfection by doing the same thing over and over again for decades. He no doubt possesses tons of explicit knowledge… how different types of sushi are made, which fish to use, the cuts to perform on fish, and so on. What makes Jiro’s sushi stand out, however, (and what enables him to charge vastly more money for his food than other sushi chefs) is the tacit knowledge that he’s learned over the course of his career. He knows where to buy the best quality fish, the right amount of soy sauce and wasabi to put on his nigiri to achieve the perfect balance of flavor (without overshadowing the fish itself), the most efficient method for preparing his rice, and so on. Jiro could, theoretically, publish a book on all of the knowledge he’s gained over his career but it would offer little value to the average chef as not only do very few people have access to the markets and specific ingredients that Jiro uses, these are also skills and techniques which must be learned through years of close tutelage. After all, people clamor for the opportunity to become one of his apprentices.

Tacit knowledge is becoming easier to codify and transfer to other members of organizations through the use of knowledge management systems (or KMS). KMS were born from some organization’s realization that codifying and sharing their explicit and tacit knowledge is an effective way to improve customer service, product development, and employee retention (or at the very least, get new employees up to speed quickly when turnover does occur). Thanks to modern databases and Big Data applications, it is possible and beneficial to know that Client A has two children aged 10 and 7, enjoys football, and doesn’t like feeling patronized. As such, creating an organizational culture where sharing tacit knowledge is celebrated and rewarded is essential to the success of knowledge management systems.

A KMS is cyclical, as new knowledge is constantly being learned and old knowledge becomes outdated and irrelevant over time, and all consist of six basic steps.

  1. Create: Whenever someone discovers a better way of doing something, information is learned about a business practice or client, or external knowledge is brought in, knowledge is created.
  2. Capture: The capture step is challenging as it isn’t a uniform process and requires the most front-end work. New knowledge must not only be identified as valuable, but also be recorded and represented in a way that is meaningful to the organization.
  3. Refine: Refining knowledge is placing it in valuable context. Knowing that Client A likes football is itself an irrelevant fact to an organization. Knowing that the client is a fan of sports, his favorite team, and so on is important for a salesman’s relationship with him/her can give way to insights in how to interact with clients, thus improving overall customer service.
  4. Store: Knowledge doesn’t do anybody much good if a few knowledge workers in the organization meet to talk about it and then it’s forgotten forever! Knowledge must be recorded into a repository where other people in the organization can access it.
  5. Manage: Part of the cyclical nature of KMS design, knowledge must be kept current; somebody must review it periodically to ensure that it is still relevant and accurate.
  6. Disseminate: Knowledge must be made available so that anybody in the organization can access it anywhere and at any time. This is the KMS design portion of the KMS cycle. It doesn’t have to be a database or data warehouse; it could be something as simple as a printed document on a specific subject… although databases are obviously much more valuable when it comes to keeping information current.

That’s all fine and dandy, but in practice, what does it mean? KMS applications come in myriad forms but I’ll illustrate just a few examples: A feedback portal for an organization could be a KMS, provided that the organization actually does something with the feedback it receives. Research files are a great example of KMS in that many people are collaborating on them at once, providing their explicit and tacit knowledge, and they are updated on an ongoing basis. Ever have a group project in school that required everybody to work on the same presentation or document? This is a very basic but still valid KMS! Multiple people are generating and contributing knowledge, it is stored in a central repository that everybody on the team can access (your PowerPoint file, Excel spreadsheet, or Word document in Microsoft terms), and is updated on an ongoing basis until the project is concluded.

Following the KMS cycle ensures that we are getting the most out of our collaborations with other people while providing an end-result that is valuable and accessible. As we move ever onward into an analytical future where Big Data reigns supreme, people skilled in the management and translation of knowledge will be increasingly in demand. This has been just a superficial definition of KMS but hopefully after reading this you understand a bit about its applications and scope.

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