Can organisation-wide social networks capture tacit knowledge?

Most of what we do at work requires knowledge that can’t be captured into a 10 bullet checklist with clear do’s and don’ts. Often what we do is complex, it is adapted to today’s or the client’s circumstances, and it requires decision-making based on emergent practices rather than established ones.

More than ever before, the success of our organisations is based on tacit knowledge (that part of knowledge that is widely embodied in individuals but not able to be readily expressed). The big challenge in any modern learning organisation is the sharing of this tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is not something that can be ‘captured’ and re-distributed.

Contrary to what is often believed, tacit knowledge isn’t easily shared through conversations either (verbal or written) because conversations usually don’t go deep enough. Yet, organisations’ social networks are based on the presumption that conversations is all we need.

Sharing of tacit knowledge is done through solving problems together. People are often not aware of the ins-and-outs of how they solve problems and approach decisions in the workplace. Collaboration on a problem (not the same as cooperation) allows colleagues to pick up tacit knowledge from each other. The realisation that people approach a work problem differently and that they bring unusual approaches or different perspectives, is at the core of deep learning.

There is a misconception that tacit knowledge can be ‘disseminated’ across an organisation through passive means like packaged e-learning modules, discussions in social forums, or webinars. These approaches are often too shallow to bring tacit knowledge to the surface.

No-one still believes the stand-alone compliance modules go anywhere near capturing tacit knowledge. They aren’t meant to and that’s fine – part of the learning needs in an organisation is about compliance and these modules can do a good job supporting this need.

However, we would fool ourselves if we would believe that anything ‘social’ will now suddenly be deep as well. It is incredibly hard to capture the know-how that defines the success stories we so badly want to replicate. Yet, this is exactly the know-how that ought to be picked up and implemented by the ‘other’ staff who needs to learn.

Providing a social network to your staff and contractors doesn’t necessarily mean the less-experienced will learn from your champions. There might be a few instances where that has happened, but it’s never organisation-wide and typically represents a tiny fraction of available knowledge. Organisations with a very kind and caring culture, with generous experts and great management will do a better job at this, but it still remains a drop in the ocean.

Tacit knowledge is deep, and so should be the approaches that facilitate the sharing of this knowledge. Let’s keep this in mind when we design learning environments and events.

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