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Sharing Unspoken Knowledge

ceo transition planning strategies leadership transition Mar 26, 2024
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- By Sophie Pinkoski

Knowledge transfer is a key element to the continued success of any organization, especially when it comes to leadership transitions. Explicit knowledge is easy enough to pass on to an incoming leader. Facts, processes, and procedures are tangible pieces of information that can be documented without a second thought. However, there is a second category of knowledge that is far more difficult to grasp.

Tacit knowledge is a formidable asset that often goes overlooked.

Many organizations find it challenging to properly identify and articulate tacit, or implicit knowledge in a simple, accessible way. Second-nature actions and behaviours acquired through lived experience, training, and full immersion in a particular environment are often forgotten when it comes to onboarding someone new. In essence, tacit knowledge is the elusive unwritten playbook containing the insights that come with seasoned professionals’ expertise. Many of these behaviours are intuitive to the people already well-versed in the culture, but will be foreign to an outsider looking in. A leader and their team may not necessarily think to explain these nuances to a newcomer. 

Simply put by Oxford philosopher, Michael Polanyi, people “can know more than they can tell.” This is particularly pertinent when an outgoing leader passes knowledge to their new leader.

If explicit and implicit knowledge isn’t transferred, a great deal of information crucial to managing your organization will leave with the outgoing leader.

In fact, it is believed that 90% of an organization’s intellectual wisdom resides exclusively in the leader and team’s heads. The key, then, to transferring tacit knowledge is to disseminate it as explicit information that can be easily documented and shared.

Here are some ways to convert implicit knowledge into accessible explicit insights:

Embed tacit knowledge sharing into your organization’s processes and procedures–– One of the biggest aspects for normalizing shared tacit knowledge is to build it into the organization’s processes and procedures.

Put a system in place for the team to understand the importance of sharing tacit information.

This requires a clear way to store it. Keep a digital repository for knowledge management where the team can easily access pertinent information when they need it. Make sure everyone has access to the same information within the most up to date documents. Once a system is in place for depositing information, its use can be integrated into the organization's culture by encouraging the team to record their experiences and insights regularly for knowledge transfer.

Reflect on your experiences through stories and interviews–– It is difficult to share tacit knowledge when identifying it may not be straightforward. One instance of tacit knowledge can be saying, “you’ll know it when you see it”.

Once a leader identifies their tacit knowledge, concrete examples can be shared from their experiences so that others can recognize it themselves.

The most effective way to share experiences is through storytelling, as it offers context behind information in an engaging, memorable way. Interviews with open-ended questions also help break down the subtler motivations behind your thought processes. Reflecting on experiences as a leader helps the team fully appreciate the extent of one’s capacities and expertise, which ultimately bolsters their respect for the wisdom being passed on.

Show your work through guided experiences–– Often times, tacit knowledge is hidden in how things get done. It’s about looking beyond superficial procedures to reach the more complex details of how a leader works. For instance, surgeons are more easily capable of sharing the minutiae of their medical practices through shadowing and active demonstration. This is an example of working out loud, wherein you explain your actions as you go.

When individuals observe a leader in action, they can replicate behaviours to practice taking on responsibilities and reflect on what was learned from it.

It also helps to capture the process after completing an important task. NASA’s astronauts regularly explain their most complex challenges to engineers to transfer knowledge from their unique first-hand experiences that can’t be replicated. Consistent reflection on lessons learned allows others to benefit from your insights even when they can’t partake in the same experience.

Encourage open conversations within your team–– It’s important within this process to remember the human aspect of your organization. Individuals are more likely to share the unspoken rules and traditions of their tacit knowledge with people they feel they can trust. For this reason, fostering a culture of open communication is key. Build a culture of psychological safety to make teams comfortable enough to share their experiences and insights.

Communities of Practice that allow likeminded people to share their wisdom with one another are particularly effective for transferring knowledge at all levels.

Pixar has introduced its own Community of Practice by way of their Notes Days, where their animators can come together to share their experiences within a collaborative environment. Such open communication facilitates any incidental learning that comes from less formal gatherings such as these.

The true value of tacit knowledge lies not in who possesses it, but in how it can be disseminated and applied for a team’s benefit.

So much crucial information an incoming leader needs is lost when implicit knowledge leaves with the outgoing leader. By prioritizing the conversion of implicit knowledge into explicit insights, not only can expertise be preserved, but the collective wisdom within the organization at large.


Further Reading

Turning Tacit Knowledge into Explicit Knowledge: Why This is Important, LinkedIn

Strategies For Tacit Knowledge Transfer, The eLearning Coach

Tacit Knowledge – How to Capture and Codify It for Your Employees, elium

From Tacit to Explicit: Unraveling the Secrets of Effective Knowledge Transfer, LinkedIn

Passing Down Tacit Knowledge In A Digital World, Forbes

Why The Unwritten Rules May Be Most Important, Forbes

Tacit Knowledge: Why and How to Capture It, KM Institute

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