Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Implicit Knowledge

Heard of explicit knowledge? How about tacit knowledge? If you are an information professional, the answer is almost certainly "yes"; these are pretty widely accepted and understood terms and concepts. But what about implicit knowledge? Initially, I sort of felt like I knew what this was but pretty quickly realised that it was a concept I hadn’t come across before reading "Implicit Knowledge Management: the new frontier for corporate capability". It’s an interesting article (if a little ‘salesy’ towards the end) that covers a few different concepts. One of the concepts is knowledge harvesting, the subject of my management diploma dissertation and the reason this document surfaced in an online search.

Implicit Knowledge
Let’s start with implicit knowledge. The article defines it as a middle ground between explicit and tacit knowledge; it is the tacit knowledge that can be transformed into explicit knowledge. It’s not the same thing as tacit knowledge, just captured because, as the authors point out, "not all tacit knowledge can be transfigured into implicit knowledge. There will always be bodies of know-how and experience that remain tacit."

The authors are quite right in pointing out that most organisations that claim to engage in knowledge management would point to systems or processes whose principal function is to capture and consolidate existing explicit knowledge. Few organisations (and none that I know of) are actively engaged in some form of tacit knowledge management. The closest they seem to come is the provision of mechanisms for individuals to share their tacit knowledge. This step is a big one but not the same as capturing it for use once that person has left the organisation. The goal of implicit knowledge management, according to the authors, is "to determine how much of the tacit knowledge in your organisation defies any form of codification, and to mine that which does not."

The last thing on implicit knowledge as a concept is that the authors flag it as not being an effective way to bring staff values into line with company ones. Mentoring and storytelling are highlighted as better ways of achieving that objective.

Codification of process logic or expertise
The authors also touch on the need for a codification process for organising that tacit knowledge that is made implicit. Their example is:
  • Process: an overall series of related tasks resulting in a single business outcome or product
  • Module: major sub-routines in the process, tasks grouped by a common theme – processes may have more than one module
  • Task: an individual step taken in order to accomplish a module
In addition, they draw the distinction between the "cerebral inputs" to the tasks, distinguishing between "Guidance" (how to perform a process) and "Support" (explanations as to why tasks are executed in a particular manner).

Dimensions of knowledge harvesting
The article includes three case study examples of the application of implicit knowledge management, each of which is presented in terms of eight dimensions:
  1. Focus – the rationale for the project
  2. Find – the method for locating the tacit knowledge and is ‘codifiable’ (yes, I did make that word up)
  3. Elicit – the process used to harvest the knowledge
  4. Organise – the way in which the implicit knowledge was codified
  5. Package – the format in which the implicit knowledge was shared / published
  6. Share – the method for sharing / publishing the implicit knowledge
  7. Apply – how the implicit knowledge was used
  8. Evaluate & Adapt – the assessment process used to determine the success of the knowledge harvesting project
So why am I interested in this set of dimensions? Well, I think that they could prove useful if one ever had to assemble a business case and project plan for a knowledge harvesting project. The only aspects that I think are missing from this set of dimensions are: 1) something about target audience or intended users and 2) something about specific objectives and anticipated benefits. To be fair, the audience aspect may be picked up in a few of the dimensions above and the objectives one would probably be picked up under Focus but for the sake of evaluating the success (or lack thereof) of a particular project, these things are best made explicit.

…and finally…
Apparantly, Knowledge Harvesting is a service mark! How can this be? In my experience, it’s used quite freely to refer to the exact same concept that is service-marked…hmm…

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