Wednesday, 30 March 2016

What's the best thing to do with uncodfied knowledge?

Knowledge Managers sometimes assume that the best thing to do with uncodified knowledge - that undocumented knowledge that people still hold in their heads - is to capture it. Often however the best thing is to leave it where it is. 

Image from wikimedia commons
There are very many examples of cyclic Knowledge Management models where the cycle begins with "Capture", or at the very least, contains "Capture" somewhere within it.  This is a result of a default assumption that to manage knowledge, it must be codified. "We must make our tacit knowledge explicit" Knowledge Managers say, confusing tacit with uncodified, and explicit with codified.

However very often, the best thing to do with uncodified knowledge, whether it is tacit or explicit, is to leave it in the heads of the people until it is needed by others.  Capturing and codifying knowledge is labour-intensive, difficult to do, and even more difficult to do well. You can only capture a small fraction of the knowledge someone has in their heads - the rest is either too difficult to explain in words, and the knowledge-holder may be unaware of much of their knowledge (we refer to this deep knowledge of which the holder is unaware as the Unknown Knowns, or the unconscious competence).

Similarly there may not be a need for all of that knowledge to be captured. There is no point in capturing knowledge if it is not needed by someone else. If we documented all the uncodified knowledge in an organisation - downloaded the contents of every head onto paper or into files - we would have a fantastically comprehensive library of which only a tiny shelf in one corner is likely to be read.

Better then, in many cases, to leave the knowledge where it is, until it is needed. Provided that the person who needs the knowledge can,  at their time of need, find the relevant expert and have a conversation with them, then that knowledge is safe and secure.

Safe and Secure, that is, so long as you you follow the advice below.

1. Only leave the knowledge uncodified if there is limited demand for it.

The primary problem comes when you leave uncodified those areas of knowledge which are in high demand. In such cases, having to ask the expert for advice all the time just adds load to the expert. Such high-usage knowledge is worth codifying; the effort spent in codification and capture far outweighs the otherwise overwhelming demand on the expert's time. It becomes easier to refer the enquirer to a Frequently Asked Question site or other knowledge asset, rather than have to answer the same questions and hold the same conversations over and over again

2. Only leave the knowledge uncodified if the expert is guaranteed not to forget

This means that the knowledge must cover topics which are in constant use. If an expert is not constantly using their knowledge, then they need to store it away in their long-term memory, which is a poor knowledge store. Even the best experts forget over time, if the knowledge is not regularly used.

3. Only leave the knowledge uncodified if the expert is guaranteed to stick around

If there is any chance at all that the expert will retire, or quit, then codify and transfer that knowledge as soon as you can as part of your Knowledge Retention and transfer program.

4. Only leave the knowledge uncodified if the practitioners - expert and novice - are connected. 

There is no point in leaving the knowledge in people's heads, if those people cannot be found. Tacit knowledge remains an asset to the organisation if the people are connected; connected in communities of practice, indexed in a know-how directory, and connected through collaboration and discussion software.

If these four caveats are in place, then often the best thing to do with the knowledge is leave it in the heads until you need it. 

1 comment:

Andy Blunden said...

Another angle on this is the manner of codification. Many people automatically equate codification with documentation but that is not always the best option. One of the issues with codification of tacit knowledge is that there is an assumed attempt to convert 'tacit' knowledge into 'written' knowledge. Kolbs learning styles also make an appearance in this discussion i.e. how people best learn. Given that tacit knowledge often arises within situational events requiring multiple senses (touch smell, taste, vision), a richer medium might be a better option i.e. video can be cheaper and more effective than documents in that at least it can provide vision and to some extent show 'touch and feel'. Tacit knowledge dealing with taste and smell are still the most difficult to codify.

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