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Tacit Knowledge Not Included

It’s rather interesting to hear from the same company that 1) their situation is unique, and 2) they are looking for examples of best practices in their industry. If they are so darned unique, why aren’t they developing their own emergent practices?

When working with large organizations I frequently hear that their main business strategy is to be fast followers. This means looking for examples of best practices and applying them after they have been proven. You might even think this practice makes sense in industries like banking, where change could be rather risky.

The big problem with trying to be a fast follower is this: tacit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge is stuff that we know, but we can’t explain how to do it.  Think of it this way: have someone throw something at you, and try to catch it.  Now, describe exactly how you figured out where to put your hand to catch the flying car keys (or whatever).  You can’t.  There are calculations of speed, and trajectories, and muscle movements, and all of that goes on inside your brain and you can’t explain any of it.  That’s tacit knowledge. – Tim Kastelle

The major problem with any best practice is that it was proven to work for someone else. All best practice case studies should have a warning label attached: Tacit Knowledge Not Included. Tacit knowledge is one of the few things that cannot be copied, and what makes creative, non-standardized work so valuable. Tacit knowledge cannot be automated or outsourced. There are no best practices for tacit knowledge because it cannot be codified. Best practices can only help with lower value, routine work. They can help refine your existing business processes, but they are not a source of innovation.

tacit knowledge business valueAs Tim Kastelle says, “You build up tacit knowledge when you learn by doing.” That is why I keep saying that work is learning and learning is the work. Tacit knowledge is a source of core business value. It can only be developed through experience. Companies need to focus on learning from the work experiences throughout the enterprise, find ways to share tacit knowledge, and then make some of that knowledge explicit. But the real value is the stuff that cannot be measured, which requires a much different way of thinking about business value.

All human systems are complex and today most economic value is intangible, so that the most important knowledge for any organization is tacit.

In this world, workplace learning should be guided by a 70:20:10 approach, all workers should be empowered to actively practice PKM, and companies should promote knowledge-sharing & collaboration.

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