A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the differences between information and knowledge and the categorical mistake that even many KMers make by conflating the two. However, knowledge is often further sub-categorized into two realms, tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge. These can also get kind of confusing. Tacit knowledge exists only in the minds of the knowledgeable. It includes memories, ideas, concepts, and understandings. Explicit knowledge gets tricky because it is also a type of information. It’s a record of tacit knowledge which can be stored and retrieved just like any other type of information. Confusing, right? I’ll illustrate my point with the following scenario:
You’ve racked up a large set of expenses on a recent business trip and you want to be reimbursed by your company. So you call Ted, the Accounting Manager at your firm, and ask him what steps you need to take to be reimbursed by the firm. Ted, explains that you need to fill out a reimbursement form, get it signed by a manager, and send the form, along with a copy of your receipts to the accounting department to be processed. You should receive your check in 4 to 6 weeks. “Oh, and by the way,” Ted says, “you can always go to http://reimburseme.myfirm.com to see these steps again.” You thank Ted, fill out your form and in 8 weeks you get your check.
In this anecdote we have clear examples of tacit knowledge, explicit knowledge, and information.
- Ted’s knowledge of the necessary steps to get reimbursed constitute tacit knowledge. It exists only in Ted’s memory and it is only retrievable by speaking directly with Ted. (Or someone else with the same tacit knowledge.)
- Ted’s tacit knowledge has been transformed into explicit knowledge by recording the steps on the website. That explicit knowledge is information that is available and retrievable by anyone in the firm at any time.
- The filled-out reimbursement form that you send along to accounting is not itself knowledge, it doesn’t describe a process and isn’t in any way actionable, it is simply information.
In my earlier post I described the DMS and Enterprise Search as primarily information management tools. They allow you to store and retrieve information across the firm. Since explicit knowledge can take the form of recorded information, it can also be stored in the DMS or on a webpage and can be retrieved with Enterprise Search tools. No one questions the business value of a document management system and most firms have some form of enterprise search in place to find information and explicit knowledge. But the vast majority of the knowledge that exists in any firm, is tacit . It's only in the minds of your knowledgeable employees. Often, they don’t have time, nor the inclination, nor the incentive to transform their tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge and consequently that knowledge is only available to themselves and to their immediate circle of coworkers.
Enter Social Networking tools. SN tools turn tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge that is storable, retrievable, and searchable. If Ted in Accounting is keeping a blog of the goings-on in his department, then a simple search can indicate to Alice in HR that accounting has dealt with an issue similar to the one currently vexing her department. The ESN tools have made knowledge, that would have otherwise remained tacit, explicit. Alice talks to Ted, learns from his experience, and solves her problem faster. Time, money, and resources saved. Bigger bonuses for everybody.
But here is what I believe to be the definitive business case for ESN. These tools not only constitute a modern communications infrastructure, and near-magically turn tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, they are also the equivalent of direct enterprise search for tacit knowledge locked in the minds of your employees. An in-house micro-blogging solution with moderate participation allows employees to mine the tacit knowledge of their co-workers across the enterprise. Even if Ted in Accounting isn’t keeping a blog record of his department’s activities, the micro-blog allows Alice in HR to find Ted’s tacit knowledge by asking simple questions: “Has anyone had a problem like this? How did you deal with it?” Even if Ted hasn’t jumped on the micro-blog bandwagon, someone in his circle of co-workers may see Alice’s question and point her to Ted. Alice has in effect searched the tacit knowledge of the firm and by doing so has created a bit of explicit knowledge that Ted in accounting is knowledgeable on a particular subject. If Ted jumps on board and answers Alice's inquiry on the micro-blog network, or writes a full blog entry, or creates a wiki-page, then Ted's tacit knowledge is now explicit and available to the entire firm.
The ability to search the tacit knowledge of your staff and to simultaneously turn that tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge for future use. How’s that for a business case?