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?

TweetLikeEmailLinkedInGoogle Plus
Photo of Ryan McClead Ryan McClead

Ryan is an executive at a small, but well-known legal technology company. Prior to his jump to the vendor side, he served for 3 years as Legal Technology Innovation Architect at Norton Rose Fulbright, running Technology Innovation projects around the world. His sense of humor and remarkable tolerance for verbal and psychological abuse has gotten him through more than 15 years in Legal Technology. In 2015, McClead was named a FastCase 50 recipient, and in 2018, he was elected a Fellow in the College of Law Practice Management. In past lives, he was a Knowledge Manager, a Systems Analyst, an “IT Guy”, a Fashion Merchandiser and Theater Composer.

  • Ryan–

    I share your enthusiasm for collaborative technology applied within the enterprise, and agree that micro-blogging, wikis, blogs, and comparable tools all do a much better job of exposing people's work, interests, and expertise than traditional legal IT tools such as document management systems. As you say, what turns out to be most valuable in terms of increasing the quality of client service is often talking to someone who has recently done whatever it is you are trying to do right now (contest a subpoena, conduct hotel due diligence, or what have you).

    I have to suggest, however, that "ability to search the tacit knowledge of your staff and to simultaneously turn that tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge for future use" is not a business case.

    For one thing, speaking in those terms unnecessarily brings in KM jargon that will make little headway with business leaders these days, if it ever did.

    For another, a business case needs to explicitly relate to visible, hopefully measurable, improvements to the business. Improvements to things like revenue; employee engagement; speed or effectiveness of client service; attorney and staff efficiency; the time it takes staff to "ramp up" and learn; reduction in the risk of losing critical information following employee retirement or departure; and so forth.

    For more on this topic see David Carr, http://www.informationweek.com/thebrainyard/news/strategy/231000012/how-to-sell-enterprise-20-to-the-bosses ; and the APQC's "The New Edge In Knowledge," reviewed on the ILTA KM blog here http://km.iltanet.org/2011/05/05/52/ .

  • David,
    Point taken. I agree you don't want to use KM jargon when presenting to management, but I think the underlying premise, that the idea of turning tacit into explicit knowledge is a good starting point for creating a business case and it's one I had never seen expressed. Perhaps a better name and frame for this post would be "a starting point for making a business case". Thanks for keeping me honest.