When you start a new job, your company will (hopefully!) give you access to documented knowledge that you need to get started—instructions for setting up your workstation, an employee handbook, a schedule for meetings and training sessions you should attend. These are all examples of explicit knowledge: knowledge that is easy to articulate, write down, and share. While explicit knowledge might be the most obvious type of documented knowledge, there’s another type that’s just as important in the workplace: implicit knowledge.
Implicit knowledge is what someone gains when they apply explicit knowledge. It’s not as easy to document or communicate, but it’s essential in powering workplace productivity and enabling people to do their best work. Below, we take a look at the definition of implicit knowledge, how it differs from other knowledge types, and how organizations can democratize it so that everyone has the knowledge they need to be successful in their roles.
How Is Implicit Knowledge Defined?
Implicit knowledge can’t be gained from a how-to guide: rather, it’s the knowledge gained from applying the information learned in that how-to guide (or any form of documented explicit knowledge) in a real world situation.
For example, let’s say you’re put in charge of operating a machine that churns out chocolate bars (we might as well go with a delicious hypothetical). You read the operator’s manual, which is a form of explicit knowledge, and follow the instructions to keep the machine running. However, this is an older model, and after a while, you discover that the machine is stalling out frequently. The manual mentions that this may happen if an internal component of the machine gets jammed, and you determine that the best way to fix this is to hit the machine with a wrench in just the right place. Taking what you know about the jamming issue and figuring out how to solve the problem, through trial and error, is a form of implicit knowledge.
Another way to think of implicit knowledge is as the skills we gain from experience that can be transferred from one job to another. For instance, if you work in a public relations role, you might learn the best practices for writing a pitch email to journalists by seeing which messaging approaches get the most engagement. You could then use this knowledge every time you write a new pitch email, no matter where you’re working.
What Are the Key Differences Between the Types of Knowledge?
To recap, explicit knowledge is knowledge that can be easily:
- documented, and
- shared widely
If your company has a knowledge management platform, it should provide a lot of examples of explicit knowledge. These might include company policies, step-by-step processes, and official responses to common customer questions.
Implicit knowledge, as we’ve discussed, is harder to document because it is gained from taking explicit knowledge and putting it into action. However, there are strategies you can use to capture, preserve, and share the implicit knowledge that exists across your organization so that everyone can benefit from it.
Capturing and Sharing Implicit Knowledge
Because implicit knowledge comes from experience, it can vary from person to person. It’s also common for organizations to have subject matter experts (SMEs) who have extensive implicit knowledge in a particular realm, and who become the go-to people to talk to when anyone has questions about their areas of expertise. There will always be situations where the easiest way for someone to learn is to talk to a subject matter expert and walk through a process, but there are also many situations where SMEs can preserve and share their implicit knowledge so that:
- SMEs don’t have to answer the same questions over and over again, giving them more time back to work on impactful activities.
- The entire organization benefits from the SMEs’ knowledge and can access it on demand.
While documenting implicit knowledge is more challenging than documenting explicit knowledge, it’s not impossible. Below are a few ideas to help you get started.
Use a Q&A platform. A knowledge management platform with a Q&A component will allow employees to publish questions and crowdsource answers from experts across the company. Questions and their answers are preserved in the platform and become searchable so that any employee can find and benefit from the implicit knowledge they contain.
Create job shadowing and mentorship programs. Since implicit knowledge involves learning by doing, it can be beneficial to create a job shadowing or mentorship program where newer or greener employees are partnered with more tenured employees to learn from their experience. To further increase the benefits of these programs, encourage both mentees and mentors to document and share key learnings in the company’s knowledge management platform.
Use video to communicate complex knowledge. Some concepts and processes are easier to understand when you can see them (think of a video that demonstrates how to thinly slice a bell pepper, as opposed to a written recipe that just tells you to “julienne the bell peppers”). Whenever possible, incorporate videos into your training materials and knowledge base content to help employees understand the nuances of complex topics or processes—and to give them the ability to revisit the content whenever they need to.
Incentivize SMEs to document their knowledge. Encourage SMEs to share their expertise in your knowledge management platform in the medium that makes the most sense to them—whether that’s written content, video or audio recordings, slide decks, or any other format. Make it as easy as possible for them to share what they know, and make sure they understand the benefits of sharing (e.g., it will reduce the need to answer the same questions repeatedly). Consider offering additional incentives, such as shout outs in company or team meetings or a prize for the person who contributes the most valuable content each quarter.
It’s important not to overlook the wealth of implicit knowledge that exists within your organization. Coming up with strategies to preserve and democratize implicit knowledge will increase its value and help everyone be more productive, efficient, and innovative.