Quick Definitions of Knowledge Types
Explicit Knowledge: Knowledge that is easy to articulate, write down, and share.
Implicit Knowledge: The application of explicit knowledge. Skills that are transferable from one job to another are one example of implicit knowledge.
Tacit Knowledge: Knowledge gained from personal experience that is more difficult to express.
When you start Googling “Knowledge Management,” it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of literature written since the practice was developed in the early 90’s. With so many knowledge management experts, texts, and solutions available, as you get deeper into research, terms and jargon are often thrown around with the expectation that everyone knows what they mean.
Want to take this resource with you? Download a 2-page PDF version of this blog, complete with a table of implicit, tacit, and explicit knowledge definitions and examples.
In order to understand and develop a knowledge sharing strategy for your company, you first need to understand the different types of knowledge: explicit, implicit, and tacit. Because no matter how you characterize your organization’s knowledge, it all matters to the success and productivity of your team.
Tacit, Explicit, and Implicit Knowledge: What’s the Difference?
If you get into a conversation with a knowledge management expert, be prepared for exact definitions of characterizations of knowledge. So, while we truly believe it doesn’t matter what kind of knowledge you’re dealing with (it’s all valuable), let’s dive into the definitions of each:
Explicit knowledge is the most basic form of knowledge and is easy to pass along because it’s written down and accessible. When data is processed, organized, structured, and interpreted, the result is explicit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is easily articulated, recorded, communicated, and most importantly in the world of knowledge management, stored.
If you need an example of explicit knowledge, simply open your knowledge management platform and take a look around. Your company data sheets, white papers, research reports, etc. are all explicit company knowledge.
Implicit knowledge is the practical application of explicit knowledge. There are likely instances of implicit knowledge all around your organization. For example, consider asking a team member how to perform a task. This could spark a conversation about the range of options to perform the task, as well as the potential outcomes, leading to a thoughtful process to determine the best course of action. It is that team member’s implicit knowledge that educates the conversation of how to do something and what could happen. Additionally, best practices and skills that are transferable from job to job are examples of implicit knowledge.
Tacit knowledge is the knowledge that we possess that is garnered from personal experience and context. It’s the information that, if asked, would be the most difficult to write down, articulate, or present in a tangible form.
As an example, think of learning how to make your grandmother’s famous recipes. Sure, she gave you the recipe card, but when you try it on your own you feel as if something is missing. After years of experience, she has learned the exact feel for the dough, or exactly how long something should be in the oven. It’s not something she can write down; she can just feel it.
In the workplace, tacit knowledge is the application of implicit knowledge that’s specific to your company. As employees move from job to job, the application of their implicit knowledge will change based on what’s unique about your business. An example of this is a sales rep who can not only give a great demo but has also learned specific buying signs while talking to prospects.
Make Tacit, Implicit, and Explicit Knowledge Accessible
In the end, no matter how company knowledge is defined, it all plays a vital role in the day-to-day operations of running an organization. However, in order to develop a successful knowledge sharing strategy, you have to understand how different types of knowledge are communicated and most effectively stored.
Most organizations misdiagnose a knowledge sharing problem at the implicit knowledge level and they build an intranet or deploy a file sharing solution in an attempt to address their issues. However, these systems fall short when it comes to capturing the context and discussion around explicit knowledge because questions and discussion still have to take place in a siloed system. To ask questions and collaborate, teams still need to rely on chat, email, and shoulder taps—which are not recorded for everyone’s benefit.
This silo issue is exacerbated when team members are working in different locations and don’t have the option to walk over to their coworker’s desk to get additional context or clarification. While dispersed teams may be able to access explicit knowledge, such as process documents or research reports, in a traditional intranet, it’s harder for them to tap into the tacit knowledge of the subject matter experts who produced that content.
This creates a gap in your organization’s ability to retain the tacit knowledge of your experts. As capturing tacit knowledge has become more important to organizations of all sizes, a new type of knowledge management technology has emerged, referred to as knowledge engagement platforms.
Knowledge engagement platforms such as Bloomfire make it easy for users to create content, add rich media for additional context, and find anything (not just the titles of documents) through a keyword search. Additionally, users can engage with knowledge in the platform by asking questions, adding comments, or even tagging subject matter experts so that they get notified that they were mentioned. Bloomfire also has integrations with Slack and Microsoft Teams so that the valuable knowledge that team members exchange in chat conversations can become part of their company’s knowledge base—and so that team members can easily access existing knowledge in real time.