What Is Tacit Knowledge and Why Does It Matter to Your Company?

Madeline Jacobson
4 mins
coworkers gathering around desk to share tacit knowledge

Company knowledge can equip your employees to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively. But one of the most valuable types of knowledge, tacit knowledge, is difficult to articulate and hard to capture. Want to ensure your employees are able to share this knowledge gained from personal experience? Below, we explore what tacit knowledge is, the advantages of this form of knowledge, and the best ways to share it.

What is Tacit Knowledge?

Tacit knowledge is knowledge gained through personal experience and context. If someone asked you to share this knowledge, it would be hard to put into words—it’s simply through your years of experience that you’ve acquired this information.

Tacit knowledge is sometimes referred to as “tribal knowledge,” as it spreads throughout an organization (or a group within an organization) without being documented. Instead, it’s simply shared from person to person. In fact, you may not even know you have that knowledge until someone asks you about it.

Let’s say, for example, that someone asked a veteran sales representative how he knows when a prospect is almost ready to buy. Through years of experience, the rep can clearly see the signals—spoken and unspoken—that a potential customer is ready to take the next step. There’s probably no formal documentation of those signals; rather, it’s something you learn over time or with the help of more experienced employees.

Advantages of Tacit Knowledge

Tacit knowledge is the driving force that allows your employees to do their jobs well. Essentially, this “know-how” allows your employees to perform their roles and exceed expectations. When documented and well organized in the workplace, tacit knowledge offers the following benefits:

Increased production

Without a way to document and share tacit knowledge, it can take employees years to gain that know-how. However, when all of your employees have access to your organization’s tacit knowledge, they are able to get up to speed more quickly, without the years of trial and error. As a result, they are quicker to become self-sufficient and expertly address customer issues—ultimately, boosting the collective productivity of your organization.

Competitive advantage

The ability to communicate tacit information allows your entire company to work at a higher level. When all employees have access to the know-how of your most experienced employees, they will be better able to serve your customers. And when your customers come to realize that they can count on your company, they will come to trust you above any of your competitors or peers.   

Healthy workplace culture

When employees share tacit knowledge, they learn from each other’s successes and failures. They begin to see things from others’ perspective, which can pave the way for innovative ideas. When this kind of knowledge sharing becomes embedded in your organization, you will begin to see more collaboration and bigger, better ideas.

Incorporate Knowledge Sharing Into Your Culture

To realize these benefits, however, you must encourage the sharing of tacit knowledge within your organization. This starts with clearly communicating the value of collaboration—but it requires more than simply telling employees that it’s important; you also must weave it into the way you do business.

For example, encourage collaboration by hosting more team activities and assigning team projects. Pay particular attention to pairing veteran employees with less experienced workers. By working closely with each other, your employees will come to realize how much knowledge they have to gain from one another. Eventually, this will lead to an increase in organic knowledge sharing.

Increase Sharing Opportunities

You can also create more focused and structured opportunities for knowledge sharing. Whether you include two employees or every member of the company, you can use these opportunities to facilitate the sharing of tacit knowledge. The opportunities could include:

  • One-on-one meetings
  • Group discussions
  • Roundtables
  • Town hall meetings

Set each meeting with the intent of sharing tacit knowledge. This could mean asking two employees to interview each other, having a new hire shadow a 10-year veteran, or curating focused questions for a panel of the most experienced workers from a particular department. Encourage everyone involved to look at these meetings as an opportunity to gain insight and know-how.    

Immersive Documentation

While encouraging your employees to share tacit knowledge is beneficial, it’s still only stored in your workers’ heads—which can lead to knowledge loss if those employees ever decide to leave. The problem is, by definition, tacit information doesn’t lend itself to being easily documented. Often, knowledge management for businesses typically involves straightforward and process-based documentation, like tutorials, guides and handbooks. While this provides accurate and helpful information, it doesn’t convey the nuance of tacit knowledge.

To effectively capture tacit knowledge, organizations have to get creative. Company leaders must push themselves to find ways to make knowledge documentation less dry and incorporate more color around employees’ experience and know-how. In other words, it all comes down to storytelling.

To incorporate more tacit knowledge, consider asking employees to document personal experiences. Instead of a one-sentence explanation of why a sales representative lost a sale, for instance, he or she should explain exactly what went right or wrong, so other reps can learn from that experience. Those stories will allow other employees to connect on a personal level and transform dry, straightforward information into rich, memorable, immersive content.

Of course, storing and organizing that tacit knowledge requires a robust knowledge management solution. With the right solution—one that allows rich publishing in a variety of formats—you can preserve the tacit knowledge of your employees and retain it as a competitive advantage. 

October 21, 2021

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