BPM - Tacit Knowledge and Skills

The way tacit knowledge functions and the way IT functions make it inherently incompatible. They are two fundamentally different techniques. One relies on gut feel and intuition whereas other relies on explicit detail, logic and rationality.

To further understand why tacit knowledge is difficult to implement using IT, let’s look at the details:

The Way IT Functions: IT is nothing but efficient and fast storage and transfer of information. However to store anything in a computer as well as to get it to analyse, the instructions have to be comprehensive and explicit. In case they are not, the program starts behaving in unexpected ways and is said to have a “bug”. Computers function only on explicit detail once the method for their analysis has been clearly specified.

The Way Tacit Knowledge Functions: Tacit knowledge on the other hand refers to knowledge gained by an individual through education and experience that they are not explicitly aware of.

Consider the case of a manager, who can recognise the motivation of people and can speak to them in a way that makes the worker feel that his/her goals are being achieved along with achievement of organization goals. The manager inherently knows what kind of person he is speaking to. But if you ask them to document what makes them come to the conclusion, they will not be able to. Neither can they draw an exhaustive list of the types of people that are possible to come across. In fact, no one can draw out such a list!

Incompatibility: Now, this makes the incompatibility quite clear. One relies on detail, the other does not have any detail. It is like a black box. But organizations cannot continue to turn a blind eye to tacit knowledge. In many cases, it is this tacit knowledge that is providing them with the competitive edge. This is why the whole domain of knowledge management across organizations have come into picture. Companies are losing billions of dollars annually for the failure to effectively harness knowledge and make it a part of organizational knowledge.

The Solution: The solution that knowledge management has proposed is to have trained individuals who will shadow the personnel with tacit knowledge. They will interview them and observe them in action. They will they draw out a detailed mental map of the way these personnel perform tasks. This can then be used by IT. The bottom line is that tacit knowledge will be converted to explicit knowledge before it is used by IT.

The Problem with the Solution: The problems with this are manifold:

  1. Firstly the entire solution depends on the expertise of the mind mapping individual. If he is not skilful enough (and we have no way to verify), the whole exercise becomes futile. This is against the basic principles of being process driven as opposed to being people driven.

  2. Secondly there are cases where personnel deliberately withhold information and expertise. They then use such information and expertise to gain bargaining power in the organization. How can such knowledge be made explicit when attempts will be made to withhold it ?

These and many more questions need answering. Although IT has achieved a lot, it is still very much incapable of dealing with tacit knowledge. Significant research is required in this field to create a breakthrough solution.

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