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How to preserve tacit knowledge 

Business leaders stand around a table

Companies are usually reasonably good at preserving knowledge around processes and operations but fare less well when it comes to tacit knowledge. With staff turnover still high and sickness on the up, that’s a problem. 

Whenever anyone in a business hands in their notice or is off for an extended period (for example for sickness or parental leave) there is concern about the transfer of knowledge. In almost every role, there are clear tasks that need doing every week, but there are also the intangible responsibilities that people pick up as they navigate relationships at work and discover how their job fits into the broader operation. 

The philosopher Michael Polanyi defined this tacit knowledge as something we gain through experience and practice. It is often difficult to articulate but crucial for how a team and a business runs.  

“We know more than we can tell,” is how he summarises it. 

Yet trying to hold onto this tacit knowledge is key for businesses, particularly at a time when employee turnover remains high. The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows that between April and June 2023, 2.9% of people had undertaken a job-to-job move (they were still in employment but had been in their current role for less than three months), some way above the longer-term average of 2.4%. 

Understanding the importance of tacit knowledge sharing

Job moving has calmed down since the ‘great resignation’ of 2021 but it remains a challenge for businesses to ensure the transfer of tacit knowledge, in part because it’s so based on experience. The magic lies in the “fingertip sensor sensitivity” born from having done something many times before, says Rebecka Isaksson, founder of the consultancy KnowFlow Value and former director of knowledge management at Microsoft. 

“You can write a document that explains how to change a bike tire but only someone who’s done it before will know that if you’re not careful when you take the tire off there’s a risk that you nip the hose inside,” she says. 

Isaksson highlights Accenture as a company that is good at in tacit knowledge sharing. As part of the recruitment process, it assesses candidates’ readiness to share expertise and collaborate and has done so for the past two decades.

Harnessing tacit knowledge throughout a person’s employee life cycle is where the pot of gold really is.

Rebecka Isaksson, KnowFlow Value

“There are gold nuggets in that early stage, where interviews can be an opportunity management funnel,” Isaksson says. “There’s a lot of value in that.” 

She proposes that if businesses don’t consider tacit knowledge as strategic knowledge or a corporate asset, then they won’t be focused on ensuring it is shared. The first step is to adopt a holistic perspective to knowledge sharing that considers more than just data and documentation. This is where Generative AI and LLMs are truly transforming the landscape, marking the first significant technological leap in KM that has the potential to codify, index and make tacit knowledge retrievable at scale.

“Companies are missing out on this huge business value in actually indexing, codifying, making use of all of that tacit knowledge that happens in conversations, in email threads or in Teams chats,” she warns. 

Tapping into tacit knowledge

To fully tap into tacit knowledge, she advises businesses to employ semantic analysis to identify growth areas and opportunities for upskilling or re-skilling. Exit interviews are also important, she says, because although they can’t capture all of an employee’s knowledge, they will minimise the loss of valuable insight. Isaksson advises businesses to be aware of potential unconscious bias and the possibility of a disgruntled departing employee.  

This is another area where Isaksson emphasises AI’s potential for substantial impact. AI services possess a distinct advantage in neutrality compared to individuals, given the absence of personal knowledge or experience gaps and the continuity they offer, even amidst staff turnover.

“Harnessing tacit knowledge throughout a person’s employee life cycle is where the pot of gold really is. That is anything from the recruitment process information you get from candidates when you interview them to when they finally leave,” she says. 

Steve Hearsum is the founder of change consultancy Edge+Stretch and author of No Silver Bullet: Bursting the Bubble of the Organisational Quick Fix. He emphasises the importance of leaders actively engaging with and listening to employees to keep tacit knowledge within a business.  

“Retaining tacit knowledge is a function of a leader’s ability to motivate, value and retain good people,” he says. “Get people from each part of the organisation together with permission and protection to ask any question, and maybe – just maybe – you might work out what the problem is and a next best step.” 

Communication is also key. Hearsum highlights Undercover Boss, a TV series where high-ranking executives work undercover in their own companies, as an example of leaders gaining valuable insights by engaging directly with employees. This is important because tacit knowledge is less common in today’s management discussions compared to the 1990s, but the trend is shifting.  

Alison Dachner, associate professor of management at John Caroll University and co-author of the Harvard Business Review report Turn Departing Employees into Loyal Alumni, highlights the necessity of fostering an agile workforce in 2024.  

“Not all learning fits neatly into textbooks,” she says. “Embracing avenues that enable people to foster professional relationships with experts, like mentorships and diverse job experiences such as serving on a shadow board, fosters invaluable tacit knowledge essential for staying ahead in today’s dynamic landscape.” 

Fostering collaboration

Managing the increasing amount of tacit knowledge as a company grows is a challenge. That’s when collaboration becomes key, as Mott MacDonald, a global engineering and management consultancy with 19,000 employees in 140 countries, has found. 

Simon Denton, an enterprise architect at Mott MacDonald, says the company realises it is important to hold on to knowledge “beyond the project filing system.” To achieve this it brings “like-minded people” together around particular topics or areas of expertise and uses technology “as an enabler”.  

Employees are encouraged to add topics of interest to their profiles and join viva-engage communities. Through active participation and discussions, knowledge retention is fostered, forming the cornerstone of the organisation’s processes. 

Retaining tacit knowledge is a function of a leader’s ability to motivate, value and retain good people.

Steve Hearsum, Edge+Stretch

The enemy is the silo, says Denton, because knowledge becomes trapped in a project or a person. He suggests companies create gaps to allow this suggested knowledge to come out. 

“That will start retaining the tacit knowledge, foster a sense of community and bring out the superstars you didn’t know you knew. It starts bringing all that magic together,” he says.  

As the cognitive load on a business is low with this approach, Mott MacDonald has refined it by introducing additional steps, including having employees self-assess their expertise on a scale of one to five, enabling the formation of more effective teams.  

“We also started pairing a senior business leader with an early-career professional to build that knowledge connection,” he says. Furthermore, by integrating share points, Mott MacDonald enables employees to share knowledge across the entire organisation. Information is categorised based on the chosen taxonomy, aligning people and content.  

“Creating opportunities through connected thinking, that is exactly what managing and supporting tacit knowledge is all about,” says Denton. 

Case study: tacit knowledge sharing at Itsu 

Established in 1997 in London by Julian Metcalfe and Clive Schlee, the Asian-inspired food brand Itsu operates 76 restaurants across the UK. 

As the company grew, it knew it needed to get better at tacit knowledge sharing in order to drive efficiences and provide the best experience for customers. To do that, it has made use of AI, with international training manager Alba Trujillo Mora describing it as a “game-changer”. 

“We adopted AI to help us create and roll out training content faster, while ensuring consistency of our high training standards and brand values across the business. It saves us a lot of time,” she says. 

In particular, AI’s translation capabilities have helped removed logistical hurdles and time constraints, while Itsu uses the creative co-pilot to overcome blocks and generate ideas. Further benefits include simulated game-based training that is “tailored to the business and brand values” and technology that “empowers employees to improve their skills.” 

It means that, regardless of location or language, all Itsu employees can access consistent, high-quality training, fostering professional development across the board. 

“By ensuring everyone’s training experience is the same, Itsu can provide quality training at scale,” she says. The impact data also reveals “where people need help and how we can support them in the best way.”  

Trujillo Mora highlights AI’s effectiveness in improving tacit knowledge sharing by mentioning the digital recreation of the flagship ‘Welcome to itsu’ training for regional teams, which complements the face-to-face course held in London for all new starters. 

“The impact data means we can see what people have done and what they haven’t done. Having this visibility helps us to coach our managers so that they can motivate their teams.” 

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