Exploiting your tacit knowledge

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Angus Woods

02. 03. 2010 | 2 min read

Exploiting your tacit knowledge

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We’re always a bit sceptical about the jargon du jour. But one buzzword keeps cropping up and we think there might be a reason: Tacit Knowledge.

Tacit knowledge, first conceptualised by Michael Polanyi, is knowledge that is hard to put into words — the stuff that’s difficult to articulate and transfer to another person.

Companies and individuals accumulate tacit knowledge over time through front-line experience — often they don’t even realise that they have it. In contrast, explicit knowledge can be easily described in words and transferred to another person (think software demo).

Very often it’s the tacit knowledge that gives successful companies their competitive edge – (or ‘sustained competitive advantage’ for jargon lovers).

It can live in a number of places in organisations – but most often with employees who have a way of doing things that works but find it hard to explain exactly how or why.

It’s what goes on in the head of that great salesperson or that unassuming techie who can crack a problem in minutes (but explain how in hours). It can even be dispersed across a group of people doing things a particular way. Like that business unit that consistently outperforms every other– what do they have that the other units don’t?

It’s a knack, its an insight, its in their gut. It comes with experience. The good news is – it can be brought out and shared. It’s hard but not impossible.

That’s where marketing plays an important role. If tacit knowledge is indeed so important to gaining and sustaining that competitive edge, then its marketing’s job to identify what tacit knowledge the company has, where it is, how to bring it out and make it easy to understand – not only to use internally but also to communicate the advantage it brings to customers.

There’s no short cut: marketers need to get up close and personal with these experts. Talk to them about their work, how they go about it day to day, observe them doing it then question them hard (but lovingly). Fall in love with the word “Why”. Find ways to articulate their knowledge.To make the tacit explicit.

This will take time, patience and most of all a genuine interest in finding out your experts’ hidden pearls of wisdom.But one thing is certain – put in the hard work and the results will be worth it.

Image Copyright Zitona

Published in:

  • b2b-marketing

  • marketing

  • tacit knowledge

  • Thought Leadership

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  1. Anol

    March 2nd, 2010

    Great post Gesu! Glad to know that I am not alone here who is trying to mash-up organizational knowledge management and marketing concepts.

    Here goes my 2 cents –

    I believe not every tacit knowledge can be codified and converted into explicit knowledge.

    I think you will like Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework explanation on organizational sense-making, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Snowden) where organizational strategic knowledge base is classified in 4 categories:

    Simple, in which the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all, the approach is to Sense – Categorise – Respond and we can apply best practice.

    Complicated, in which the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or some other form of investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge, the approach is to Sense – Analyze – Respond and we can apply good practice.

    Complex, in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe – Sense – Respond and we can sense emergent practice.

    Chaotic, in which there is no relationship between cause and effect at systems level, the approach is to Act – Sense – Respond and we can discover novel practice.

    It’s not very difficult to explain each domain in marketing context.

    Will look forward to your future posts!

    (Thanks @dougkessler for the shoutout)

  2. Steve Fair (Sponge NB)

    March 2nd, 2010

    We often try to produce a “ways of working” summary that genuinely explains what we do, but then we add a new resource, technique or way of applying intelligence to our processes and the ways of working start looking a little old.

    While it would make the job of winning clients easier, the simple fact that we sell a service that is difficult to explain means our clients, who are mainly marketing agencies, can be comfortable in the fact that we can condense their offering, which is never unique, into a compelling description. Eventually.

  3. Gesu Baroova

    March 2nd, 2010

    Thanks Anol, glad you liked it.
    Insightful comment! Agree that perhaps not all tacit knowledge can be converted to explicit, but it can be managed better. Not many companies do that efficiently either because they don’t know how or they don’t have the resources. I think marketing can step up for the task rather than wait for someone else to do it. My post was inspired by Nonaka & Takeuchi’s knowledge management spiral which you may find an interesting read:

  4. Gesu Baroova

    March 2nd, 2010

    Agree with you Steve, your site is simple and yet compelling – some real tacit knowledge in play there. Like the idea of producing a “ways of working” summary to bring it out.

  5. Jason

    March 2nd, 2010

    Well-articulated. Thanks.

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