Implicit Knowledge

Of the four types of organizational knowledge—implicit, explicit, individual, and collective—implicit knowledge is essential to improving business process efficiency, reducing hiring and training costs, and improving employee engagement. Done right, capturing, storing, and sharing implicit knowledge enhances communication and coordination, ensuring everyone is using available resources effectively.

What is Implicit Knowledge?

Implicit knowledge is the knowledge gained from applying other learned information, such as how-to guides, tutorials, or manuals. It isn’t as easy to articulate, document, or share as explicit knowledge, but it’s essential to capture, preserve, and share it across your organization so that everyone can benefit from it.

To illustrate the distinction between explicit knowledge vs. implicit knowledge, think of building and riding a bike. The explicit knowledge in the manual tells you how to assemble it; the implicit knowledge is the balancing and other riding skills you accumulate and master over time.

Tacit and implicit knowledge are often used interchangeably. However, depending on how you use them, they can differ. For instance, tacit knowledge is deeply rooted in personal actions and experiences, i.e., things people understand intuitively. Implicit knowledge, on the other hand, is often inferred from context or related information. It might not be immediately apparent, but it’s usually easier to articulate.

Characteristics of Implicit Knowledge

Implicit knowledge has unique attributes crucial to knowledge management. Understanding these characteristics can improve effective organizational decision-making and innovation.

  • Inferred understanding. Implicit knowledge is often gleaned from context rather than direct instruction. Instead of being directly communicated, it’s understood from what’s been shared.
  • Not easily articulated. Communicating implicit knowledge is possible, but it isn’t as easy to do as sharing explicit facts or instructions.
  • Experience-based. Most implicit knowledge flows from personal experiences, observations, or interactions in specific situations, filling in the gaps often left behind by explicit knowledge.
  • Intrinsic to tasks. Implicit knowledge is often needed to perform specific tasks, even if they’re not included in step-by-step instructions. For instance, “reading between the lines” in a novel or picking up on unspoken cues in a conversation.
  • Difficult to document. Unlike explicit knowledge, which can be easily written down or recorded, implicit knowledge is more difficult to document, as it exists in understanding and interpretation rather than concrete facts.
  • Shared unconsciously. People often aren’t aware they’re sharing implicit knowledge. Instead, they transmit it via actions, behaviors, or demonstrations, not direct teaching.
  • Evolutionary. Implicit knowledge evolves as people gain more experience or as situations and contexts change. Highly adaptable, it can easily pivot based on new insights or understandings.

Applications of Implicit Knowledge

By leveraging implicit knowledge, organizations can tap into a reservoir of insights, skills, and understandings that aren’t readily available in manuals or databases. In knowledge management, implicit knowledge plays a crucial role in multiple arenas:

  1. Problem solving. Even when users have access to comprehensive databases and large volumes of explicit knowledge, they still rely on implicit knowledge for creative problem-solving. For example, an experienced IT technician might tap into their “gut feelings” about a tech issue based on previous problems.
  2. Innovation. Many new ideas spring from the areas between documented knowledge. The implicit understanding team members have about a product, service, or customer need can often lead to innovative solutions.
  3. Team dynamics. Implicit knowledge is essential to understanding team dynamics, communication nuances, and unspoken expectations, all critical to team coordination and effective collaboration.
  4. Mentoring and training. While explicit knowledge can be shared through written manuals or verbal lessons, implicit knowledge makes up a substantial part of how mentors and mentees relate. For instance, a mentee might prepare a presentation that’s technically perfect, but the mentor would recognize the tone is too aggressive for a particular client.
  5. Organizational culture. An organization’s values, beliefs, and norms are often based on implicit knowledge, including the unspoken “way things are done.”
  6. Decision-making. Leadership often relies on implicit knowledge, such as past experiences and subtle cues, to make informed decisions, especially in complex or novel situations.
  7. Customer relations. Sales and customer service professionals often use implicit knowledge to read between the lines, understanding customer needs or concerns that aren’t explicitly verbalized.
  8. Trend analysis. Market and trend analysts use implicit knowledge to make connections between seemingly unrelated data points or to anticipate shifts based on subtle indicators.

The Challenge of Transferring Implicit Knowledge

It’s a far more straightforward process for organizations to capture explicit knowledge because it can be easily translated into documents and shared with others. However, gathering and sharing implicit knowledge is much more challenging. Organizations wanting to successfully capture implicit knowledge have many tactics at their disposal.

Encourage sharing.

Many people are hesitant to share their implicit knowledge. Some might think people won’t understand it or it isn’t relevant to their current position. Others feel the more learned wisdom they keep to themselves, the more valuable they are to the organization. Encouraging people to share their implicit can increase productivity and innovation. By cultivating a culture of knowledge-sharing and modeling desired behavior, leadership can successfully tap into their team members’ implicit knowledge.

Reward people who share implicit knowledge.

Recognizing and rewarding those who share their implicit knowledge goes a long way in making people feel valued for their contributions. Knowledge-sharing bonuses and recognition programs compensate team members for their efforts. They can also boost morale, further fostering a knowledge-sharing culture.

Have regular meetings.

Open forums and discussions where team members can discuss knowledge challenges faced, solutions tried, and lessons learned give people a chance to organically share their implicit knowledge. Encourage the sharing of personal stories, which can make the knowledge more relatable and memorable. These regular meetings can also create a sense of camaraderie, leading to increased willingness to share.

Create opportunities for learning.

Mentoring programs that pair seasoned team members with new hires can facilitate implicit knowledge sharing and make it easier to transfer unspoken insights and experiences. You can also organize training sessions where team members teach each other specific skills or insights they’ve gained.

Invest in new technology.

Implement knowledge sharing software and platforms where team members can engage in discussions, provide insights, and ask questions. These technologies help capture and share knowledge across the organization and with customers. Routine training sessions ensure staff is fully equipped to use various resources.

Create online communities.

Many organizations have created internal digital communities where team members can ask questions about anything they want. They act as virtual mentorship programs and serve as essential repositories of collected wisdom. By setting up forums or message boards, you foster collaboration, speed up problem-solving, and strengthen connections.

Promote transparency.

Promoting transparency increases trust within the organization. It lets everyone know what they need to do and what they should expect from others, reducing stress and eliminating uncertainties. This openness cultivates a more collaborative environment where people are more willing to share. It also encourages candid conversations and fosters a sense of unity and collective responsibility.

Routinely measure success.

Before implementing a knowledge transfer process, create a clear roadmap of what you want to achieve. Define measurable objectives and KPIs that align with your organization’s goals, whether it’s speeding up the onboarding process, enhancing project efficiency, or improving customer satisfaction. Continually monitor these benchmarks to ensure you’re on track and make adjustments based on feedback and results.

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