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The third place of knowledge management

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Some count tacit knowledge as accounting for 95% of an organization’s knowledgebase, with just 5% being explicit. Of course, much of the work of KM is to convert tacit to explicit knowledge, but no matter how you cut the numbers or rationalize the logic, something doesn’t add up here. The bottom line is that only a very small percentage of an organization’s knowledge is ever truly captured and managed.

I have no idea how this 95% figure was calculated, but even so, it has a ring of truth to anybody who has ever worked as a business analyst or management or change consultant. If it’s not 95%, then it’s certainly close. Most of your organizational knowledge is in your employees’ heads, hearts, and living experiences. Throughout the decades, countless academic studies and published papers have explored how tacit knowledge is acquired and can be captured and managed. Still, interest in or even respect for the value of tacit knowledge has plummeted in recent years.

Getting to know your organization

As a longtime consultant and advisor, I have visited and spent time with many organizations and have learned over the years that you quickly get to “know” a company. I recently spent time with an organization where knowledge sharing is critical to its success. It’s a friendly and supportive environment where ideas are shared at will; feedback, discussions, and debate are part of the daily routine; and newer and more junior recruits are encouraged to participate. Contrast that to another firm I visited a few days later. I knew within minutes that it was not a place of knowledge sharing. Instead, personal knowledge and experience were likely tightly hoarded by employees because sharing your skills and knowledge might mean quickly finding yourself out of a job. Instead, closely guarding your skills and knowledge in this workplace has always been a key tactic to ensure job security. Here, when layoffs start happening, and consultants arrive to rightsize and plan downsizing, sharing as little as possible, and, in some cases, deliberately misleading, is common practice.

I am passionate about KM and try to foster a culture of knowledge sharing within my firm, Deep Analysis. Yes we have thousands of documents, data sources, and reports in shared drives, but the real knowledge and skills are in the heads of the analysts. That’s why we talk with one another all the time—to share, learn, and collaborate.

KM software and systems are essential, and so is the management of explicit knowledge for automation and AI enablement (which is top of mind for many executives) and the management of human-centric knowledge. That said, I fear we are in danger of losing the most critical element of KM practice. There is a role for explicit knowledge in automation (the first place), and there is a role for curated knowledge to support employees (the second place). Still, if 95% of knowledge is tacit, then it and its imaginary third place should receive much more love and attention than they currently do. As remote and home working increasingly become the norm, fostering tacit knowledge sharing across our organizations is critical. It is something KM experts and practitioners need to embrace and evangelize as loudly, forcibly, and clearly as possible.

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