Transferring tacit and explicit knowledge

When I was preparing to leave my last job, I faced an immense challenge.  What was I going to leave behind to help the person taking over my position?  I had been in that position for eight years; this was more than half the number of years the position had existed.  No one else had served more than 2 years.  We were a small organization with little positional overlap.  My co-workers and I kept each other apprised of what we were doing, but there was not a structure in place to share ongoing information about how that work got done.  How could I get 8 years worth of information and experience out of my head and into a format that would be helpful?

Learning more about Dixon’s (2000) models of knowledge transfer gave me a new perspective on that dilemma.  She reviewed five types of knowledge transfer that covered both tacit and explicit knowledge, routine and non-routine tasks, as well as similar and dissimilar contexts.  The over-arching theme among all models was that organizations need to have an ongoing structure in place for knowledge sharing and a culture that values the learning that comes from knowledge sharing.

Both components (the structure and the culture) are key to maintaining a learning organization.  Without some type of structure to guide information sharing, from ongoing review meetings to a Q&A listserv, knowledge cannot be shared in an efficient or effective way.  Even organizations who truly value learning from others cannot hope to track or make good use of the information without a structure.  The type of structure needed depends on the type of organization and the type of information.  In the example I gave above, I worked for a very small organization.  A complicated database of best practices would have been over the top.  A regular process of debrief meetings that were written up in a shared drive, however, would have been extremely helpful.

Having a structure in place does not guarantee it will be effective.  The organization has to have an underlying value of learning.  After all, gathering, organizing, and transmitting knowledge is time consuming, no matter what the process.  Employees will not want to engage in those processes if the results are not valued.  Additionally, organizational leaders must embrace learning from mistakes and include that type of learning in the knowledge transfer as well.  People often learn more from mistakes than when everything goes according to plan.  Tracking mistakes, synthesizing learning from those mistakes, and communicating those lessons help ensure that future employees do not repeat those same mistakes.  In my eight years at my previous job, I had made many mistakes.  While I learned from each of them, without a mechanism to formally share that information within the organization, any new employees could not learn from them once I was gone.

While I did not know about creating knowledge sharing processes in time to help my previous organization, I plan to use the information in my future work.  Whether I join an organization that is already committed to learning or whether I attempt to bring that information in, my understanding of knowledge transfer will benefit myself and my organization.

2 thoughts on “Transferring tacit and explicit knowledge

  • October 15, 2017 at 8:30 pm

    Jen, you make a really good point about the intersection of a culture of learning and the value of creating learning platforms to transfer knowledge. One of the major takeaways for me from Dixon’s model is the importance of developing knowledge sharing platforms that fit the culture and need of an organization. In the experience you share here, it seems as though learning may not have been a central tenant and therefore even if you had the knowledge, you may not have had the support or the framework to determine what the best method would be.

    You mention now in hindsight that a collection of lessons learned, etc. would have been helpful; I wonder if you would have been able to cultivate the buy-in to develop such a tool when you were there? I think that is one of the more difficult things to navigate in a small organization. I imagine that sometimes, when you are the only one fulfilling a specific role or need for an organization, it may be difficult to develop and sustain a learning culture. In this instance some members of the organization may feel as though learning more about your role is unnecessary for them on a an individual level, not realizing the organizational value of the tool.

  • November 20, 2017 at 8:29 am

    I appreciate your thoughtful translation of the transfer of knowledge into your own personal work experience. For me, it is through my own experiential lens that I can have “sensemaking” of the concepts of knowledge transfer. I am curious to know if you developed a structured method of transferring your specific tacit and explicit knowledge, although it seems like an enormous amount of work to do retrospectively. Also, I think that in not debriefing in some formal manner immediately following projects, there is a loss of dimension to the interpretation of the project. I know I always have more to contribute immediately following a project than months later when basically I just remember the major points. I think it requires mindful consideration preceding projects to establish a method for “passing it on”. I also really liked your caution in methods of knowledge sharing. You are correct, just implementing them does not equate success. The challenge is in finding methods that will be utilized by many.


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