The Unknown Knowns: Unlocking the Benefits of Tacit Knowledge

Former US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld once stated, “There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.”

Today, I want to talk about the unknown knowns of knowledge management. It may sound convoluted, but there are types of knowledge that people have which they don’t necessarily realize they know. Things we do by instinct, or are built upon knowledge that isn’t necessarily written down or transferred in any formal way from one person to another, but rather built into our everyday work lives and are just assumed as things that work (or don’t work) and that anyone who is doing what we do will know this via instinct.

This type of knowledge is known as “tacit knowledge.” Tacit knowledge can be defined as skills, ideas and experiences that people have but are not codified and may not necessarily be easily expressed. Often, this knowledge is considered so basic, so obvious, or so automatic that workers don’t often think to pass the knowledge along to others. Tacit knowledge can include such things as:

  • Cultural Information: A waitron at a busy restaurant knows to upsell salads and vegetables during Lent and on New Year’s Day, as diners tend to want to “be good” during those occasions.
  • Perceptive Information: The #1 salesperson in the company knows when to pull back on sales talk and when to push harder because of cues from customers’ faces and body language.
  • Kinesthetic Information: A baker known for the best bread in town understands when a dough is kneaded just enough, but not too much.
  • Unspoken Rules: “Everybody” at ACME Widget Corp knows not to talk politics in front of the siblings who own the company, as they are on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
  • Unwritten Policies and Procedures: “Nobody fills in those forms,” say your coworkers in a new department, after seeing you struggle with a document for days.

While tacit knowledge is difficult to recognize and can be frustrating to impart from one person to another, the skills, rules, and understanding that can come from such transfer is often game-changing. There are a number of routes available to regularly identify and disseminate the tacit knowledge in your organization, including:

  • Debriefing Sessions:  After every client engagement, the team gets together to not only outline what happened, but also share “war stories” in which subtle cues about how the clients interact and what successful (and unsuccessful) salespeople do in common
  • Mentoring: Interns in a company can be assigned to shadow a senior employee for an extended period of time, not for formal training, but to get the “feel” of the workplace.
  • Storytelling: Beyond weekly reports, employees are encouraged to share stories from their work experience in long form on a company blog.

A good rule of thumb, when it comes to gathering tacit knowledge, is to look for phrases like, “everybody knows,” or, “nobody does…”, or, “I just know…” Asking someone who uses a phrase like that in a work conversation can often unlock a treasure trove of tacit knowledge that can improve your business in ways you didn’t expect.

Always be on the lookout for the “unknown knowns.” Often, they’re the most interesting bits.

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