In 1989, Japanese business guru Sidney Yoshida published a paper that got corporations to relook at their approach to Knowledge Management and how they understand and solve problems.
This paper, ‘The Iceberg of Ignorance’ highlighted the knowledge problem was plaguing leading Japanese corporations. The report looked into the different levels of awareness employees at different levels have with problems facing the corporation. The results were as follows:
100% of problems across the companies are known to the staff
74% of problems are known to the team leaders
9% of the problems are known to the managers
And only a mere 4% of the problems are known to the senior leadership.
Although this paper is published in the pre-internet era, one can quickly agree that this problem is still prevalent to a certain degree. This iceberg of ignorance has now steadily evolved into an Iceberg of Knowledge. As I write this, I shall gradually reveal several instances of how the iceberg of knowledge has been noticed within companies I’ve worked with.
In my first job, I started off by working to understand and absorb everything which was documented. The things which I am supposed to do, the things which I am not supposed to do…
Knowledge in the form of Standard Operating Practices and Manuals is created with the sole objective to make me acquainted with what the company does and how I should operate in the role I’ve been set in.
But as I started immersing myself in the job, I realised that the knowledge I had consumed from all these places just served as a starting point towards understanding the deeper bit of the knowledge. I realised that outside of the static, documented knowledge, I stumbled upon a lot of knowledge, through conversations and observations. These are the pockets of Tacit Knowledge, floating around in the organisation, but only being discovered by chance.
What’s the Knowledge Iceberg problem?
The Knowledge Iceberg theory simply states that an organisation’s knowledge is divided into 2 parts;
- Implicit or Tacit
- Explicit Knowledge.
And much like a regular iceberg, what you see is mostly just the top 20% of this knowledge. The larger, 80% chunk, is hidden deep within your employees and their behaviour, and requires special efforts to tap into. Melting and diffusing your company’s knowledge has emerged as a critical need-of-the-hour requirement. So let’s dive deep into it (Did you see what I did there?)
Explicit and Tacit Knowledge
All documented knowledge, sits as explicit knowledge, visible, accessible and for employees. That’s the documented knowledge a company owns. This could be in the form of;
- How to Guides
- Standard Operating Procedures
- Monthly / Quarterly Reports
- Training Videos
- Client Databases
- Sales Presentations
- Inventory Records.
Most of this information is static and is rarely updated within the company’s knowledge systems. One can categorise these systems themselves to be ‘Legacy Systems’. Not only are legacy systems not up to date with information, they are highly isolated – meaning they don’t allow easy movement of information between teams, departments, locations, or even tools.
Imagine a system where your sales data is nowhere connected to the marketing initiatives taken to accomplish those sales goals. Or where merging inventory data with people planning needs to be done manually, and takes days or weeks of effort!
Now, there is no denying that these systems are instrumental. But their structure and information dispensing ability might be limited when it is required the most.
But on the other hand, the tacit knowledge, the bottom half of the iceberg, has learning that comes from lived experiences, through questions and probing. There are some very specific places where this knowledge is available in your organisation – cafeteria tables and water cooler conversations.
This knowledge is often times, so deeply ingrained in habits and behaviours, that employees don’t necessarily know they know – like the unknown unknowns. Think deep-lying technical knowledge, or mastery acquired over years of experience.
To a large extent, tacit knowledge is getting shared by chance and not by design.
Let’s talk Tacit Knowledge
Tacit knowledge is best practices of employees, on how over some time have they learnt how to execute their job more efficiently and with better finesse. E.g., A project manager has learnt from experiences and mistakes how to deliver a new project on time, every time!
It is the success stories of employees on how they were able to win a special deal, ensure timely delivery or with a lot of back and forth; they were able to execute the agreement successfully. E.g., How was a sales representative able to win a deal by having an innovative approach.
It is the knacks and know-hows of the employees about how they precisely know to effectively firefight or plan for unanticipated business events. E.g. A shop floor engineer knows the practices that can be employed to prolong the life of a machine.
The experiential learnings, the learning curves a new employee faces and improvise to make it shorter or the experiences an employee faces when a new project has to be executed. For example, when a new project is being completed, the employees’ initial learnings, the challenges they face, and the resolutions they pass.
It is the market insights that employees gather when they are having interactions with the external stakeholders. These insights and market observations embedded in those interactions rarely get shared with the rest of the employees. E.g., The insights frontline salespeople gather while interacting with customers are most valuable and mostly shared within inner circles.
It is the troubleshooting hacks. When employees improvise, adapt and overcome their challenges at work, what they discover is the troubleshooting ‘hacks’. If these are shared within the organisation, similar problems in the future can be countered easily. For e.g., when an engineer is stuck at a code, and with his efforts of secondary research, he could find the solution towards it.
All these instances can be easily captured as Tacit Knowledge.
How to tackle this beast of Tacit Knowledge?
The most effective way to make Tacit Knowledge visible is by identifying its source.
This bottom half of the knowledge iceberg is closely associated with the bottom half of the Ignorance Iceberg. The less informed your top management is about problems and best practices, the bigger and scarier the problems in the future.
But with conscious investment towards harnessing the employees’ tacit knowledge, it is possible to melt the iceberg and make the best practices, competencies, knacks, and insights of all the employees freely accessible to everyone. This helps the organisations have access to this valuable wisdom when they need it and keeps the employees more engaged and productive.
Having essential knowledge coming in from a peer when I need it is one of the best stimulators towards productivity. It enhances the ability of the employees to solve complex tasks and increase camaraderie.
Melting the Knowledge Iceberg
Companies need to direct active investments in tapping, storing, and sharing of such knowledge, so employees can reach their full potential and deliver consistent results for the organisation.
Having seen firsthand both the beauty of accessible tacit knowledge and the problems lack of a systematic process, BHyve was built to diffuse employee wisdom. Our technology that can help large and small corporations melt the knowledge iceberg and make the organisation’s knowledge more accessible.
Connect with us here to book an appointment with our organisational psychologist and learn how you can make your tacit organisational knowledge visible.