Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tacit Knowledge And Performance Improvement

There's a concept that's been around for some time in training. That concept is tacit knowledge (TK), and the term defines what I think is the holy grail for training analyses and designs to convey to learners: The between-the-lines knowledge that expert workers have that they use to accomplish work. When I say "between-the-lines", I mean the bits of knowledge they form and/or pick up throughout the course of their daily work. These bits often contribute to a greater quality of the work. This is what we as WLP professional seek to identify and to communicate.

Wikipedia has a good synopsis of TK. After reading through the information and examples there, I reflected on my own collection and use of TK and the ways in which I came to collect that information and ultimately use it in context. I specifically recalled a job I had after graduating high school. I was working in a rebar production facility, starting out as a general worker. The number of individuals staffing the place was quite low, and so specific skills were at a premium when someone was on vacation or sick. As time progressed I learned the basics of forms bending for different types and kinds of bars through simple curiosity, and small opportunities to take over when someone had to leave for a few minutes. I took in knowledge through observation and impromptu action learning moments; teachable moments as others call them. Repetition was part of the job as well so the environment made it difficult to forget after a few goes. By the end of the thirteen month period I worked there, I had added myself as a skilled worker within the workforce. To this day I remember a lot of the specific bits of TK. I remember how the bars had to be set in the machine, the quirks of the aged equipment that would prohibit or maintain performance, ways in which the equipment would break down, the signs to determine potential breakdowns that didn't happen according to the manuals...this was all important stuff for a skilled bending technician in the workplace.

I recalled a later career experience in my first career position after getting my undergraduate degree. I had joined an elearning company (which is now part of SkillSoft) early on when it was hiring many people to build its workforce. Over the course of several years we became such a close and efficient team that when the company tried outsourcing some development to an outside vendor, the results were not satisfactory or up to standards. As a team we had a working language; we knew how each individual member operated, we knew who could solve specific problems quickly, why certain tools functioned certain ways, etc. And once I had considered this past experience, I had an idea.

Tacit knowledge, in pretty much all the cases I have seen it referenced, has been discussed in relation to individuals. But what about groups? I Googled "group tacit knowledge" quickly to see what turned up. Amazingly, very little did, and digging harder reveals little more. I found two items that discuss the concept within the context of a group. Those are here (a study from 2008) and here (book chapter from 1998). I also found one short paper from 2007. I was struck by how little information there appears to be on the subject. I would think that there would be more about this.

Taking things into consideration however, I think there may be some difficulty in today's workplace in studying group-based tacit knowledge, and in implementing any findings. Many of today's workplaces are high turnover environments relative to past decades. This brings the potential to break "unit cohesion" when attempting to gather or even develop a group with deep expertise. In that sense it may remain more advantageous to pursue TK at an individual level. However, in my current work context, group tacit knowledge could potentially be a very real thing. Employees stay with the company a very long time, and while project teams break up and reassemble in different mixtures every few years, there is a lot of internal networking and collaboration. The goal of any training effort for each of these projects would be to collect the "group-operational" knowledge and pass that down to the wider workforce for faster take-up and more immediate performance increases.

I have ideas now of who in my contact list I need to talk to about this, and some of the questions I need to ask. Feel free to comment and leave your experiences and suggestions.

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