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Knowledge Map

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Knowledge is one of those tricky things that seems simple but when you try to capture it and share it with others is not that easy to handle. Some things are easy to write down or document. Other things are almost impossible to even put into words.

Capture and transfer of knowledge is a critical ability for organisations who want to survive and grow. In the modern information economy, your assets are human and the contents of their brains is a key part of your product development and delivery systems. A further issue is that those assets have legs and can easily walk away with knowledge that only they hold. Managing knowledge is thus at the core of both business development and business continuity.

The Knowledge Map presented here is a simple way of understanding different types of knowledge and hence provides a way of capturing it and transferring it to others in appropriate ways.

 

 

 

 

The diagram above shows four types of knowledge on two axes:

  • Explicit knowledge is that which is easy to describe and document, for example the steps required to package and send a parcel by post.

  • Tacit knowledge is that which is difficult to write down and difficult to learn from books, for example knowledge how to handle a difficult customer.

  • Generalist knowledge is knowledge that is easy to hire expertise, for example in business administration or marketing. This does not mean this knowledge is limited, just that within a business it is easier to hire in the knowledge.

  • Specialist knowledge in this context is that which is special to a particular company or organisation, for example deep market sector knowledge or knowledge about particular customers.

 In using this chart, you can score people or jobs in terms of the balance between Tacit vs Explicit and Generalist vs. Specialist knowledge. For example, a management post may be assessed as having a 60/40 Tacit vs. Explicit balance and 30/70 Generalist vs. Specialist balance. With this assessment, you can then position the person on the chart as (60 - 40) = 20% towards Tacit and (70 – 30) = 40% towards Specialist, as in Job A in the diagram above.

The next question of course is ‘So what?’ What this mapping does support is planning for different types of actions for capture and transfer of knowledge. The table below describes the four different types and the consequent implications.

 

Tacit Specialist

This is the most difficult type of work to capture and handover, as you cannot write it down and there is a lot for a new person to learn. This type of knowledge is best handed over across a long period, with a tapered transition and ongoing mentoring. In documented form, tacit knowledge is often transferred in case histories and other episodic descriptions, supported by discussion with experts (this is how medicine and management are often taught).

 

Explicit Specialist

In this type of work a new person does not come with much of the knowledge needed to do the job and so requires more detailed instruction. Fortunately, as the knowledge is explicit, it can be written down in sufficient detail to be handed over and learned with clear instructions for each step of work. Work instructions and procedures are common here.

 

Tacit Generalist

This category of knowledge and work is a little trickier, in that it is difficult to capture, but generally does not cause many problems as new people come with most of the abilities required. This is typical of many professional positions, where you hire people for their knowledge and skill, and where they get up to speed fairly quickly.

The best form of handover here is typically to spend a little time with the present incumbent, picking up the specialist aspects of the job. ‘Big picture’ maps, checklists and other overviews are often helpful too

 

Explicit Generalist

Work that is explicit is easy to write down. When the job is generalist, a new person will bring most what is needed with them. This makes capture and transfer of knowledge in this zone the easiest of all, as it just needs brief process descriptions and overall guidelines. Simple help is often useful here, for example having online guides and people nearby to ask for the occasional question.

 

 

Note that there is a problem here for the common ‘quality’ approach of mapping and documenting everything – an approach that is only possible in any detail with explicit work and is mostly of value when this is specialised. Much modern work is tacit and only overview mapping is typically possible, although guides, checklists and narratives can be useful reminders for infrequently-occurring activities.

 

Next time: MOST Analysis

 

This article first appeared in Quality World, the journal of the Chartered Quality Institute

 

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