Has the effective transfer of tacit knowledge become a reality?
Thirteen years ago we lived in a different world. The hot buzzword back then was Knowledge Management. KM as defined by Wikipedia “comprises a range of strategies and practices used in an organisation to identify, create, represent, distribute, and enable adoption of insights and experiences. Such insights and experiences comprise knowledge, either embodied in individuals or embedded in organisations as processes or practices.” Professional services firms: law, accounting and consulting firms, were quick to adopt KM strategies and implement KM technologies. Chief Knowledge Officers were hired and the concepts of knowledge sharing and the knowledge worker became all the rage.
I was working at KPMG back then. I was a part of the Global Knowledge Exchange, the firm’s KM center of excellence. We spent a significant amount of time and money building Kworld, KPMG’s KM system which was deployed to over 100,000 employees. KWorld was built by putting together several different technologies and tools which resulted in a unique platform. We demonstrated KWorld at Bill Gates’ annual CEO Summit and many CEO’s in attendance were impressed by its capabilities and promise. Several weeks later I was told that the plan was to create a new company that would sell customized versions of KWorld into the marketplace. As a result of my legal background, I was put in charge of managing the professional services vertical and gathering business requirements in order to create a custom version of KWorld for professional services firms.
I met and spoke with a large number of managing partners and directors at the worlds largest law, accounting and management consulting firms to get a better understanding of their needs and objectives. Throughout this interview process, a theme began to emerge. There was a significant need for a system that would facilitate the sharing of knowledge amongst employees. KWorld and other similar platforms had the capability of capturing explicit knowledge (knowledge that can be written or verbalized) although the process was time-consuming and required all knowledge workers to take time out of their day and input their knowledge into the system.
However, KWorld and other KM systems of that time were not able to facilitate the sharing and transfer of tacit knowledge (knowledge that cannot be easily transferred and articulated by verbal or written means). Neither the technology nor the culture in place back then was sufficiently advanced to enable the sharing or transfer of tacit knowledge. In 2011, Keith Goffin and Ursula Konners wrote an article on Tacit Knowledge, Lessons Learnt, and New Product Development for the Journal of Product Innovation Management. In it they wrote, “with tacit knowledge, people are not often aware of the knowledge they possess or how it can be valuable to others. Effective transfer of tacit knowledge generally requires extensive personal contact, regular interaction and trust. This kind of knowledge can only be revealed through practice in a particular context and transmitted through social networks. To some extent it is “captured” when the knowledge holder joins a network or a community of practice.”
What Goffin and Konners discovered was something that I had discovered back in 1999 in my discussions with executives at professional service firms. Lawyers, accountants and consultants posses vast amounts of tacit knowledge. It is this tacit knowledge that enables them to do what they do best. It is what makes them unique and allows them to be trusted advisors to their clients. However, the sharing and transfer of this knowledge is extremely difficult. Especially when you have firms that have offices all over the world and professionals who are widely dispersed. As Goffin and Konners suggest, “the transfer of tacit knowledge requires extensive personal contact, regular interaction and trust.” The solution: Enterprise Social Networks.
Enterprise Social Networks or “ESN’s” as they are commonly known provide knowledge workers at professional service firms the ability to effectively transfer tacit knowledge. They enable these professionals to have extensive personal contact, regular interaction and to build a level of trust amongst their co-workers and their clients. There are many value propositions of ESN’s but for professional services firms, the ability for its employees to share and transfer their tacit knowledge provides a unique and powerful competitive advantage.
The ability to share and transfer tacit knowledge amongst the lawyers, accountants or consultants in a firm enables that firm to apply its collective knowledge to solve their clients problems and to deliver new insights and solutions. Taken a step further, having this ability to transfer tacit knowledge (i.e. between law firms and in-house legal departments) may lead to a higher level of trust between parties. ESN’s can deliver this capability and that is why professional service firms should make the investment in both resources and money to effectively launch enterprise social networks at their firms.Those firms that do will have a significant competitive advantage over their competitors.
There are many ESN platforms that firms can choose from. Salesforce.com Chatter, Microsoft Yammer, Jive, Telligent, Tibbr and several others. They key is to remember that technology is merely an enabler. In order to be successful, professional service firms will have to change their culture and help their employees change the way they work. The ones that do will reap the rewards for years to come.