An organization’s intellectual assets are, arguably, its most valuable and well-guarded resources. Intellectual property is what provides a company their competitive edge in the market, but it can also represent one of their greatest vulnerabilities. The organizational knowledge base is partitioned off into two categories: explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is knowledge that has been made visible or tangible in some form, typically either through transcription into a document of some kind or in an audio or visual recording. Once captured, this knowledge is stored in a repository for accessibility and reuse.
Tacit knowledge is much more difficult to articulate, capture, and codify since it is embedded knowledge that resides within the mind of the individual and includes:
- best practices
- lessons learned
- intuition based on experience
According to research, many organizations are unaware of how to manage tacit knowledge, which creates the vulnerability. As a company loses employees due to retirement, movement from one position to another, or even moving on to another company, the company also loses the knowledge those individuals possessed. Through the deliberate application of knowledge management companies could mitigate the risk of intellectual property loss. One of the main goals of any knowledge management approach should be to transform tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, which can then be added to the organization’s shared knowledge base and housed safely in a repository.
While externalization of tacit knowledge can occur organically, this is more often the exception than the rule. In a highly individualistic culture, many employees are reluctant to willingly disseminate knowledge that could otherwise gain them power or influence, or at the very least ensure job security. So the question becomes:
“How can a company move employees from the individualistic tendency to hoard knowledge to the collective mindset of contributing to the shared knowledge base?”
The key to success is in creating a culture of learning. Learning culture is founded upon socialization, a company’s deliberate efforts to facilitate relationships, and conversations among its employees. This face-to-face knowledge sharing is unmatched and often leads to collaboration, innovation, and new knowledge creation. According to Kimiz Dalkir in Knowledge Management in Theory and Practice (2017), many companies promote socialization through social events called knowledge jams and even create networks like an expertise locator directory to encourage mentorship, consultation, and collaboration. Creating an environment in which employees feel safe to ask questions, to admit knowledge gaps, and express ideas is crucial to the success of effective socialization. An extension of this idea is the celebration of failures since companies that truly seek to cultivate a successful learning culture must acknowledge failure as necessary part of the pathway to success. This, in turn, instills confidence in workers and encourages them to take risks and challenge the status quo. As much as failure is celebrated, so must successes. Reward and recognize employees for their contributions and give credit where it is rightfully due.
In “The Google Way of Building a Strong Learning Culture” (2016), Karla Gutierrez writes that part of Google’s success in creating a culture of learning lies in “formalizing informal and continuous learning.” In fact, what Google does is provide employees time to pursue their own project interests each week, provided they are working on something the company could ultimately benefit from. Furthermore, management should model continuous learning behaviors in order to emphasize just how important learning is to company values.
Organizations can take another leaf from Google’s book when it comes to training and professional development: Laszlo Brock, a former Senior Vice President at Google, suggests in his book Work Rules! (2015) that companies should have their best people teach. Rather than turning to outside experts to fulfill training and professional development needs, organizations should look inward and pull from their own subject matter experts. Utilizing internal experts accomplishes several things: it allows companies to give workers leadership opportunities, trainings and professional development can be done within the context of the company, and it can reduce the financial costs associated with training and professional development events.
When an organization is successful at creating an effective and meaningful learning culture, a culture of trust blooms alongside it as an inevitable by-product. Within such an environment, employees feel recognized and empowered, therefore more valued and less inclined to withhold knowledge and more willing to go through the processes of externalizing tacit knowledge and contributing to the shared knowledge base. This in turn reduces company vulnerability through the process of housing and protecting valuable intellectual assets.