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When we don’t know what we know

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

One of the biggest obstacles organisations have when they introduce a learning and development program for the first time is designing a curriculum. Creating individual content for an e-learning system, for example, can be a daunting exercise—not unlike the writer facing a blank page. Even preparing a new team member with what they need to know can be a challenge when you don’t know what you know. Well, you know what they need to be able to get done, but you may not be able to explain the process or articulate the how or even the why, because the way you get it done has become so automatic that you don’t even think about it. This is called tacit knowledge and it’s what Dave Snowden describes as being the knowledge we don’t know we have until someone asks us the question.

Here are some ways you can reveal that tacit knowledge, so you can transfer it and increase the value of those knowledge assets through reuse and improvement.

  1. Create a checklist of steps from the start of a process or task through to completion, paying attention to the steps you take intuitively and noting down why you took a particular step or made a particular choice from a set of options.
  2. Have the learner interview the expert and document the questions and answers.
  3. Facilitate conversations in a comfortable environment with questions and answers captured on paper or whiteboards.
  4. Describe your organisational culture by mapping values and desired behaviours to specific impacts and outcomes.

The key to revealing tacit knowledge is to expose why decisions are made and actions are taken. When we know why, we can teach the how in a meaningful way and interrogate the what for improvements.

Don’t forget to validate your new knowledge assets by having some fresh eyes step through the material and test it for accuracy. Is there any confusing language? Are there any missed steps?

Capture, validate and test.

Investing in mentoring: why it matters

I grew up in the family business of ticketwriting & screenprinting. I went to TAFE to learn foundational skills in calligraphy, brush lettering, and screenprinting, and I spent time in the workshop with my parents showing me how to apply those skills. I was able to build on that learned foundation and they were able to transfer the kind of knowledge that can only be gained from years of hands-on industry and organisation-specific experience, such as why certain decisions were made. Essentially, it was a period of apprenticeship.

Corporate life typically doesn’t work the same way. The closest I’ve experienced to that is double-jacking in a technical support contact centre, allowing me to listen in on calls and learn how to do the job. Peer learning is valuable but it’s targeted to transferring existing process, and you frequently move your pairing relationships around so you can learn multiple perspectives. Like I said, it is certainly valuable, but it doesn’t do what mentoring does. Mentoring allows for meaningful one-to-one knowledge sharing relationships to form and outlast any particular tactical goals there might be. More tacit knowledge is shared organically throughout the relationship, than what happens with peer learning and e-learning, as the mentee develops trust and the psychological safety they need to ask questions they may have otherwise kept to themselves. For the mentee they develop a depth of knowledge in their subject domain, and for the mentor, their sense of self-worth gets a boost and they learn more from the process of teaching someone else.

I’ve covered mentoring tech on this blog before, and I’m proud to announce my commitment to Mentorloop as an angel investor. Mentorloop takes the administration overhead of spreadsheets and emails and manual matching out of running a mentoring program, making this valuable knowledge sharing format much easier to adopt and manage. It intelligently matches mentors and mentees and offers guidance throughout the relationship to keep both parties on track.

Better human relationships at work aren’t just about a market differentiation from AI-based services, although that is significant strategic move, it’s also about enabling our journeys towards self-actualisation and connection to meaning and purpose. Great mentors help us get there.

Establishing good habits

A knowledge management program is a change management program, and lasting behaviour change needs rewired routines. One of the simplest and most cost-effective ways to reinforce new behaviours is to make those expectations visible with posters in the work area. The Consortium for Service Innovation was smart enough to develop simple and memorable statements to help practitioners remember the activities most critical to the Knowledge Centered Support methodology.

Knowledge Centered Service doesn’t have a big following in Australia, yet, but it’s well-known in IT service management circles, and it’s perfectly suited to support environments like call centres and IT help desks. But KCS is in no way limited to those applications and the fundamental techniques are just good habits for all knowledge workers.

Search early, search often

Most of the time, the answer to any question you have already exists in your organisation or in your knowledge base (if you have one). Search first, so that you can understand what you already collectively know.

Reuse is review

Every time you reuse an existing knowledge asset, review it and improve it. The best thing about KCS is that it’s demand-driven maintenance, and means you aren’t wasting effort on maintenance overhead where it doesn’t add value.

Capture the customer’s context

This is a friendly reminder that the most searchable and reusable knowledge articles are those that are written in the customer’s words. The way a customer sees and phrases a problem is different from the way a knowledgeable person describes it. By using the customer’s words and context you can push that knowledge towards customer self-service, and that’s where you get your time back for interesting and less-repetitive work.

Download these PDF posters to help set good habits in your team.


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