Explicit Knowledge: How to Best Capture and Transfer It

Discover what explicit knowledge is, how it can benefit you and how to harness it to level-up your organization today.

Written by: David Oragui

Published: August 17 2020

An illustration of a lady gathering explicit knowledge

Welcome to the most comprehensive guide to understanding explicit knowledge.

The success of every business, from hotdog stand to mega-corporation, depends heavily on its ability to capture and share organizational knowledge.

Just think about it: the more wisdom you have about your customers, products, competitors, and the industry as a whole, the more likely you are to achieve your business goals.

Now, in many cases, the knowledge possessed by your employees exists in their minds and intuition. This form of knowledge - known as tacit knowledge or tribal knowledge - is gained through personal experience and context.

But another form of information - known as explicit knowledge - is equally as valuable. In contrast to tacit knowledge, explicit knowledge is tangible, concrete, and is recorded in documents and databases within your business.

In this article, we’ll delve into the concept of explicit knowledge and show you how you can effectively capture and transfer it within your organization.

We’ll cover:

What is Explicit Knowledge?

Explicit knowledge is one of the key ideas from the field of knowledge management and refers to knowledge that’s easy to articulate, document, and share.

In other words, if you’ve got data that can be processed, stored, organized, and interpreted, you’ve got explicit knowledge.

This type of knowledge exists in material formats such as books, databases, procedure manuals, how-to videos, and so on.

For example, a market research report containing trends, consumer behavior, and competitive analyses that help you identify new opportunities is a valuable form of explicit knowledge.

Explicit Knowledge Vs Tacit Knowledge

A few additional examples of explicit knowledge are:

In contrast, some equivalent examples of tacit knowledge would be:

  • Knowing the precise moment to ask a prospect for the sale.
  • Knowing how to empathize with and calm down angry customers.
  • Knowing when a new hire needs personal mentorship to realize their potential.

Something to keep in mind is that while we use the terms 'tacit' and 'explicit' to define different types of knowledge, in reality, most knowledge exists on a spectrum.

And the truth is that all knowledge is valuable. So with that said, let’s examine how these two types of knowledge interact. 

The Spiral of Knowledge: How Explicit & Tacit Knowledge Interact

When comparing explicit knowledge versus tacit knowledge, it’s important to understand how the two types of knowledge benefit each other and how you should seek to leverage them within your company.

When you think about it, new knowledge always starts on an individual level. It could be a manager’s intuitive sense of market trends that helps create a valuable new product concept. Or an innovative engineer who uncovers a way to speed up your development lifecycle. 

Whatever the new idea is, the individual's personal knowledge (or tacit knowledge) is transformed into organizational knowledge (explicit) that helps the company as a whole. This process is known as externalization.

But capturing tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge isn’t the only way knowledge is transferred within your organization. Here are three other ways:

Tacit to Tacit: When skills and knowledge are shared directly from one person to another - think about how a new sales hire might learn through shadowing your company's top seller.

Explicit to Explicit: When existing explicit knowledge is collected and synthesized into new knowledge. For example, when the finance team gathers information from each department to present the company’s annual budget. 

Explicit to Tacit: When new knowledge is disseminated throughout your organization, employees can begin to internalize it and use it to enhance and expand their own personal knowledge. For example, onboarding documents can be used to impart critical ideas and concepts that new hires can draw on to create new innovations.

So, when individuals can access, and apply explicit organizational knowledge, they’re creating fertile ground for new tacit knowledge to take root (a process known as internalization.)

Put another way, explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge are two integral parts of the same knowledge spiral. One feeds into the other to create an upward trajectory that enhances the amount of knowledge within your organization.

The Benefits of Capturing & Transferring Explicit Knowledge

Now that we’ve got a handle on what explicit knowledge is, you may be thinking: ‘why should I bother capturing and transferring explicit knowledge anyway?”

Well, besides being fundamental to driving knowledge growth within your organization, here’s four more key reasons:

Enhanced Decision Making

Having the right information at the right time is the basis for making good decisions. But when employees need help with a specific problem, they can end up waiting hours for a Slack or email response to get the information they need. 

Harnessing the diverse knowledge of your organization and making it instantly accessible means employees can get the information they need to make faster, more astute decisions for your organization.

Minimize the Duplication of Efforts

If you’ve created an effective process, it makes sense to ensure that others use the same process each time a similar requirement arises. 

For example, if person A has written a document that addresses a problem, there’s no need for Person B to figure out how to solve the problem from scratch. Instead, they can just reuse the proven solution to save time, streamline work and accelerate progress.

Capturing and transferring explicit knowledge lets you avoid replicating work that’s already been done and frees up time to focus on more productive tasks.

Protect Against Knowledge Loss

If a pivotal member of your organization leaves, they can leave a substantial knowledge gap behind them - especially if they were the only ones who knew how to handle a critical aspect of your business. 

Codifying and sharing their knowledge before departure ensures you won’t lose all the wisdom they gained on the job. Plus, it makes it much easier for their replacement to pick up the slack.

And by documenting over time, you’ll build a repository of valuable knowledge that can help your business do things like create excellent onboarding programs or reduce time to delivery for client projects.

Develop More Robust Processes & Procedures

Writing effective standard operating procedures is a great way to ensure adherence to best practices and deliver predictable high-quality results. But it’s impossible to write an SOP (or any process document) if you haven’t captured the requisite knowledge required to make it useful.

By creating a system for recording, storing, organizing, and communicating your company’s collective knowledge, you’ll be able to formulate standardized processes and procedures that allow your organization to perform excellent work time and time again.

How To Capture Explicit Knowledge and Use It to Your Advantage

By now you’ve got a good idea about what explicit knowledge is, its role in driving your organization’s growth, and four reasons why it’s worth capturing.

Now let’s jump in and discover how to actually do it.

Carry Out a Documentation Audit

First things first, you’ll need to determine which areas of your organization’s documentation need updating. If you haven’t updated your documentation in a while, there’s a good chance it could use a facelift.

To do this, you’ll need to:

  • Read your documents and appraise them for relevance, accuracy, and validity
  • Remove any outdated information or documents that aren’t helpful
  • Simplifying any documents that are difficult for readers to understand

Knowing if your documentation is accurate is pretty straightforward. But assessing how easy it is to comprehend is a little tricker. Thankfully, you can use a tool like Readable or Hemingway editor to help you get readability scores, estimated reading times and more relevant data.

Once you’ve combed through your documentation, you’ll probably have a good idea about where the gaps in your organization’s explicit knowledge are.

But to help narrow down your focus even further you can:

  • Ask your employees where they think knowledge gaps lie
  • Review comments and feedback from customers to see where they may benefit from additional knowledge
  • Examine the performance of teams within your organization which may be improved by access to greater knowledge

When you’ve done this, you should be in a better place to start assigning knowledge-documenting tasks to the relevant users within your organization.

Create Guidelines for Content Creation

Your company’s explicit knowledge shouldn’t be considered a static asset. Instead, you should view it as a dynamic resource that evolves as different employees influence its development and structure.

That’s why developing a content creation framework is vital to ensure consistency as your company’s knowledge grows. Without set rules, you’ll end up with employees creating content in different formats and styles which harms comprehension.

Many modern knowledge management systems allow you to have full control over formatting, authoring and structure - which goes a long way to keeping your documentation uniform.

Adapt your content guidelines as needed, but always maintain rules to help your staff stay consistent when adding to your organizational knowledge.

Encourage Organization-Wide Participation

The collective knowledge contained within your workforce is incredibly powerful. And to adequately capture it, you should encourage all staff to contribute to your knowledge base.

A quality KMS will have the ability to connect your team in a collaborative community environment where they can author, organize, and revise content.

Example of a knowledge base which helps to store explicit knowledge

Caption: Authoring & formatting made easy with Helpjuice

No matter what size your organization, bringing together many minds and perspectives will help you capture the most useful and relevant knowledge.

Segment & Organize Your Knowledge

Wading through a sea of knowledge to find a nugget of information is no fun. But as organizations grow, it’s common to see their documentation become so disjointed that it’s near impossible to locate what you’re looking for with ease.

And that matters because if the right information isn’t on hand at the right time, it’s of little use to your employees or customers.

The solution? Proper segmentation from day one. Use a knowledge management solution that makes it easy to organize and navigate your knowledge base. Ideally, you should set up different categories, projects, and teams so that nobody gets overloaded with irrelevant information.

Example of how knowledge base fits with an overall knowledge management strategy

The power of a search function also can’t be underestimated here. It’ll help both customers and employees quickly find precisely what they’re looking for. Because the easier you make your knowledge to access, the more people will start to leverage it for better results.

Simplify Your Onboarding

As mentioned previously, onboarding is one of the best ways to communicate your company’s explicit knowledge to new hires.

And while every manager has their preferred approach, it makes sense to use your company’s KMS to enhance the process.

After all, your KMS houses a vast amount of company knowledge garnered from years of experience. And while there are many onboarding tools out there, creating a dedicated space within your KMS is a super effective way to impart valuable company knowledge without spending money on additional software.

Plus, as a bonus, new hires can self-serve their onboarding which frees up time for managers to spend on other productive tasks.

Analyze & Refine Your Approach

As you start to build an accessible, tangible repository of company knowledge, you’ll want to ensure that you’re refining your capture and transfer processes for the best results.

A quality KMS will provide you with feedback and analytics that’ll allow you to gauge how users are interacting with your growing knowledge base.

Example of knowledge base analytics

Caption: Knowledge base analytics with Helpjuice

Using backend data, you can discover which content is delivering the most value, find out what users are searching for, measure the most popular topics that people consume, and more.

Such data helps inform your knowledge management strategy and ensures you’re always improving the way you capture and transfer explicit knowledge within your company.

Knowledge Management Made Easy

Documenting and optimizing your company’s explicit knowledge will always be a challenging task. It requires the right strategy, ongoing commitment from employees, and the use of a reliable knowledge management system.

But when done right, it’ll allow your organization to harness its full wisdom and leverage it to drive real business growth. After all, the knowledge contained within your organization forms the very fabric of your business.

That means it’s time to start using it to your advantage instead of letting it go to waste.

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