Academic Insight: The Importance Of Knowledge Sharing In Organizations

Written by: Shontarius D. Aikens

In today’s society, it is becoming more important to be better managers of organizational resources. For this month’s article, I want to focus on the organizational resource that oftentimes gets overlooked and is not valued until it is gone. That resource is the tacit knowledge within an organization. Tacit knowledge is defined as the experience or expertise accumulated over time that resides in a person’s mind. To illustrate this, look no further than to two of my favorite films in the Star Trek movie franchise—Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). For those of you who haven’t seen these films, let me describe the scenario as depicted in the movie scenes:

The USS Enterprise is on the brink of being destroyed in space by a nearby explosion unless they can repair the starship’s warp drive that was damaged in battle. Spock, a Vulcan, takes it upon himself to repair the warp drive, which will expose him to radiation thus resulting in his death. But before doing so, Spock performs a Vulcan mind meld on his colleague Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, which enables Spock to transfer his living spirit, or katra, to another being. In the sequel film, Admiral James T. Kirk learned from Sarek, the Vulcan Ambassador to the United Federation of Planets and Spock’s father, that the katra contains a Vulcan’s essence (i.e. who they are and everything that they know and have learned). And in the Vulcan culture, the transferring of one’s katra to another being is done when they sense that their death is near. Otherwise, if not transferred, that knowledge or katra will be forever lost.

While these movie scenes are wonderful science fiction, the problem of lost knowledge within organizations is actually very real. Consider the following quote from The eLearning Coach, Connie Malamed:

“…when people with expertise leave a job, the organization often loses critical tacit knowledge because it was not passed on to others. This knowledge gap can be costly and time-consuming or impossible to replace. Organizations need ways to  glean and disseminate the tacit knowledge of experts for their own preservation. Tacit knowledge transmission is essential to an organization’s future success.”

While scholars in the area of knowledge management express the importance of knowledge sharing in organizations, they also recognize the difficulties in making that happen. While there are a variety of reasons, I’ll focus on the three most prominent issues. First, it can be quite difficult to identify, to measure, or to really understand the true value of the amount of tacit knowledge within an organization. An individual with a specific set of skills and expertise may not view their own knowledge as valuable but rather just common wisdom and know-how. Second, it can be prohibitive, time-consuming, and flat out impossible for a person to take time away from their job responsibilities to just sit down and share everything that they know. Third, some individuals within organizations may intentionally choose not to share their knowledge and experience with others as a way to preserve their standing, value, or employment within the organization.

Management scholars suggest that knowledge is the most critical resource of an organization that leads to production and value. And if tacit knowledge sharing is so important for organizations, what can organizations do to make this process happen? Several best practices are presented below.

The OPPTY Process

This deep mentoring process was described by Dorothy Leonard, Gavin Barton and Michelle Barton in a Harvard Business Review magazine article titled Make Yourself an Expert. The OPPTY method is an acronym that stands for Observation, Practice, Partnering and Joint Problem solving, and Taking Responsibility. In this process, tacit knowledge is transferred over time with another individual through socialization, which is considered by management scholars as the ideal way for tacit knowledge to be shared. The authors found that experts were more than willing to share their knowledge when individuals intrinsically valued one-on-one coaching and if they received praise and recognition for their efforts. I highly recommend reading this article to determine if the OPPTY process could be implemented in your organization.

Make Knowledge Sharing A Formal Practice Within The Organization

Research indicates that an organization’s culture is a big factor that either encourages or discourages knowledge sharing. Several sources suggest making knowledge sharing a formal practice within the organization. This can be done by making knowledge sharing a component of performance evaluations, requiring employees to update documents on a quarterly basis, and creating a formal knowledge exchange policy that would be required for employees leaving the organization.

Extrinsic Rewards

This best practice involves providing financial rewards, special employee benefits and recognition and acknowledgement for those individuals who are actively contributing to the knowledge sharing process. For example, an individual would receive a reward if the individual is actively involved in creating journals or notes in an attempt to convert tacit knowledge (what’s in their mind) to explicit knowledge (written documentation, procedures, etc.). To encourage more participation, some have suggested the use of gamification which would entail giving recognition to those individuals who are the most active within the organization when it comes to knowledge sharing activities

I hope this information will be of benefit to your organization. In closing (and in the spirit of the traditional Vulcan farewell message and salute): May your organization Live Long and Prosper through active and ongoing knowledge sharing.

To submit questions you would like answered in future editions of “Academic Insight”. Email Dr. Aikens at [email protected]

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