Not all knowledge can easily be transferred form one person to another, or form one department to another. Often we make a distinction between explicit and tacit knowledge. Explicit is that knowledge you can find in books and lectures. These are facts that can easily be written down and conveyed to others. Tacit knowledge is the opposite. You can write it down, it just takes a lot of paper. It’s not easy to transfer to another person, and is best transferred using rich communication channels, those that do not only rely on text. Face-to-face would be an ideal communication channel, but virtual reality can also be very helpful.
Knowledge can be described by how sticky it is. Tacit knowledge is not sticky. The stickier the knowledge, the easier it is for you to remember it. Knowledge that is not sticky is by definition hard to understand in the sense of what the knowledge means and how and why to apply it. This relates to causal ambiguity.
When it is not possible to explain (or even replicate) why a specific method leads to a specific result. In that case it is not clear why a specific method leads to a specific result in a specific situation. You might have ideas of what factors are involved (e.g., The water didn’t reach boiling point so the coffee or tea doesn’t taste as nice), but it is not clear without further tests. This relates to the problem of making tacit knowledge explicit enough for it to be useful for others.A way to reduce causal ambiguity is to engage in developmental learning. This means you need to decide to apply the method to your task even though it’s not clear yet what results you will get, and subsequently evaluate the results using your predefined goals. Now you gain understanding, and reduce the ambiguity of the knowledge that was transferred to you. If the results are inadequate, you have to modify the method until you reach the desired results. At the end of this learning cycle, the knowledge will stick in your brain. However, this suggestions has not solved the problem of transferring knowledge that is not sticky, it simply assumed that you go along and apply the knowledge that is transferred to you.
In case your organization or work doesn’t allow you to experiment with knowledge that is shared with you, HR or a manger using an empowered leadership style can help. HR can support the spread of ambiguous knowledge in the organization. It will not make it less sticky, but it can support the creation of a network that is conducive to the spread of ambiguous knowledge. Such HR processes embrace the challenges of creating and leveraging knowledge necessary for completing knowledge-intensive tasks.Chih-Hsun Chuang, Susan E. Jackson, Yuan Jiang describes the following HRM system that supports knowledge-intensive team work:
- HRM system to support the acquisition of knowledge through paid training. This can be in workshops and classes outside of the office or normal working environment, but also in form of online courses, mentoring, or other informal learning activities. An employee that opts for informal learning opportunities should have time blocked off in his or her calendar for learning, to avoid that learning is pushed into family and social life.
- HRM system to support teamwork skills. Sharing knowledge with team members requires the ability to clarify why your knowledge is relevant. For ambiguous knowledge this means being able to explain the usefulness of the knowledge. Reducing the causual ambiguity is key. This links to the ability to communicate.
- HRM system to support adaption. As with teamwork skills, individuals need to be able to adapt. While communication skills tap into the expertise of the sender of ambiguous knowledge to clarify the usefulness of the knowledge, adaptive skills relate to the receiver of the knowledge to be able to follow the explanation and understand why the knowledge is useful.
- HRM system to support the organization’s social capital. Through informal events, social gatherings, and online community building, HR can target the creation of specific relations that are conductive for the spread of ambiguous knowledge. The analyzes of (structural) holes, gaps between cliques that do not talk with each other but could benefit from more cross-talk, followed by efforts to build bridges to strengthen communication between disparate groups can be helpful for transferring ambiguous knowledge. Team composition can also be used as a tool for creating new relations.
- HRM system to support sharing of knowledge through rewards. A peer-reward system, in which employees can nominate others who spend effort clarifying ambiguous knowledge and thus helped to transfer knowledge that is not sticky, can also support the spread of ambiguoous information. Such a reward would make the time spend explaining why the knowledge is useful and should be applied less of a waste and more as part of the job description.
As manager, increase knowledge transfer by empowering your employees through sharing power with them and stimulating their intrinsic motivation (if this is not your leadership style, don’t worry. HR can help knowledge transfer as outlined above).
As employee, increase knowledge transfer by increasing your social capital through creating new and different connections, and regularly connect with your old and new connections.