Our working from home isolation poses a real challenge for the exchange of tacit knowledge. We will need to work harder than ever to ensure that new employees and colleagues can benefit and learn from this deep expertise.
The Challenges of Tacit Knowledge When Working From Home
Last night, I went to a socially distant cooking class. While the class was informative, it was a reminder that cooking is experiential and that there is much that is tacit knowledge in the process. Without the ability to get up close and hands on with the lesson, you were dependent on your ability to understand the recipies and the instruction from an experienced commercial chef. As someone who cooks a lot, I found that I could fill in the gaps in the narration and some of the chef’s terms and metaphors. For someone with less experience of the practice, there were mysteries that needed to be resolved with lots of careful questioning and additional explanation.
Skilled practitioners have lots of tacit knowledge and much of what they know is not and cannot be captured in their recipes. Knowing how much is enough in making a dough or whisking is a matter of practiced judgement, not exact procedures. This tacit knowledge is often the difference in perfomance between acceptable and excellence.
I have lots of complaints through our recent weeks of working from home around the limitation of the technology for learning from colleagues and peers. I have seen plenty of fierce differences in work due to the lack of the shared context and tacit knowledge that comes from greater proximity. What is obvious to someone experienced in a domain, will not be obvious to their distant colleagues. Junior lawyers who often rely on chance to be drawn into meetings to watch their colleagues translate the theory into practice. At home, they are less top of mind and missing the chance to learn and experience the follow-on practice that comes from being in the room. Peer learning is something that most schools need to continue to explore as part of their learning from home activities. It is our peers that can often unpick the tacit and the unsaid in the theory and practice that we are trying to learn.
Working Out Loud as a Solution
When asked to explain our tacit knowledge, by those who don’t yet have the insight we can do so. However, many times when working from home there isn’t the chance to ask, especially in front of clients and other situations where asking may not be psychologically safe.
Instituting a routine of debriefs and coaching discussions after meetings is an important way to help create these conversations. Having a regular and safe forum to share the insights behind strategies and practice and to ask the dumb questions makes a big difference for those who are new or learning. This is a step to making the tacit elements of knowledge and process visible out loud.
The next step is to create a culture of working out loud in the organisation. Combining openness, transparency and explicit narration, working out loud or showing your work helps to make tacit knowlege more visible and more capable of question. When we are not together, this sharing of deep context and often unconsidered judgments by those with expertise is critically important to the spread of knowledge and the pace of learning.
Much of what passes for judgement and intuition is founded in tacit knowledge and depth of experience. I had a recent negotiation where I chose not to ask an obvious question. A colleague asked me afterwards why I held back. I explained that in that moment there were only two answers to the question – the right answer and the wrong one. I didn’t know which one was the answer and I dislike asking questions that are a roll of the dice at a sensitive stage in the discussion. We didn’t yet have enough relationship to survive the wrong answer. While I really need to know the answer, knowing that there is a right time to get bad news and the signals that a relationship has arrived at the point for bad news to be recoverable is an important and hard learned skill.
Importantly, making tacit knowlege explicit also makes it capable of review. In times of change, habit founded on deep tacit knowlege can lead us astray. Just look at the many issues of systemic bias being surfaced in our organisations. We are far better off to surface the assumptions, the decisions and intuitions and make them subject to the sunlight. If they survive the questioning of that review it helps even the practiced exponent know that they have not inadvertently begun the slow journey of obsolesence.
In our social distant organisations, we can foster the practice of working out loud in multiple ways from encouraging use of enterprise social media to share status and narrate work, to peer coaching circles and even consistent brown bag lunches and other informal training sessions. The planning processes and retrospectives of Agile can also be useful forums if sufficiently open and searchable by others. The key is to create multiple ways that people can share their work in progress openly and also narrate the decisions and choices of that work. There is a burden in this but surfacing the hidden decisions and insights is a critical capability to the success of others and to reinforce and review that tacit knowledge for practitioners. We need to work hard to surface and share tactic knowledge in our current circumstances but the health and effectiveness of our organisation depends on that discovery and exchange.