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Want to manage tacit knowledge?

Communities of practice offer a versatile solution

INTRODUCTION how to ‘map’ communities, and provides

suggestions for garnering management
This paper offers some tips for fostering
support. Finally, the paper describes three
informal communities to manage tacit
common traps to avoid.
knowledge in a rapidly changing business
environment. Recent business developments
have increased the difficulties in managing
this important type of knowledge. Organisations recognise that knowledge
By Shawn Callahan
• ‘Baby-boomers’ are retiring—and years provides the only sustainable market
of ‘know how’ are walking out the door. differentiator. And there is a growing
• Clients are demanding more answers to awareness that tacit knowledge makes
increasingly complex questions—and they up a substantial proportion of this vital
want those answers now. knowledge— perhaps as much as 80%.
• Companies cannot afford to make The imperative to manage tacit knowledge
inadvertent mistakes, and they must more effectively has become more pressing
therefore capitalise on the ingenious in recent times—as experienced ‘baby-
solutions that remain hidden in every boomers’ retire, as clients increasingly
quiet corner of their organisations. present novel problems (for which
‘cookbook answers’ are both inappropriate
These business problems have created a
and unavailable), and as market cycles
significant challenge for companies today:
accelerate and response times are reduced.
How can organisations create a work
These dramatic changes mean that we do
environment that enables knowledgeable
not have the time or resources to document
people to learn, adapt and respond
Tacit knowledge is what we know—even if it were possible to
effectively to novel circumstances?
do so.
personal knowledge. A common (but misinformed) strategy
It is difficult to discern and Tacit knowledge is personal knowledge.
is to extract and record what people
difficult to express. It is difficult to discern and difficult to
know—and then store it in a database.
express. Examples include ‘intuition’,
Th e problem is that much of this ‘know
‘hunches’, ‘heuristics’ and ‘inherent talent’.
how’ is not amenable to this treatment.
It enables people to have ‘gut feelings’ that
It cannot be captured or converted easily.
something is wrong or missing. It is knowing
Much of it is unspoken and unrecorded. So
how to ride a bike, how to recognise the
how do we manage this unspoken (or tacit)
smell of coffee, how to develop lasting
knowledge? Communities of practice offer
client relationships, when to buy and sell,
an effective and versatile solution.
and which new venture is likely to work.
This paper therefore provides guidance on It is not ‘book knowledge’; rather, it is
how to identify and foster such communities knowledge developed through experience.
of practice in your organisation. It explains
why communities of practice are effective
in managing tacit knowledge, describes 1 ©Anecdote Pty Ltd WA N T TO M A N AG E TAC I T K N OW L E D G E ?

According to Boisot, there are three types took ‘time out’ to learn the finer points of
of tacit knowledge to consider: [1] good policy development; it ended up as a
• things that are not said because everyone forum for testing a whole range of ideas.
understands them and takes them for More importantly, we worked out ways in
granted; which we could work together in a variety
of settings. This is where the real learning
• things that are not said because nobody
occurs—on the job, with real problems.
fully understands them; and
Peter was a great mentor for the other
• things that are not said because, although
members of the group. He was generous
some people understand them, they
with his time and knew what questions to
cannot costlessly articulate them.
ask. Even more importantly, he knew when
This comprehensive strategy It is possible to adopt individual strategies to ask them. Although we will miss his acid
involves the identification to manage each type of tacit knowledge. wit, we will not be left in a hole—because
and nurturing of communities Narrative, for example, is useful for we have learnt from each other. Almost by
discovering the things that are taken accident, we have built resilience into our
of practice.
for granted. Techniques for developing workplace—resilience that will help us to
intuition can be employed to enhance cope when people come and go. This type
the things that nobody fully understands. of group is called a ‘community of practice’.
Organisations might decide that certain
critical (but complicated) knowledge should M A N AG I N G TAC I T K N O W L E D G E
be more generally known. THROUGH COMMUNITIES OF
Although such individual strategies can be PR AC TICE
useful, this paper presents a comprehensive
So how does a strategy of supporting
strategy that addresses the management
communities of practice help organisations
of all three types of tacit knowledge. This
to manage their tacit knowledge more
comprehensive strategy involves
the identification and nurturing of
communities of practice. First, these groups enrich the context
They enhance the around their area of interest. They enhance
artefacts that already W H AT I S A C O M M U N I T Y the artefacts (such as documents and tools)
exist; and they create OF PR AC TICE? that already exist; and they create new
new artefacts. artefacts. These artefacts (old and new)
The key features of a community of practice
take on enhanced meaning for the group
are encapsulated and communicated in the
and, as they do, more knowledge becomes
following anecdote.
unspoken—more tacit knowledge is created.
Peter was not only the organisation’s most
Secondly, the increasing interaction among
gifted policy analyst, but also one of those
members of the group, together with the
guys who just ‘knew’ how to get things
enriched context described above, enables
done around the place. Regardless of the job
members to respond quickly to unusual and
at hand, Peter would successfully navigate
unpredictable requests. This is because the
the organisation’s labyrinth of requests,
community of practice has been in the habit
approvals, office politics and hierarchy. He
of posing (and exploring) novel questions.
knew when something was missing; he knew
Thirdly, the existence of a community of
when the picture just did not ‘seem right’. And
practice means that there is a deeper and
like many other ‘baby-boomers’, Peter was
wider pool of expertise from which to
retiring—next week to his rural vineyard.
draw. Through the active processes of the
Fortunately for us, Peter was an active
community, tacit knowledge is shared—
member of our ‘policy-analysis brigade’.
thus ensuring that it is not ‘locked up’ in
This was the name we had given to our
one individual.
informal group that met in the boardroom
on the third Thursday of every month. It
had begun as a small group of people who

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Fourthly, members of the community In the modern corporation, computer

develop an intuitive understanding of how systems are a good place to start. You can
to tackle issues in their field of expertise. begin by asking the system administrator
They develop this intuitive They develop this intuitive knowledge whether email groups have been set up or
knowledge by undertaking by undertaking tasks, reflecting, asking whether specific collaboration spaces have
tasks, reflecting, asking questions of one another, and listening to been established. Both of these tracks can
questions of one another, the stories of other community members. lead directly to existing communities. In
Finally, and most importantly, new members addition, if you have an online meeting-
and listening to the stories
room booking system, check whether
of other community of the community are effectively ‘given
regular meetings have been scheduled.
members. permission’ to associate with the more
experienced and more senior members of You can also include community mapping
as an exercise within a wider knowledge-
the organisation. This is what it means to
mapping project. An effective technique
be part of a community.
involves augmenting the Cynefin
These groups are focused These groups are focused on improving knowledge-mapping technique at the point
on improving their practice their practice—how they do their work. where anecdotes are being collected. [2]
—how they do their work. They are therefore constantly striving At the end of an anecdote circle, ask the
They are therefore constantly to develop new tools and techniques. participants to brainstorm four types of
Consequently, community members know communities: (i) committees and formal
striving to develop new
which knowledge can be sensibly codified communities; (ii) expert communities; (iii)
tools and techniques.
and which knowledge should be shared informal or shadow communities; and
using other means—such as simply listening (iv) communities that emerge only in a
to the stories of others, helping each other crisis. This exercise generates a long list of
out on the job, or identifying a mentor to potential communities to investigate.
assist with a personal career.
Experience has also shown that the
These informal groups already exist following approach is effective. Provide
in organisations. The challenges for a technological platform that supports
those responsible for harnessing an community activities. Then advertise its
organisation’s tacit knowledge are to existence, provide some information on
identify and nurture these groups. Indeed, how to use it, and see who comes. In one
an adroit manager will go further—he instance we had worked hard to establish
or she will also create the conditions three communities of practice while,
that facilitate the emergence of new on the periphery, a group of simulation
communities of practice. modellers had discovered the collaboration
There are also activities and platform that we had established—and
they promptly made use of its functionality.
events during which cohorts OF PR AC TICE We became aware of this community for
can develop—and such a cohort
It is difficult to build a community the first time when we discovered them
can become the basis of a new
of practice from scratch. In fact, the online. It should be noted, however, that
community of practice. construction metaphor of ‘building’ a the business case for the collaborative
community is inappropriate. Rather, it is infrastructure had already been
important to ‘foster’ communities—and established before it was implemented and
the first step is to find the communities subsequently discovered by the modellers.
that already exist in your organisation. There are also activities and events during
which cohorts can develop—and such
a cohort can become the basis of a new
There are many places to search for
community of practice. Training events,
evidence of existing communities. Like
induction courses, and management
David Attenborough, the job entails
retreats can all provide the essential
tracking the telltale signs that will lead you
first ingredients for a community of
to your quarry.
practice—social networks and a topic
of interest. When an important event is

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scheduled, the chances that a community STORIES OF SUCCESS

of practice emerges can be enhanced Stories about how other organisations have
by getting people ‘connected’ before implemented communities of practice have
the event. Collaboration software with a significant impact in influencing decision-
facilitated online discussions can achieve makers to adopt the strategy. Robert
this initial connection, and the discussions Cialdini calls this ‘social proof ’. [4]
can be continued after the event. If there is
Social proof describes the human tendency
enough energy and passion for the topic, a
to do what everyone else is doing. If a
new community of practice can emerge.
person walks into a meeting room in
which everyone is standing up, the new
arrival is likely to remain standing. Social
proof is a shortcut to knowing what to
R E L U C TA N T M A N AG E R S do when people do not have all the facts.
The principle of social proof is most likely
Many managers do not perceive the
to be effective when there is considerable
tangible business benefits that will come
uncertainty, and when those being
from supporting communities of practice.
imitated are similar to ourselves.
Even managers who have embraced the
Such communities of practice concepts of ‘teams’ and ‘teamwork’ can The first ingredient in developing a
can appear to be nebulous to have difficulty in perceiving the benefits of compelling case for communities of
managers who are accustomed communities of practice. Such communities practice is the effective use of stories as
to more immediate and of practice can appear to be nebulous to ‘social proof ’. Stories are powerful. Telling
direct benefits. managers who are accustomed to more stories about people, organisations, and
immediate and direct benefits. work is a natural way for people to transfer
what they know in the workplace. Facts are
Wenger and colleagues have provided
certainly important, but stories provide the
a useful table of business benefits that
emotion required to make a decision.
accrue from communities of practice. [3]
These include short-term benefits (such I was talking about the ‘power of story’ to a
as improved business outcomes, improved client who worked in the defence forces. The
Facts are certainly important, quality of decision-making and innovative client was prompted to recount an interesting
but stories provide the emotion perspectives on long-standing problems) incident. His division had proposed a new
required to make a decision. and long-term benefits (such as increased force structure to the Chief of the Army.
retention of talent and the ability to The recommendations were the product of
foresee technological developments). extensive analysis and were supported by
an impressive array of facts and figures. The
Arguments such as these can be useful.
General and his advisors were considering the
But the two most powerful techniques to
proposal in his office. The recommendation
persuade reluctant managers to invest in
seemed to make sense to him, but he was
communities are:
uneasy about something that he could not
• stories of success from similar
‘put his finger on’. A Colonel, who had
organisations that already foster
recently returned from East Timor, happened
communities of practice; and
to pass by his door. The General invited him
• making a link between project work
in to give his opinion on the proposal. The
and communities of practice (using the
Colonel then regaled the group with a story
metaphor of ‘the arrow and the cloud’).
that demonstrated how the recommended
Each of these is explored below.
force structure would have made a signifi cant
improvement in field operations in East Timor.
With that story, the General turned to the rest
of the group and said bluntly: ‘Make it happen’.

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A handful of stories about the effective The arrow represents projects that must be
use of communities of practice from completed by a specific date and that must
organisations that most resemble your deliver a specific outcome. A successful
own will be an invaluable tool in building project has a clear direction and definite
your business case. There are many case deadlines to meet. Most organisations
studies and examples from companies focus their resources on the arrow.
such as IBM, GE, the US Army, and legal The cloud represents a community of
firms, among many others. Whenever an practice. It is more interested in the learning
Your own organisation opportunity arises, tell these stories. Your journey than the destination. Outcomes are
will soon begin to ask: own organisation will soon begin to ask: less clear. Although the arrow and the cloud
‘Why aren’t we doing this?’ ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’. are quite different organisational entities,
ARROW AND CLOUD one informs the other.

The second ingredient is to make a link For example, every project invariably faces
between project work and communities challenges and problems that must be
of practice. It is common to hear people overcome. If the project team knows that
lament: ‘But my people are so busy just a community of practice exists within the
getting the job done. We don’t have time organisation, the team can pose questions
to sit around and chat about these things.’ to this community—which represents
This attitude certainly makes it difficult a network of experts and expertise.
to get a community off the ground from Moreover, by receiving ‘realworld’
scratch. However, in our experience, if you problems from a ‘real-world’ project team,
can describe how this new organisational the community of practice can focus its
entity will enhance current projects, efforts on a subject that is valued by the
commitment from middle managers organisation. Communities of practice can
increases significantly. inform project teams by briefing them on
new thinking, models, and tools relevant
Middle managers are under great pressure
to the project.
to ‘get the job done’, and if they believe that
an initiative for a community of practice is However, a balance must be struck—too
merely a distraction, they will mount a great much direction from project teams or other
Ideally, project-team deal of passive resistance. After six months management teams can result in the
members should also be of effort you will wonder why nothing has community resisting such direction, and, at
community members, happened. It is a good idea to introduce worst, disbanding its activities altogether.
and vice versa. the simple idea of ‘the arrow and the cloud’ The key to the ‘arrow’ and the ‘cloud’
to describe how teams provide direction working together is that each must be
for communities and how communities can aware of the existence of the other—
support teams (see Figure 1, below). ideally, project-team members should also
be community members, and vice versa.

Figure 1: Arrow and cloud
Although the guidance provided above
Projects and teams appears to have a bias towards an organic,
undirected, and ‘bottom–up’ technique,
it is also important to incorporate other
approaches if common mistakes are to be
Questions Answers
Problems Innovations avoided. Here are some hints on avoiding
three common ‘traps’.
• Although it is important to identify
existing communities, a successful
Communities program must also gain support from
of practice the most senior business leader who is
willing to participate. One approach is to

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get senior people active by inviting them achieved by command and control, or by
to chair community review boards or embarking on a program of converting
practice review boards. tacit knowledge to overt knowledge
• Although each community will invest that can be stored in a database. Rather,
The approach proceeds by
its own time and energy to sustain the the approach proceeds by fostering the
fostering the collaborative group, a successful program requires the collaborative efforts that already exist
efforts that already exist in the provision of real resources in terms of in the organisation, and by providing
organisation, and by providing budget and time. Such a commitment the support that nurtures this new
the support that nurtures this of resources demonstrates to the wider organisational form.
new organisational form. organisation (and to those participating Community mapping is an important first
in the group) that the community is step in developing a program of activities.
truly valued. This identifies the myriad communities that
• Although a community of practice is an already exist in the organisation. In addition,
effective organisational form for managing a business case for such a community should
tacit knowledge, a community-of-practice be built, and the value of communities of
initiative is more likely to be successful if practice should be communicated to senior
it begins with the organisation providing leaders, middle managers, and potential
overt content that can be discussed, participants in the community. With these
shared, and improved. foundations in place, a wider program can
then be developed.
Organisations are becoming more complex, REFERENCES
and the pace of change is accelerating. 1. Boisot, M.H., Knowledge Assets:
Employees come and go more frequently. Securing Competitive Advantage in the
And there is a growing reliance on tacit Information Economy, Oxford University
knowledge as a competitive advantage. Press, Oxford. 1999.
Putting stories to work
Faced with these realities, organisations
2. Snowden, D., Organic Knowledge
have been forced to adapt their
Management – Part 1. Knowledge
organisational forms to avoid having their
Management, 3: 14–17. 2000.
knowledgeable employees leave with no-
Such a loss of tacit one capable of taking their places until new 3. Wenger, E., McDermott, R. & Snyder, W.M.,
knowledge exposes employees get ‘up to speed’. Such a loss of Cultivating Communities of Practice: A
organisations to tacit knowledge exposes organisations to Guide to Managing Knowledge, Harvard
significant risks. significant risks. Business School Press, Boston. 2002.

Communities of practice offer an effective 4. Cialdini, R.B., Influence: The Psychology

and flexible approach to the difficult task of Persuasion, Perennial Currents. 1998.
of managing tacit knowledge. This is not

Shawn Callahan is managing director of Anecdote Pty Ltd, a company which helps
organisations harness their tacit knowledge. In particular, we guide people
in becoming better intuitive decision-makers, help to create the conditions
for innovation, and provide new approaches for initiatives in culture change.
We use narrative techniques, concepts from complexity science, and tools and
techniques drawn from the wide discipline of knowledge management.
Please feel free to give Shawn a call on +61 3 8300 0747 if you would like
to discuss this paper.

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