Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Tacit Knowledge in the College

New President Interview -- Part 40  November 6, 2018

Tacit Knowledge in the College

Preliminary remarks

It has been more than 12 months since we heard from the College President. The last installment concerned emotional intelligence.   This installment concerns tacit knowledge.  Tacit knowledge is non-verbal and non-recorded quiet knowledge.  It may be organizationally specific or a general knowledge of people,  their psyche,  and situational sociology.  It includes the stories of how things work or do not work.[1]

Q> What is the role of tacit knowledge in the running of the College?  Are institutional stories recorded?

Answer> The accountants can’t measure tacit knowledge.  Tacit knowledge is not stored in the college files or library. Tacit knowledge is not recordable in rules, plans, or documents. Tacit knowledge includes the ability to read faces, understand emotions, and decipher how objects and processes work so that the tasks can be done. The acquisition of tacit knowledge comes with experience and that is reason veteran, experienced workers are more valuable than neophytes and recent graduates.

Let me tell you a story that happens in highly functional organizations.  Person AB has been with the organization for many years.  AB has created many systems within his department and the organization to enable people to work more efficiently and in concert.  Today AB announces he is leaving for a new job.  Everyone is happy for him including his managers.  The manager wants to hire a replacement as soon as possible so that AB can train him.  AB agrees to stay and help hire and train a replacement.  The hiring process goes well.  The organization has a good-bye party and the company even gives him certificate of appreciation. AB leaves the company in good hands and goes on to his next organization with good connections and bridges to the old place. 

Hold on ---   This is not how it goes.  My colleague in another college told me how his college “works.”  Person XYZ held an important administrative role and announced two months in advance a plan to retire at the end of the semester.  The college gave him a good-bye party.  The accountants say (to themselves) that this is an opportunity to save money.  We will not hire a new person until XYZ leaves. We will not even advertise the position is open.  The president of the college does nothing to start the hiring process or even figuring out the role of a potential new person.  No one even discusses, the job requirements or the needs and wants of the college.  In the end, XYZ says “good riddance” and never shares the tacit knowledge.  The college cleans out his office of all papers and the computer files are wiped clean.  Nothing is saved.  The college loses XYZ’s knowledge and the students suffer.

Q> Wow!  Are you exaggerating?

Answer> Yes, a little.  Experience is a powerful teacher.  Our pay scale is designed so we can hire experienced faculty and staff and pay them more than new graduates.  Experience is valuable in the way we teach, run the organization, and influence the community. Learning to ask the right questions is as important as learning from a book or class.  If we know the right questions, seeking the answers are easier.  Training, expertise, and academic preparation are only part of what we bring to the job.  While colleges claim to teach research skills and encourage life-long learning, the organizational culture at many colleges does not practice what they teach.

Q> Let’s return to the first question.  What tacit knowledge needs to be saved?  How does one save it?

Answer> Our college has someone assigned the task of archivist and chief knowledge officer.  The person helps develop policies concerning what to save and how best to save it.  In the archivist role, this person supervises the saving, storage and retrieval college records and documents. College records means documenting events and processes.  The storing and retrieving of student records is part of another department’s role.  For example, if a department is undergoing a re-accreditation process we have procedures and policies to save the documents from the preparation of the self-study.  The people in charge must also write reports describing the process including what they learned that could make the next round go easier.  The lessons learned in the process are saved for the next person who may be tasked with this job.  While this report is not tacit knowledge, the narratives help others understand the tacit knowledge that was part of the process.

Q> How does one save tacit knowledge?

Answer> Using my definition it is not possible to teach tacit knowledge with documents. Tacit knowledge cannot be recorded with words or symbols. Tacit knowledge is used when you “go with your gut” or answer, “how do you feel about the situation?”  One needs a personal connection such as a mentor or colleague.  They will point out what is going on in the organization in a way that documents do not preserve.  The mentor may be able to show the new person the people and processes that are needed to get a task done.  The mentor may be able to pass on some of the people knowledge gained over the years.  Empathy, which involves the reading of the emotional needs of others and social skills, which enable us to act artfully and professionally are skills that can be taught with words but one needs experience to use these skills effectively.   
Q> How does knowledge get transferred?  Is the transfer of knowledge one of the college’s goals?

 Answer> One theory of education is the knowledge provider has a broad overview of what the learner needs to know. Knowledge is the result of understanding and interpreting data and information.  Explicit knowledge is the written and recorded knowledge that is presented to the learner.  The provider needs ways to give the learner multiple sensual experiences to help internalize the information.  Through practice and mentoring the knowledge provider will give a path to internalize knowledge. The learner will develop a “feeling” about the knowledge that will influence behavior.  We call this influence or change in behavior education.  The mastery of knowledge is both a science dependent on rules that are always present and an art, which is situationally dependent.  The “art” is also called “a gut feeling.”  The learner who becomes an excellent student or worker is one who balances the rules with the feeling to do what is right.  Sometimes doing the “right thing” is counter to following the rules

Q> Are you confusing classroom learning for credit with learning how the organization works?

Answer> Classroom learning is needed to give a conceptual approach to a discipline.  Without understanding the historical or scientific process, one cannot have “gut feelings” that are correct when problem solving.  The character of Jethro Gibbs on NCIS knows his agents are trained well.  He frequently says, “go with your gut” rather than telling his subordinates exactly what to do.  Creativity and solving tough problems always requires both following the rules and thinking out of the box.

In her doctoral dissertation in 2013 Linda Guzzo[2] “Case Study: The Transfer of Tacit Knowledge from Community College Full-Time to Adjunct Faculty” says that knowledge is a valuable commodity.   She questions whether the inadequate transfer of tacit knowledge from the full-time faculty to the adjunct faculty affects student outcomes, student success and institutional effectiveness.   The answer, without even reading her conclusion, based on my experience and talking with fellow college presidents is, “yes, performance is affected.”  If there is not transfer of tacit knowledge, it is likely the whole communications process is lacking.

If I contact an organization and no one, can tell me who is in charge to solve a particular problem that is a symptom of poor knowledge transfer.  If one of my faculty or staff members does not know how to direct a student to finding the correct person to solve the problem, that is a symptom of poor knowledge management.

Q> We are out of time for this interview.  Thank you very much.

[1] The picture is someone staring tacitly.   It is from a source that I assume is public domain.  

[2] Guzzo, Linda R. “Case Study: The Transfer of Tacit Knowledge from Community College Full-Time to Adjunct Faculty.” ProQuest LLC, ProQuest LLC, 1 Jan. 2013. Retrieved from  EBSCOhost,