Externalizing tacit knowledge

SHB Ph.D. student examines knowledge-sharing

Knowledge has developed into a core production factor of the 21st century. Especially in knowledgeintensive sectors like the software industry, employee experience and insights – captured in tacit knowledge – hold tremendous potential for innovation. Companies have been attempting to externalize this tacit know- ledge and channel it into fruitful outcomes for decades, albeit with limited success. Oliver Gilbert, a Ph.D. student at Steinbeis University Berlin, is the first to succeed in identifying key factors influencing the externalization of experience and insights held by researchers and developers in the software industry. Drawing on the findings of his key success factor research, Gilbert developed an action-based working model for R&D managers to support the transformation of experience-based knowledge into explicit, transferable knowledge.

The knowledge management models discussed in the literature that are aimed at externalization have not been successful in the long run. The same applies to the plethora of knowledge management software solutions, even those supported by Web 2.0 or social software applied to a business context. As a result, Oliver Gilbert’s research project concentrated on factors that specifically influence knowledge externalization. He identified individual and institutional factors. Drawing on the latest knowledge research and knowledge management studies, and supported by theoretical research, Gilbert was able to explain the process of externalization in detail and map out the likely connections in a structural equation model using deductive-nomological techniques. A subsequent empirical examination of causal links yielded some fascinating results.

A standard Web-based questionnaire was used to question a large number of researchers and developers working in the R&D departments of small, medium-sized and large software companies. In total, 179 useable sets of responses were received. The descriptive findings confirmed the assumed situation at the start of the research: 36.4 percent of respondents stated that the need to externalize information in their companies was extreme, while 41.3 percent said there was a strong need. Despite this, 31.8 percent of questioned R&D experts estimated that less than 40 percent of the tacit knowledge held within the company was being used. This implies that a large proportion of tacit knowledge goes unused. In other words, the potential to innovate and come up with new solutions and products is not being fully exploited. It was also interesting to find that over 63 percent of respondents stated that knowledge management software was being used to apply and share knowledge at their company.

The reason that companies have been so unsuccessful until now in their attempts to externalize tacit knowledge therefore seems not to be technical issues, but individual and institutional factors. The model indicates that individuals’ analytical capabilities are more likely to dictate the success of externalization. Other factors that also relate to the individual are intrinsic motivation and, in particular, personality. If an employee is easy to get along with, this has a positive influence on externalization. A person who is decidedly an introvert has a negative influence, even if a strong degree of extraversion could also not be confirmed as a key factor. This contrasts to two institutional influences that affect the overall situation. One is the participative style of leadership – the degree to which the experience and insights of staff are put center stage and used as a basis for a variety of management decisions. The other is how well people work in teams, and the working atmosphere among co-workers. This latter point was a noteworthy finding as until now, company culture has been considered a key success factor – without any empirical information to confirm this fact. Thus, it is not values, relics or basic premises that act as cultural influences in dictating externalization, but the perceived quality of actual interactions between researchers and developers.

Oliver Gilbert fed these insights into his externalization influence model, an extension of the SECI model proposed by the scientists Nonaka and Takeuchi. The SECI model contrasts externalization – an understandable psychological process shaped by cognition, the forming of awareness and formalization – with key influences. It explains why knowledge should be seen as a continuum between completely tacit and completely explicit knowledge.

Externalization can, however, only work with tacit knowledge that is not conscious, and can only be influenced by external factors. Even then, externalization can only work during the parts of the process in which individuals gain awareness and verbalize and visualize knowledge. Oliver Gilbert’s research shows clearly why externalization has enjoyed little success until now. The success factors identified provide managers with a number of pointers and show how to deal with tacit knowledge in companies in a more targeted manner.

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