The Pandemic Disruption: The Impact on Tacit Knowledge

 

Knowledge is a multi-faceted building block for all societies. Whether blue or white collar in occupation, whether an urban or rural dweller, everyone transfers knowledge to someone. Knowledge is a main “how-to” construct that keeps productivity, processes, and legacies moving forward. A sound foundation of knowledge transfer facilitates innovation so that progressive versions of the knowledge contiguously emerges.

     Two prime examples of disruption in knowledge are the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge of Wiltshire, England. Thousands of years later, today’s scientist can only speculate on how these massive structures were built. The ancient societies did not have modern-day cranes nor other commercial equipment for the heavy lifting and volume of masonry. Single stones in these behemoth structures tip the scales in tons! Somewhere in the lifecycle of those societies, the knowledge of “how-to” build these massive structures was not transferred and lost forever. 

     Be it implicit, explicit or tacit knowledge, the transfer of knowledge must happen for continuity and sustainability of society and organizations at large. Implicit, explicit, and tacit knowledge are all transferred differently. Implicit knowledge deals with implied/inferred information between individuals. Explicit knowledge is codifiable so instructions can be written and stored for future reference. Conversely, tacit knowledge is intuitive “know-how” and decision-making that is cultivated through experience and is not codifiable. People with tacit knowledge often do not know they possess it until a situation draws it out of their internal database. Tacit knowledge is also proprietary to an organization. So, a person’s experience plus the learned nuances of an organization’s culture is an invaluable asset that fuels performance. The avenue of transfer for tacit knowledge is coaching, working in close proximity, mentoring, and observation.

     Pre-pandemic outbreak, organizations were grappling with the disruption that the technology boom crafted. With the increased use of technology in the workplace, the generational gap widened between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials. For example, the Baby Boomers preferred face-to-face meetings versus the Millennials preferring communication via technology, such as text, instant messaging, and so on. The stark differences in communication styles unwittingly contributed to an ever-widening chasm between the generations. In the chasm is where the proprietary tacit knowledge of organizations was being lost.

    Organizations were suffering in the areas of competitive advantage, productivity, and future state sustainability due to the loss of tacit knowledge. In my research, Millennials: Understanding the Challenges to Transferring Tacit Knowledge (Hedgspeth, 2019), technology emerged at the epicenter of hindrances in various ways. The lumps to the tacit knowledge loss had not been worked out nor a bridge fully identified to correct this challenge even though a mass exodus of Baby Boomers is expected for 2025 due to retirement (Dass, 2017). The year 2025 is still a pivotal year because the workplace, pre-pandemic, was projected to be 75% Millennials with or without the tacit knowledge being transferred (Holmberg-Wright et al., 2017; Schmidt & Muehlfeld, 2017). Fortune 500 companies were already dealing with an estimated loss of $31.5 billion per year as a result of employees not sharing knowledge (Myers, 2017). Studies were being conducted and crucial conversations being orchestrated within academic literature when suddenly, COVID-19 hits!

     Post the pandemic outbreak, November 2020, the globe is still in the throes of emerging cases of infections and death toll rising. The innate response to social distancing and lock-down mandates was technology. Organizations were thrusted into the virtual unknown. For many organizations, the virtual frontier as the main line of communication was still nonexistent in 2020. Even for organizations who allowed employees to work from home a few days a week they had to ramp-up their technology infrastructure to support everyone working from home full-time.

     As a result of this crisis, we may see some unsettling trends emerge such as companies realizing they do not need their commercial space after all. With everyone working from home, there is no need to renew the lease or build that additional building. So, in the not so distant future there may be a surplus of commercial space on the market. If this way of thinking becomes the mainstream thought leadership, then we may hear more conversations around the virtual workplace becoming a permanent platform. Organizations stand to save money on overhead by cutting down on commercial space and working virtually on a permanent basis.

     Long term, there may be latent cost associated with permanently working virtual that we are still too fresh in the trauma to see. Pre-pandemic, organizations were grappling with hindrances in relationships that were vital to the transference of tacit knowledge. Now the chasm for transferring this invaluable asset has just widened even more with us working virtually and not able to meet all of the criteria for transferring tacit knowledge. Are people able to communicate when working from home? Yes, but being able to communicate in and of itself is not a hindrance to transferring tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is transferred through coaching, working in close proximity, mentoring, and observation; not one of these steps is less valuable than the other. When sitting in close proximity, an individual can observe how the tacit knowledge holder responds in a decision-making crisis based on intuition.  We cannot observe each other from our home workstations. 

     With that said, are we on the edge of a precipice of losing the transference of intuitive knowledge such as our ancient predecessors of Egypt and England with a permanent virtual workplace? Individuals are now void of working in close proximity and are not able to observe the other person operate in intuition and experience. What will the damage to organizations’ sustainability, competitive advantage, and productivity be in the new virtual workplace when it was already a rising struggle working in-person? Will blocks of critical information survive the gaps created by this pandemic thrusting us into a virtual work environment? How can our use of technology evolve to accommodate and ensure the transference of tacit knowledge in a permanent virtual workplace?

By Samantha Hedgspeth, Ph.D., Business Administration, Specialization in Organizational Leadership

 

References:

Dass, H. (2017). Tacit knowledge transfer (TKT): A qualitative analysis (Doctoral dissertation).

Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global database. (UMI No. 1901480557)

Hedgspeth, S. (2019). Millennials: Understanding the challenges of transferring tacit knowledge

 (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global

 database. (UMI No. 27667613)

Myers, C. (2017, August 19). Is your company encouraging employees to share what they know? Harvard Business Review.

Schmidt, X., & Muehlfeld, K. (2017). What's so special about intergenerational knowledge transfer? Identifying challenges of intergenerational knowledge transfer. Management Revue, 28(4), 375-411. doi:10.5771/0935-9915-2017-4-375

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