Practical Applications for Workplace Social Tools – Tacit Knowledge

I’m partnering with Learn Camp to deliver Breaking Down Silos – 5 Practical Applications for Social Tools in the Modern Workplace on Tuesday, September 2, 2014 at 2pm EST. 

Before I claim to know what I’m talking about during the webinar, I’m organizing my thoughts on workplace social technology in a series of blog posts. Here’s post #2 – social technology and hunt for tacit knowledge.


Does this workplace exchange sound familiar …

MANAGER 1: Hey, did you hear that Tiffany is leaving?

MANAGER 2: Uh oh! Tiffany is the only one who knows how to administrate the inventory process. We’re going to have to make sure she spends the next two weeks training Sandy on how to do it.

MANAGER 1: Yeah. I’ve already reassigned all of Sandy’s work so she can sit with Tiffany and get that process nailed before she leaves. Don’t worry – Sandy can handle it.

What’s wrong with this picture?

  1. Unless your have the cultural equivalent of Steve Jobs in your shop, your organization should never rely on the presence of a single individual to execute important processes. As the data shows, people are changing jobs with increasing frequency. The days of the “old reliable” employee are long gone. Beyond that reality, people go on vacation, take sudden leaves of absence, and have limitations on their time and working capacity.
  2. An employee’s transition out of an organization shouldn’t turn into an emergency info dump. It should be spent helping the employee settle affairs, enjoy the remaining time with their peers, and discuss how the organization can improve based on their experiences.
  3. The transition process further magnifies the problem. Now, when Sandy inevitably leaves, they’re going to have to do this again … and again … and again …
  4. Given that only Tiffany knew how to execute this essential workplace process, I can assume that the organization was deprived of opportunities to improve the process through collaborative input. Other employees may also have benefitted from a shared understanding of the process if it relates to their work.

This all comes back to one problem – organizations (unlike math teachers) don’t understand the value of showing your work. Managers are often so focused on execution that they fail to prioritize and motivate the behaviors that would drive information sharing for long-term benefit. Rather, we reduce workplace sharing to formal documentation efforts within “specialized” support teams who tend to focus more on legal liability than knowledge growth and skill development. As a result, we continuously reinvent the wheel and come up with “new” ways to do things that are nothing more than reruns of how the people who left did the same thing 5 years ago.

Social Tech’s Role in Capturing Tacit Knowledge

Knowledge TransferAs with any “social learning” topic, behaviors are MUCH more important than technology. In this case, everyone in the workplace must understand the long-term value of shared work and therefore prioritize the necessary time, effort, and capacity in the short-term. Yes, you could have your top performers chasing new customers every minute of every shift. But, isn’t it potentially more valuable for the continued health of your organization to give them dedicated time to share what makes them a top performer with the rest of the company?

Simple, effective applications of social technology can shine a big, bright light on the importance of shared work and aid/speed the transition from a silo mentality towards open, communal information flow.

  • Enabling everyone to show their work dramatically increases the volume, flexibility, and usefulness of org reference material. Specialists can then be deployed to curate and improve shared work for long-term benefit.
  • Social tools like blogs, photo boards, and wikis help employees chunk their contributions so they can worry about specific practices and not become overwhelmed with the need to “document” everything they do.
  • Unlike traditional, flat documentation (PDFs, CMS platforms, etc.), social tools let other users comment and build upon published information so that it can be incrementally improved as the organization evolves.
  • Video helps employees add context to their work. Rather than rely on someone’s writing skills to produce a flat retelling of their most important tips, putting them on video adds the necessary flavor to their shared practices.
  • When employees share multiple ways to get work done, the focus shifts from process to performance.

Simple Examples

Here’s a few simple, low-tech ways I’ve leveraged social technology to transform tacit knowledge into explicit reference information.

SME Blogs

Writing formal documentation takes FOREVER. Then, as soon as you’ve published your fancy new process, the business pivots and you have to start a project to revise the documentation. So, rather than rely on professional process writers for everything, we employ subject matter expert blogs to help those with specialized knowledge share their ideas and best practices with the org community. Unlike formal documentation, a blog is expected to reflect the voice of the author, making the writing process more comfortable for the SME. A blog contributor also doesn’t need approval or a project team to add a new post. If they have an idea and 30 minutes, they can hammer out a post and get the information out there now.

I maintain a blog focused on helping employees improve their sharing behaviors within our org wiki, Confluence. Many my earliest posts are now used as reference information for new wiki contributors despite their “informality.” While all written communication should be expected to hit a certain level of “good,” I refuse to subscribe to the notion that all workplace text must have the same voice, style, etc. That’s just boring and unrealistic in a world where people search the Internet for whatever they need at home. Last I checked, all Internet content wasn’t proofread by a single, all-knowing editor.

Video Booth

Most companies don’t have their own private YouTube, and most workplace PCs don’t have webcams. So, I guess we can’t do video then, huh? Wrong! Rather than wait around for the opportunity to buy/build a super cool video sharing portal, we used what we had to build out what we call Video Booth.

We position a laptop with a webcam and free video app in a quiet, open office space. Every week, we communicate a new open question to our employees and invite them to share their insights and best practices in a video booth station. If an employee has something to share, they can stop by when they have time and use the simple directions in the video booth station (a cubicle) to record a quick 1 to 2 minute video. At the end of the week, our team retrieves the recordings, reviews the footage, and publishes all viable video content to our Confluence wiki in a YouTube-like setup (for a familiar user experience). Employees from across the organization can then review topical playlists with submissions from their peers and engage in social conversation to agree/disagree/build on what was said.

We hope to one day graduate to a super cool video sharing portal, but this simple setup is helping us validate the usefulness of open video sharing in our workplace.


What do you think? How can social tools help people show their work and transform tacit knowledge in your workplace?

If you want to dig even deeper into the concept of shared work, check out Jane Bozarth’s new book.

Remember – “social learning” isn’t a new thing, it doesn’t require technology, and it’s already happening in your workplace. People sharing what they know = social learning. When applied effectively, technology can help people share in new, louder, equally-meaningful ways!

Join me on Tuesday, 9/2 at 2pm EST for a full exploration of practical applications for social tools in support of workplace learning! I’ll also be sharing more detailed information on the concept of user-generated content during my concurrent session at DevLearn on 10/31.

Practical Applications for Workplace Social Tools – Tacit Knowledge

by JD Dillon time to read: 5 min
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