Peter Drucker often hailed as “the man who invented management”, was a writer, professor, and management consultant who explored the way human beings organise themselves and interact in much the same way an ecologist would observe and analyse the biological world. He directly influenced a huge number of leaders from a wide range of organisations across all sectors of society. Among the many: General Electric, IBM, Intel, Procter & Gamble, Red Cross and several US presidential administrations. Drucker famously described a modern day knowledge worker as “someone who knows more about his or her job than anyone else in the organisation.” That tacit knowledge is the type gained from practical experience working on the job, at the coal face, day in, day out and which is being constantly adapted based on local environments and conditions.
Today it’s generally accepted there are two types of knowledge:
Explicit knowledge (Formal Learning): Manuals, documents, procedures, and how-to videos, works of art and product design can be seen as forms of explicit knowledge where human skills, motives and knowledge are in a published form. Easy to access but has lower business value because of the sheer volume of content to be absorbed and the need for it to be constantly updated.
Tacit knowledge (Informal Learning): Unwritten, unspoken, hidden vast storehouse of knowledge held ‘in brain’ by every human being, based on his or her emotions, experiences, insights, intuition, observations and internalised understanding. Hard to access but has higher business value because it’s filtered, specific, in real time, current and relevant.
Many years ago when coffee areas on every floor were commonplace, I worked in the IT division of an investment bank and the only time a diverse range of people from all over the bank came together was in these areas. I learned more about bonds, derivatives, and credit default swaps in ten minute coffee breaks than I ever could from formal information sources. Even if I had the time to read the literature, I can’t ask a book a question about something I don’t understand and get the answer back in real time. I used these knowledge exchanges to massively influence and indeed change the way IT delivered technology to the trading room floor. Today, without these areas it’s very hard, if not impossible for an IT knowledge worker to get this kind of informal quality face time with market traders.
Unfortunately in large geographically dispersed organisations coffee room knowledge exchanges aren’t scalable even if they’re happening in the smoking areas outside the building. Unified Communications (UC) technologies are the closest human beings can get to the tacit knowledge exchanges that take place face-to-face. Video based technologies are particularly valuable in providing some, but not all, of the 60%-90% of human communication that is effectively non-verbal.
Because it’s now possible to use UC technologies on any device anywhere in the world, these exchanges of knowledge are scalable and their contribution to the exchange and flow of information both within and across organisational boundaries, whilst difficult to measure, cannot be understated. Many organisations that use instant messaging applications report that up to 60% of messages exchanges are a prelude to a phone call and it’s precisely why these forms of communications have been tightly integrated over the last few years making it easy for human beings to move between them at the touch of a button.
Learning and knowledge exchange is an inherently social process and cannot be separated from the social context in which it happens. Collaboration practitioners agree that most learning does not take place with the master, but rather among the apprentices. Real time communications accelerate and amplify tacit knowledge exchange and keep the invisible lines of connections between us alive. How valuable is that to an organisation?