posted 1 Mar 1999 in Volume 2 Issue 6
The Knowledge interview
Human interaction is affected by a fundamental flaw; unconscious defence mechanisms are constantly in place to protect individual knowledge, and language often falls short of explaining the whole truth and nothing but the truth. While this communication flaw cannot be resolved, its influence can be alleviated by creating a climate condusive to sharing tacit information. Royal Mail Consulting have devised an intuitive approach to leveraging the covert dialectic through a series of interviews. Mike Barker, Patrick O'Connell & Maria Schingen explains the process.
When we read about tacit and explicit knowledge, much of the reported activity has focused on the transfer of knowledge from tacit to tacit and tacit to explicit. The practical solutions to these problems are found in mentoring, coaching, yellow pages, project databases etc. Whilst coaching and mentoring provide the richest transfer mechanism based on face-to-face interaction they suffer from the time available and breadth of their coverage. Tacit-Explicit solves the problem of coverage and time but suffers because the explicit knowledge lacks the contextual reference within which the knowledge was created.
Best estimates indicate that up to 10% of tacit knowledge can be effectively captured and transferred through existing mechanisms - this leaves 80%+ still untapped. How an organisation chooses to close that gap will depend to an extent on the organisational climate e.g. is there high and rapid turnover where the knowledge has left before you realised it had arrived?.
So there is case to be made for a 3rd wave in interventions that try to surface the tacit from the explicit in ways that will support its transfer across the organisation regardless of time and location.
The purpose of this article is to consider that 3rd approach, a systematic process for surfacing tacit knowledge from the context of the explicit knowledge contained within the decisions we make and/or solutions we devise. The article reviews the development of an approach within RM Consulting, the internal consultancy arm of the UK Post Office, which supports the cradle-to-grave capture of tacit knowledge embedded in the skills, experience and personality of employees, and how it is displayed in the outputs of their daily activities during their career.
RM Consulting employs around 1 000 people of whom approximately 25% are considered 'flexible', being resourced through secondees, associates and work experience students. Its resources are deployed globally, for example there is a permanent team in Argentina as part of the consortium privatising the Argentinian post office.
Its business plans recognise that the product it is selling is the knowledge of the postal and related distribution markets held by its consultants. The mission of the knowledge programme is to 'make the most use of what is known, individually and collectively, to support the strategic goals of our clients'.
The programme, therefore, combines a range of initiatives aiming to support organisational change across four dimensions, i.e. people, process, technology and structure.
The RM Consulting Knowledge Programme
To put RM Consulting's recording of tacit knowledge into context we need to briefly review the overall programme and recognise that tacit knowledge capture is but one element of a balanced programme of initiatives tackling people, process, technology and structure.
The transformation of RM Consulting into a knowledge business began in 1996 with a variety of knowledge-based initiatives which have since been developed into an integrated programme of projects. Much of this year' s activity is focused on the development of a range of tools and capabilities that can be deployed across RM Consulting in subsequent years.
A brief review of tacit and explicit knowledge
Defining tacit and explicit knowledge has almost become an industry in itself - perhaps the most clearcut differentiation was provided by Tageuchi and Nonaka in their book, The Knowledge Creating Company1.
Explicit knowledge is described as formal, systematic and objective - it is generally codified in words or numbers. It can be derived from a number of sources including data, business processes and other external sources.
Tacit knowledge is more intangible - it is the deeply personal attributes contained within an individual's mental model [ skills, experience, creativity, personality] that makes sense of the explicit knowledge 'in context'.
For RM Consulting our knowledge resides in a number of repositories:
1. Explicit - technical reference sites, manuals, project reports, customers and suppliers information, CVs, Contracts etc.
2. Tacit - our consultants, customer and supplier employees
Whilst the transfer of explicit knowledge across an organisation can be enabled successfully through information systems and supporting technologies, it is the articulation and transfer of tacit knowledge that presents difficulties.
Stripped of its context tacit knowledge has no points of reference - therefore the challenge is to transfer as much of the context in order that others can assimilate and apply it in the context of their problems. We have to understand how an individual applied their personal framework to the available information and the assumptions that underpinned that approach. Within RM Consulting tacit knowledge is seen to be that part of the knowledge equation that leverages explicit knowledge [information] to the point where is can be applied effectively in the field. Tacit knowledge is a key added value element for a consultant as it is the most difficult to imitate or copy.
Most of us will have read or heard the story related by Nonaka and Tageuchi1 regarding the making of dough for a popular type of bread. Despite observing the dough being made and ascertaining the ingredients, it was not possible for the observers to replicate the quality of the dough or bread. It wasn't until the 'kneader' explained the kneading technique that the observers recognised the subtle tacit skills being applied during the process. How do we capture that?
If knowledge is deemed to be the key resource for future competitive success then the tools for leveraging that knowledge across the organisation will become critical weapons in the knowledge armoury. As with all knowledge activity the key to benefit realisation is the speed with which the knowledge can be acquired and used. It is this criteria which means that we must consider complementary approaches to mentoring and coaching.
At the same time we have to apply the process throughout an individual's career not just when they are leaving.
Tacit Knowledge capture through 3Es interviews: Expert, Entry, Exit
It is a well-worn cliché that observes 'a company's knowledge assets walk out of the door at 5pm and you don't know whether they are coming back tomorrow'. It is this dilemma that the 3Es © product has been developed to address - it is no longer sufficient to consider exit interviews as a means of learning from someone at the end of their career. We need a cradle to grave approach which recognises the importance of a person's tacit knowledge when they join, as they become a subject expert and as they leave. RM Consulting has a 20% staff turnover rate and in a flexibly resourced environment we should anticipate that number increasing. If we consider the sources of tacit knowledge across the knowledge pipeline i.e. our customers and suppliers then that figure will already be higher.
The aim of the 3Es is to produce a way forward for RM Consulting to implement a KM infrastructure which allows the organisation to better manage and retain its sources of know-how, skills, experience etc and the information they use. The 3Es approach is seen as complementing other initiatives, such as After Action Reviews [and may be triggered by an AAR]. These support the capture of learning points, by producing a more rigorous evaluation of the decision-making processes providing the context for the learning. Its support for the knowledge process can be described as above.
Our previous approach to this problem has been to ask questions of employees when they tell us they are leaving - those questions generally address the questions of why that person joined, why they are leaving and what would make the company a better one to work in. We have no systematic means of capturing what that person brought with them, what they developed along the way and what they are taking with them. Like many of our knowledge tools, 3Es can be applied to all employees joining or leaving:
1. a team
2. a skills group
3. a business unit
4. the organisation
It would require a Herculean effort to capture all the knowledge of every person joining or leaving therefore a key component of the product is the surfacing of key people within the organisation who are Experts in their disciplines, where their knowledge is critical to RM Consulting's success.
STEP 1: Preparation
Planning and preparation is critical to the Process. Planning is the mental process of getting ready for the interview. The purpose of the interview must be understood and involves a careful examination of what information is available prior to the interview. Information is obtained from:-
1. The Professional Head of the interviewees unit
2. On-line CV and Assignment Database
3. Pre-interview with the interviewee
The Professional Head in each skills group has responsibility for the development of knowledge and professional expertise within their group. They given the opportunity, through a questionnaire, to highlight the key areas of knowledge they want capturing while the on-line CV and Assignment Database give the quantitative and qualitative data on past projects, assignments, and consultancies completed by the interviewee.
The Pre-interview check sheet for the interviewee enables much of the preliminary information gathering activities to be completed before the main de-briefing process. It covers the following sections:-
i. About you
ii. About your work
iii. About your achievements
iv. Contacts and people who have influenced you
v. Who will benefit from this knowledge?
The Pre-interview is very much an informal 20-30 minutes, when the engagement begins. This provides the opportunity to gain input for the interviewee and explain the Process. Moreover, it breaks the ice and saves time and awkwardness at the start of the main interview.
STEP 2: The Interview Map
At this stage we develop and produce the Interview Plan. An internally devised Interview Map is used as a framework for this work. This considers the key areas to probe and asks simple questions like:-
a. What did you do?
b. How did you do it?
c. Why did you do it?
STEP 3: The Main Interview
These have taken from 2 to 5 hours to complete, using a Digital Cassette to capture the Event. The focus is on a systematic surfacing of the assumptions [the what, why, how] that lead the person to make a particular decision. Attention to this sort of detail is considered important if we are to provide sufficient contextual background for the assumptions to be assimilated by future consultants. It is based on the premise that the assumptions have a longer shelf-life than the actual decisions, as they are based as they are based on fundamental beliefs and acquired skills/experience.
STEP 4: The Analysis
A number of software tools have been considered at this stage to map the knowledge captured. Initially they were an integral part of the interview but were seen to disrupt the flow of the interview. Further work is being done in this area to identify potential tools for mapping the learning including work with the Open University Knowledge Media Institute.
STEP 5: The Outputs
Depending on the request from the Consultancy Unit , some or all of the following information can be produced.
The interview transcript is the typed ad verbatim record of the interview. No editing or changes to the original interview text are made. The transcript is ready for own analysis or can simply be read as a record of the interview.
From the interview transcript the case study aims to capture the elements of projects and processes that can be isolated and defined as cases in their own right. Case studies are a summary of project activity, key learning points and outcomes from the interviewee's point of view.
What type of job has the individual carried out ? The job description isolates all given
information in relation to the activities performed, the standard of performance required and any key abilities/ skills necessary to carry these out.
What type of a person is required to carry out this job ? What are the specific personal and interpersonal and other skills/ traits the individual has considered to be necessary or
useful in carrying out assignments and projects.
'Consultancy Tool Kit'
If we were to do this project/assignment again - how would we do it ? How about
carrying out a similar activity ? The consultancy tool kit aims to summarise the practical steps that have been performed by the individual in project and process work .A combination of case study/flow charts/check lists, this output aims to be short and practical.
A combination of case studies, person and job description and the consultancy tool kit. What does my successor need to know ?
Who are the enablers in our organisation? Who are the useful contacts and for what?
The contact directory summarises information regarding this point.
What is being done, how and why - expressed in graphical form. Software tools allow us to map and provide key word graphical overview of the flow of activities.
Psychological barriers to recording tacit knowledge through 3Es interviews
The problem with tacit knowledge, and the surfacing of it, is that we are not used to assessing why we took certain decisions or courses of action and the assumptions upon which we based them. Managers are action focused - reflection is often regarded as an unnecessary and time consuming task. Throughout our business life much of our training and encouragement has been focused on assessing the quality and value of the final output rather than the value of the knowledge resource applied to the activities that produced output. It is this knowledge resource, the skills, experience and inspiration tied up in the thoughts, insights and ideas in people's heads - i.e. tacit knowledge - that is the most challenging problem for knowledge managers to solve. Any attempt at surfacing or recording these deeply held forms of knowledge could be met with a defensive reaction. The principles underpinning the approach to 3Es interviews being developed in RM Consulting recognises the psychological barriers to sharing why we acted in a certain way
Barriers to the recording of tacit ( and explicit) knowledge
1. Knowledge Interviews
As we have seen the Expert, Entry and Exit interview process aims to record tacit and explicit knowledge through in-depth interviewing. However, in general, methods aimed at recording knowledge through interview techniques are flawed; just as flawed as trying to research other human intellectual activities. They cannot be comprehensive or objective, the interviewer's perspective and understanding most likely do not correspond with the interviewees. Problems of communication, interpretation of language and all the non-verbal signs that are missed may lead the objective observer to dismiss interviewees in the pursuit of that illusive holy grail - tacit knowledge.
Interviews, especially in depth, semi or unstructured are also a very powerful tool for recording tacit knowledge as they provide the researcher with the opportunity to help the interviewee recognise and verbalise his/her own tacitly held knowledge and beliefs. Other methods such as observation can provide data on this type of knowledge - but seen entirely through the observer's eyes and verbalised in the observer's language.
So, we have a powerful yet flawed tool to assist in the recording of tacit knowledge. Whilst the evident flaws cannot be removed, their effect can be alleviated. One way to do so is through the understanding of the potential psychological barriers an interviewer can experience during the knowledge interview.
2. Understanding knowledge anxiety
Knowledge interviews can be set against three contexts: Entry into, Expert within and Exit from the organisation. To understand some of the barriers to sharing knowledge at these stages one needs to try and empathise with the interviewees. As knowledge and expertise are valued highly in the organisation, they also have a high value to the individual. Self esteem, a sense of power, a feeling of security and control over one's destiny can be rooted in the perception that one holds information, experience and skills important to the organisation. Whether these are held explicitly or tacitly they are assets to the individual. Sharing them means giving up a bit of power, self esteem, security and control. 'Sharing tacit knowledge' - if this can be done at all is even more disconcerting in that the individual is giving something up he/she is not even aware of. This can be an anxiety provoking situation.
3. Defence mechanisms
The human response to anxiety is defence. Defensive mechanisms are automatic reactions by our unconscious to protect our psyche from anxiety. The protective mechanism is not consciously controlled and may take the form of several behaviour patterns learned in early life such as sublimation or denial (sometimes of the obvious). The result is that the fear and anxiety vanishes, but whatever has been denied is objectively still there. So, despite its existence, the event or threat is being denied, and the person pretends that the threat does not exist. The threat has not changed; what has changed is the person's reality. They now live in a pretend reality through denying the 'real'. So, using defensive mechanisms changes reality in the person's mind.
What does this mean in an interview situation? If the aim of the interview is to record tacit and explicit knowledge and the interviewee feels anxious, and is engaging defensive reactions then the reality experienced by the interviewee is different from that experienced by the interviewer. They 'see things with different coloured glasses' thus the distance between the interviewee and interviewer is widened, leading to increased misunderstanding and potential conflict. Within such a situation little effective knowledge share is possible.
In addition to this, the one-to-one interview lends itself to a phenomenon called transference and counter-transference which is often observed in counselling situations. Issues unconnected with the interview may be brought into it - not explicitly - but disguised as an issue relevant to the interview. The interviewee's intonation and body language may show signs of emotions unconnected with the interview. The interviewer is invited to respond with equal emotions to this 'challenge' presented by the interviewee. Complying with this request however would increase emotional tension in the interview.
4. Questioning tacit Knowledge
Tacit knowledge is seldom verbalised, challenged or recorded. Making tacit knowledge explicit is one of the objectives of the Entry, Exit and Expert Interviews. Both the interviewer and interviewee may experience considerable learning in the process. The knowledge 'unearthed' however is the interviewee's, making them more vulnerable as they are not simply learning, but learning something about themselves.
The interviewer's questioning technique is very important as evaluative questions directed towards tacit knowledge might make the interviewee think that his/her basic beliefs and thoughts are questioned. This could elicit another defensive reaction to shield the individual from the perceived threat - i.e. the interviewer. Content directed questions (mostly open questions) in this area however may help the interviewee open up and verbalise their own tacitly held knowledge and beliefs. A threatening situation could thus be turned into a more rewarding experience for both participants.
5. Climate of trust & empathy
The Entry, Expert or Exit interview is an experience for both parties which necessitates a climate of trust and support to alleviate the level of defensive behaviours. An awareness of defensive mechanisms is vital for the interviewer. Combined with this understanding, the interviewer needs to develop an empathetic approach to conducting the interviews. The process of identifying and recording explicit and tacit knowledge is a joint and supportive one. It cannot be carried out without emotional commitment and understanding by both parties.
Tacit knowledge is the key element in the intellectual capital framework that differentiates the approach of one person from another - leveraging that across the organisation will be a key element of organisational learning in the future.
The RM Consulting knowledge programme recognises that in an environment where knowledge resources are distributed along the knowledge pipeline, and that pipeline is geographically dispersed, then alternative approaches to knowledge capture need to be developed to balance those reliant on face-to-face activity e.g. coaching and mentoring.
RM Consulting has developed an approach which seeks to retain as much of the contextual framework within which the tacit knowledge was applied whilst still making it easy to assimilate into new situations in the future. It also addresses the weaknesses inherent in any one-to-one interview situation by including the development of appropriate interview techniques and climate into the process.
For information about the process, techniques or documentation please contact any of the authors by email: mike barker maria schingen patrick