Tacit knowledge – the secrets of success that you’ll only learn at the office

Knowledge is crucial in the modern economy, and for most of us the word ‘knowledge’ evokes images of school, textbooks, informative websites, or financial reports. But there’s a different kind of knowledge – tacit knowledge – that can only be learned through interaction. 

Tacit knowledge, sometimes alluded to as informal knowledge, is the knowledge that people hold and is based on experiences and observations rather than textbooks. In the workplace, tacit knowledge is acquired as employees interact with each other and with customers.

If your team is struggling to complete tasks with optimal efficiency during the online working era despite all the great manuals developed over the years, it’s not because the quality of your training materials is bad. It’s just that some skills need to be learned from other people and these can only be acquired by going back to the office, observing others, and learning on the job.

In this article we look at several types of tacit knowledge, show why they are available to every organisation, and outline what you can do to jump-start interpersonal learning in your team when they return to the office this year on a permanent basis.

There are some things you just can’t learn from a book 

Is your business book smart or results smart? 

Companies around the world have different training systems ranging from outsourced skill development courses to manuals and team-based continuing education. 

Interestingly, some businesses don’t have a formal in-house training system, yet they manage to onboard new staff members and bring them up to speed relatively quickly.  

  • The fact that businesses can obtain good results while using such a diversity of training systems shows that there’s no one way of imparting knowledge to team members, and a lot of the things we learn at work aren’t written down in the first place. 
  • It’s this lost kind of tacit knowledge that we learn from other people, both directly through advice and mentorship and indirectly by watching them do their jobs well that can only be found in the office.

Inspired to learn from the best

We’ve all had colleagues, managers and other co-workers who inspired us through their high skill level and ability to get results. In many cases, these superstars encourage others to imitate them and help to create a culture of excellence in their organisations without even trying. 

The same phenomenon is common in sports teams, in bands and orchestras, and even in the military – despite all its rules and regulations. 

  • Tacit knowledge is a collection of skills and best practices that we learn almost unconsciously by being around other professionals
  • In a team setting, learning by observation comes naturally because the various members of the team are all committed to achieving the same goal or outcome and can quickly identify someone whose skills and knowledge enable them to get the desired result more efficiently.
  • The fact that a talented member of the team is seen getting results on a regular basis provides credibility and encourages others to imitate them. By contrast, learning from a book or training course often involves an element of doubt- especially if the technique has not been tested in your organisation yet.

Like everything, tacit knowledge has its limitations, and this is especially true when it comes to charismatic team members to encourage others to imitate them on the basis of likability alone. 

However, this is the exception to the rule because imitating a less productive member of the team will usually result in poor work performance. Since negative tacit knowledge is self-limiting in this way it shouldn’t be a reason to discourage mentorship and interpersonal learning in your organisation. 

Tacit knowledge: The missing link during the pandemic?

Covid has turned the working world on its head over the past 18 months. 

You may find that your employees’ team dynamic has been suffering despite your best efforts to provide online training and collaboration opportunities. In all likelihood, this is because your employees have lost a crucial opportunity to learn from each other simply by being in the same commercial space and working together every day of the week in a beautiful Cape Town office! 

As with many things in life, we often don’t value the things we learn by being around our colleagues and managers. It’s only once we’re forced to work from home without the benefit of a supportive team that works and learns together that we realise what we are missing

Here are some concrete examples of skills and knowledge that your team members will pick up tacitly once we go back to the office.

  • Company procedures. Seeing other people apply company best practices is an excellent experience for new recruits. Learning company policies by seeing them in action is easier than reading them in a manual.
  • Sales and customer relations. Every company has a characteristic way of interacting with its customers. Watching how seasoned team members engage with important clients can give other employees clues as to how to approach the sales process.
  • Problem solving and dispute resolution. Observing senior team members and other talented members of staff grappling with problems and assisting each other in bringing about the best results is one of the best forms of training. This is far more likely to produce good results than a generic training course.

Keep it tacit, keep it safe 

Data breaches, hacking, and the other online security concerns are big news nowadays and it’s not only financial information that gets stolen during these criminal events. 

  • Hackers, disgruntled employees, and other unauthorised users can easily access your internal strategy documents and training materials. 
  • Depending on the content of the compromised data, your business could suffer direct or indirect losses as a result.

A surprising benefit of tacit knowledge is that it’s not so easy to steal or compromise because it’s stored in our minds and actions and not on a computer. 
Unless someone is physically present in the office, the information passed down from senior to junior team members – or learnt indirectly by observation, is relatively safe in the era of digital security concerns.

Kick start your team’s learning with a modern Cape Town commercial property 

If you’re excited about the potential of tacit knowledge, going back to the office in 2021 could be the perfect opportunity to transform your business.

Our portfolio of commercial property in Cape Town includes modern, socially distanced, collaborative office units. 

To start your search for refreshing new business premises, contact us today.