Tacit knowledge tough to manage

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"In the know"

Capturing nuggets of know-how and individual experience presents a challenge for knowledge management, and the problem is compounded by an aging federal workforce, according to speakers at a Washington, D.C., conference April 16.

"Unlike explicit knowledge, which is easy to capture, process and disseminate, tacit knowledge resides in an individual's mind and it is difficult to capture — yet vital to the organization," said T. Kanti Srikantaiah, director of the Center for Knowledge Management at Dominican University. He was speaking at a conference sponsored by E-Gov, part of the FCW Media Group.

Tacit knowledge includes face-to-face interactions, telephone conversations and management support. Although productive, it's hard to gather, and the impending retirement of a majority of the federal workforce has made the need to capture such knowledge increasingly important.

About 70 percent of the federal acquisition workforce will be eligible for retirement in the next three to five years, said Mary Margaret Evans, director of the Change Management Center in the Defense Department's Office of Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

"We're looking at a very large exodus of senior experience leaving not only the Defense Department, but the entire government," Evans said, adding that there typically is an 18-month downtime between retirement and new recruitment. "So we need to minimize the severity of the change and the time. Tacit knowledge can help."

Ed Vitalos, vice president of Global Partnership Management at SAP AG, called this change the "age wave," and said the government is behind the private sector in managing business intelligence, his term for tacit knowledge.

"Your company is mostly intangible assets — a huge percentage," Vitalos said. "In the private sector, this is conventional wisdom. You have to have [business intelligence]."

Srikantaiah outlined several ways to capture tacit knowledge:

* Build an institutional memory of senior management through oral history.

* Conduct after-action reviews or project milestone reviews. Examine what is supposed to happen, what happened, what was learned and what can be applied.

* Peform mentoring to facilitate transfer of leadership behavior and communication skills.

* Make audio or video tape recordings of meetings.

* Create subject matter expert directories and information knowledge repositories, such as archives and libraries.

* Establish communities of practice, which design a system to gather specific knowledge.

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