The Pandemic Disruption
Is tacit knowledge on the precipice of extinction?!
Pre-pandemic, organizations were suffering in the areas of productivity, competitive advantage, and the future state of sustainability due to hindrances in transferring tacit knowledge. Collectively, Fortune 500 companies were losing an estimated $31.5 billion annually as a result of employees not sharing knowledge. In the pre-pandemic research of the author, the high usage of technology emerged at the epicenter of the hindrances to transferring tacit knowledge.
Post-pandemic outbreak, organizations are now totally dependent upon technology and unaware of its latent risks. Working siloed, not positioned for socialization, and immersed in personal cultures, the organic pathways to transferring tacit knowledge are stymied. The organizations of the world are now in a perfect storm, positioned to lose blocks of invaluable tacit knowledge. Immediate action required!
Millennials: Understanding the Challenges to Transferring Tacit Knowledge
Hindrances to transferring tacit knowledge, especially technology, emerged in the findings of this research. With this pandemic, the loss of tacit knowledge traverses a much broader spectrum than just generational gaps. This pandemic inherently ushered in the perfect storm for blocks of invaluable tacit knowledge to be lost, if we are not careful. This discussion is to raise awareness of the latent risk at-hand. Lets begin with understanding the types and uses of knowledge for organizations.
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Knowledge is a collection of expertise, relative context, and experiences. Knowledge is a main “how-to” construct or building blocks, if you will, that keeps productivity, processes, and legacies moving forward. The types of knowledge and their functionality are in the white space for organizations. White space meaning the types of knowledge are present but not the focal point of day-to-day operations.
The conduit for transferring tacit knowledge is socialization, socialization, and more socialization which encompass a variety of activities such as working in close proximity, cubicle drive-bys, impromptu discussions, observation, water cooler chats, coaching, and mentoring; just to name a few.
Certain professions have historically seen the value in transferring tacit knowledge with their use of shadowing, internships, residencies, apprenticeships, and on the job training. A warm transfer of tacit knowledge is an imperative because we know in certain professions just having the book sense or explicit knowledge, the written instructions are not enough to produce a favorable outcome.
Fortune 500 companies were losing a combined $31.5billion annually due to employees not sharing knowledge (Myers, 2017)
A heavy dependency on contractors as the key knowledge holders instead of employees (Hedgspeth, 2019)
Approximately 30-40 million Baby Boomers are projected to retire by the year 2025 (Orrell, 2009)
A tacit (skill) knowledgeable talent shortage is projected to crest at 35 million in 2025 (Orell, 2009; SHRM, 2019)
The workplace will be 75% Millennials in 2025 (Holmberg-Wright et al., 2017; Schmidt & Muenfield, 2017)
Did You Know?
So, the year 2025 is now less than five years away. In addition, to the pre-existing hindrances to transferring tacit knowledge we are still reeling in the throes of the pandemic outbreak. Are organizations aware or prepared for what can possibly happen next?
The Precipice – According to dictionary a precipice is a cliff with a vertical or nearly vertical overhanging face. It can also be defined as a situation of great peril: for example, being on the precipice of war. For a visual, the gentleman in the picture is sitting on a drop off, a precipice, the place where solid ground meets the abyss. As previously mentioned, organizations need to keep their solid ground of tacit knowledge managed and growing so that they can build on it to contiguously create newer versions of their products and services.
How is a pandemic, a precipice and tacit knowledge relative?
Glad you ask….
Gone are the days, for now, of having the conveniences to observe or run into each other in the office and share experiences. So, we have turned to technology to facilitate a virtual work environment. Technology facilitates a lot of things but what technology does not facilitate is the transfer of tacit knowledge. In the findings of my research, technology emerged at the epicenter of hindrances to transferring tacit knowledge.
So, when the pandemic hit, organizations were thrusted onto a precipice. AT RISK of losing invaluable, proprietary knowledge even more than ever before BECAUSE we are now technology dependent and not positioned for socialization. We work remote, siloed, and immersed in our own personal cultures. And don’t forget our date with 2025 is less than 5 years away. This is a perfect recipe for losing tacit knowledge.
Three major examples of disruption in tacit knowledge are the Pyramids of Egypt, Africa; Stonehenge of Wiltshire, England, and the Rapa Nui Moai Statues of Easter Island, Chile. Thousands of years later, today’s scientist can only speculate about how these behemoth structures were built. The ancient societies did not have modern-day cranes nor other commercial equipment for the heavy lifting and volume of masonry. Somewhere in the lifecycle of those societies, the tacit knowledge of “how-to build” these incredible structures was not transferred and lost forever! Unless you know how to build a pyramid from scratch…LOL
Don’t think this is a real issue in the 21st century?
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Let’s look at more contemporary examples ...
Ratlif studied the impact of not transferring tacit knowledge from Baby Boomers to the younger generations in the 45th Space Wing of the U.S. Airforce. The Eastern Launch Range manages the systems that support critical space missions such as the launching of commercial and military satellites, solar system research flights, and crew-occupied shuttle missions. The gap in the knowledge transfer between the generations became evident when, in 2013, workers in space tried to retrieve information on how to solve for problems previously resolved by the Baby Boomers but with no success. The previous residents did not leave a repository of tacit knowledge behind … because there is no such repository. Tacit knowledge is not codifiable, difficult to harvest because it is a soft skill in the minds of knowledge holders and is shared in informal interactions, via observation, and not stored in physical databases. The younger engineers had to reinvent the wheel, figure some things out, WHILE IN SPACE!
In like manner...
Ratlif studied the impact of not transferring tacit knowledge from Baby Boomers to the younger generations in the 45th Space Wing of the U.S. Airforce. The Eastern Launch Range manages the systems that support critical space missions such as the launching of commercial and military satellites, solar system research flights, and crew-occupied shuttle missions. The gap in the knowledge transfer between the generations became evident when, in 2013, workers in space tried to retrieve information on how to solve for problems previously resolved by the Baby Boomers but with no success.
The previous residents did not leave a repository of tacit knowledge behind … because there is no such repository. Tacit knowledge is not codifiable, difficult to harvest because it is a soft skill in the minds of knowledge holders and is shared in informal interactions, via observation, and not stored in physical databases. The younger engineers had to reinvent the wheel, figure some things out, WHILE IN SPACE!
Organizations who have transitioned into the all-virtual work environment due to the pandemic
Organizations who, pre pandemic, were grappling with transferring tacit knowledge
Organizations who decide to stay in the all-virtual work environment permanently
Any organization where tacit knowledge was previously transferred in-person is at-risk until mitigated.
Post-pandemic we are losing tacit knowledge in a number of ways. This list is not absolute but some of the most urgent areas.
The Unfortunate deaths and people on extended leave due to illness from the pandemic
The moving tide of generational gaps was also found as a hindrance to transferring tacit knowledge in the research
Some organizations have laid off hundreds of people at a time. As of January 2021, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported 10.1 million people unemployed. With those employees went tacit knowledge
High use of technology instead of interactive relationships, if not done with care, can hinder the transfer of tacit knowledge
Baby Boomers Retiring
The pre-pandemic projection is that 30 – 40 million Baby Boomers will retire by the year 2025
Heavily relying on job aids or explicit knowledge to completely teach new employees hinders transfer of tacit knowledge
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So, we have covered
The “what” we are losing
We have covered the “why” we are losing it
and we have covered the “who” is at risk
Let’s look at the when and how…
Organizations are here...
Diminishing Ripple Effect - The pandemic is the object that caused our impact zone for organizations because it has disrupted and leveled our traditional way of doing business in the office, hence it has a direct impact on transferring tacit knowledge.
The troughs represent the tacit knowledge, and the gold-colored rings represent each round of future virtual new hires (VNH) that will onboard with an organization, in the all-virtual workplace. The diminishing ripple effect indicates that the further out from the impact zone, the weaker the tacit knowledge signal for the future generations in the all-virtual workplace. Like iterations of the ripple, we are now siloed and not positioned for socialization or informal learning. We are immersed in our own personal cultures and on a collision course for the year 2025 (Hedgspeth, 2019).