HR Management & Compliance

What Is Organizational Knowledge, and Where Can I Find It?

Just like humans, members of a tribe of elephants communicate expressively and meaningfully with one another. Elephants’ memories can span up to 50 years. For example, they can remember the locations of watering holes hundreds of miles away—which is very useful in the savannah. Think of your organization as being like a tribe of elephants, with valuable knowledge to capture and share.

Organizational knowledge is the sum of all knowledge contained within an organization that can provide business value. It may be gained from intellectual property, product knowledge, lessons of failure and success, conferences, or customer communications, just to name a few sources. Knowledge is always learned, preserved, and transmitted by people, so it’s the key responsibility of Human Resources (HR) to help manage this knowledge.

One approach to capturing organizational knowledge is through repositories as part of a knowledge management effort. This is crucial if you want to avoid losing 42% of company knowledge relevant to a job role every time an employee leaves. And because the average new hire spends 200 unproductive hours on the job due to a lack of access to relevant knowledge, it’s well worth the time spent investing in this important area of HR.

Types of Knowledge

Knowledge can be divided into three main types:

Explicit Knowledge

Explicit knowledge is easily documented and indisputable, like procedures and policies, product and service functionality, step-by-step tasks, research, and content. It’s most likely to be documented by technical writers, content strategists, instructional designers, and information architects.

Tacit Knowledge

Tacit knowledge is a learned sense of practical know-how, which is hard to articulate, such as how to repair a computer system. It’s the realm of your subject matter experts; held inside your employees’ heads; and transmitted through training, mentorships, and communities of practice. According to Nonaka & Takeuchi, “Tacit Knowledge is the knowledge of experience, and tends to be subjective and physical. It is about ‘here and now’, relates to a specific practical context.”

Implicit Knowledge

Implicit knowledge, or embedded knowledge, is intuitive and embedded experience. It’s ineffable, but you know it when you see it, such as the experience of senior employees, subject matter experts, the nature of professional relationships, and institutional processes. It’s transmitted through social relationships.

Sources of Knowledge

Now that we know what types of knowledge to look out for, we’ll go through potential sources of knowledge. Knowledge can be found almost anywhere in your organization and comes in many tangible and intangible forms. For example:

  • Individual—a person’s notebook, loose documents and files, customer queries and complaints, or an individual’s memory. These are good sources of tacit knowledge.
  • Group/Community—communities of practice, communities of excellence, project teams, internal teams, training groups, mentorship programs. These are good sources of explicit, implicit, and tacit knowledge.
  • Structural—routines, processes, culture, traditional ways of doing things, IT systems, suppliers. These are sources of implicit knowledge.
  • Organizational memory—the knowledge of your entire organization. It can be contained in guidelines, regulations, reports, market research, records, and data. These are good sources for a combination of tacit and explicit knowledge.

An illuminating example of individual, organizational, and structural sources of tacit and implicit knowledge is that which could have prevented the BP oil leak of 2006 at Prudhoe Bay. The leak was not discovered for 5 days and led to fuel shortages at U.S. gas stations—not to mention 900,000 liters of oil being dumped into the ocean.

The reason behind this disaster? An experienced and qualified employee with specialized knowledge had left the company, and the employee was not replaced for budgetary reasons. This meant that there was no one to prevent the disaster from happening.

Failing to document this kind of knowledge creates the risk that future employees will repeat the mistakes of the past and that hundreds of millions of dollars will be lost. And yet one-third of HR professionals say that their companies do not collect and share specialized knowledge.

Repositories of Knowledge

So what can we do right now to document such important and specialized knowledge within our organizations? That’s exactly what knowledge repositories were made for.

The definition of a knowledge repository is “a computer system that continuously captures and analyzes the knowledge assets of an organization,” says Chris Kimble, Associate Professor at Kedge Business School.

Knowledge can be captured in many places, but it is most likely to be held within a knowledge management system (KMS). KMS repositories include:

  • Documentation of any kind
  • Internal knowledge bases
  • Customer-facing knowledge bases
  • FAQs
  • Intranets
  • Onboarding materials
  • Training materials
  • Webinars
  • Case studies

Other repositories can include:

  • Databases
  • Internal collaboration tools
  • Ticketing systems
  • Wikis/communities/forums

There exists a wide range of ways to document your knowledge, but even the best technologies in the world must be combined with proper investment in a corporate culture that prizes and fosters knowledge sharing among employees. Your people are your most valuable assets when it comes to knowledge management.

Providing Business Value

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the definition of organizational knowledge, as well as its common sources and repositories. Sixty-three percent of employees want to work for companies in which unique knowledge is preserved, so knowledge management is a core way that HR can provide key business value, as it improves employee retention.

Remember, like the tribe of elephants, effective transmission of knowledge depends on communication between individual members of the tribe. This is best achieved by a knowledge sharing program. Choose the right knowledge repository for your needs to capture this specialized knowledge being shared by your employees.

Emil Hajric is the Founder of Helpjuice, a leading knowledge management platform used by large and midsize enterprises. He is an expert in knowledge management and the author of Knowledge Management: A Theoretical and Practical Guide for Knowledge Management in Your Organization.