Many studies have found that good knowledge management systems and processes are the basis of enhanced competitive advantage. Knowledge management or the collation, storage, transmission, sharing and use of know how and organisational information are essential activities in any viable organisation. Whether it is communicating with or marketing to customers, designing strategy, managing, writing reports etc., communicating knowledge is at the core of operations in every business or organisation.
Knowledge Management – The two forms of knowledge in organisations
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In organisations there are broadly two forms of knowledge:
- Explicit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is the type of information than can be readily shared and easily transmitted through documents, diagrams, infographics and the likes. Explicit knowledge can be readily articulated, codified, accessed and articulated. Most forms of explicit knowledge can be stored readily in various forms of media like paper, digitally etc.
- Tacit knowledge on the other hand is something rather harder to explain or define – whilst it is possible to write directions on how to ride a bicycle one cannot learn merely by reading a manual and getting on the bike. Scientists define tacit knowledge as “knowledge that cannot be transferred to an individual solely through concise instructions; it requires immersion and long-time practice.”
Examples of tacit knowledge include:
- How to speak a language
- Innovation and creativity
- Good leadership
- Building rapport
- Riding a bicycle
One of the key areas of knowledge management in organisations has been found to be knowledge sharing. Low levels of knowledge sharing in and across organisations has been found to be associated with lower levels of trust, productivity, innovation and profitability.
Personality and knowledge sharing
A number of previous studies about knowledge management in organisations have revealed relationships between personality traits and knowledge sharing behaviours. For example introverted people tend to focus on subjective factors, i.e. his or her internal world with his or her ideas, thoughts and reflections. Whereas an extraverted people tend to focus more on objects and objective facts in the external world that surrounds him or her and tends to be led by these factors.
Additionally it has been found that emotional-social intelligence also impacts how people share knowledge.
Although most people are not strictly all introverted or all extraverted but have a mix of both traits, people do, however, have a tendency to prefer either the outer or inner world.
Recent research has shown for example, that in terms of recruiting, people who are more extroverted are often seen as the preferred employee in many areas of the workplace. They tend to be more outgoing and build relationships more quickly and more easily than introverts do. More introverted people on the other hand are often perceived to have fewer social skills and are less communicative.
Consequently there has hitherto been a broad assumption, both generally and in the research community that introverts tend not to be brilliant communicators nor tend to have the social skills to transfer knowledge readily. Additionally, it has been assumed that because tacit knowledge is not easy to transfer, introverts are at a further disadvantage when tasked to transfer it.
A new study, however, is shedding new light on these assumptions, particularly with regard to the development and sharing of tacit knowledge, a finding that has serious implications for knowledge management in general.
Transfer of tacit knowledge
Strictly speaking tacit knowledge can’t be transmitted or transferred. Rather, people tend to pick up tacit knowledge by watching others, experimentation, trial and error and getting feedback as they develop the underlying skills inherent in tacit knowledge. This often involves coaching and mentoring whilst the person is learning.
Weaknesses of the introvert
The study found that in social situations such as brainstorming ideas “introverts might be an obstacle in tacit knowledge sharing since they can lack the ability to focus on the knowledge and social aspect of knowledge sharing at the same time.”
When it comes to written work, introverts excel but, as described at the beginning of this piece, writing is often one of the poorest ways of expressing tacit knowledge: “Their preference for expressing themselves in writing rather than verbally also has a negative effect on tacit knowledge sharing, as verbal communication lays the foundation for tacit knowledge sharing through socialization.”
Introverts are also often more sensitive to criticism and challenge as can happen in discursive interactions around the development and transfer of tacit knowledge. There can be a tendency to withdraw in such situations which necessarily demand continued application as the other people develop their skills with the tacit knowledge.
A culture of negativity and criticism, whilst often ignored by extroverts, should be tackled for two primary reasons:
- The first is that it creates a generally problematic work and learning environment, and
- Secondly, introverts often really struggle in such environments.
Both of these have been found to significantly impede communications generally and the transfer of knowledge specifically.
Extroverts often have a greater sense of self-worth than the introvert and will often have more to say than an introvert might. These two attributes also have an impact on imparting tacit knowledge to a significant degree.
Strengths of the introvert
Where the extrovert may have a greater sized social network, the introvert tend to have a smaller yet deeper network with more valuable and stronger relationships. Through this, communication is far better between the introvert and their associates than those between the extravert and theirs. Stronger bonds tend to develop between the introvert and their contacts, so communication is often at a deeper level.
Introverts are also more likely to be open to experiences. They are more likely to have an internal motivation to learn something for the joy of learning and are therefore likely to accrue more intrinsic knowledge and often deeper levels of knowledge about things than their extraverted colleagues. This is partially because they tend to analyse, and therefore understand things at a deeper level than their more extraverted colleagues.
Though the extrovert is more likely to communicate, the introvert does it better! The paper suggested, “First, introverts are known to be good listeners, which enables careful processing of new knowledge. Because of their ability to listen to others, introverts might possess a lot of tacit knowledge without giving the impression of being particularly knowledgeable, due to their reluctance to expressing their knowledge in social settings.”
People tend to feel more listened to by a more introverted person than a more extraverted individual and consequently they are more likely to feel more valued, due to the better listening skills and to communicate even more to them. As such, it is now understood that introverts are actually better communicators.
The researchers conclude that the introvert’s method of communication tend to be more effective, particularly in tacit knowledge development situations. The authors of the paper state: “they are able to convey information and knowledge in a more precise and efficient way, whereas extraverts may be better at brainstorming ideas with their spontaneous and quick communication style. Linguistically, introverts’ concrete style of verbal expression is more likely to appear more trustworthy than abstract verbal expression, meaning that in addition to being more efficient, introverts’ communication is inclined to be perceived as truthful.”
This research strongly suggests that although office environments, particularly open office environments and processes are better designed for the extrovert, the introvert definitely has a vital place in the modern knowledge economy. By putting them in smaller teams and allowing them to focus on their work, they have as much to contribute to the organisation and the development of tacit knowledge as their more extraverted colleagues. Additionally introverts, somewhat counter-intuitively tend to be more effective at sharing knowledge, an essential and often weak component of many organisations knowledge management processes and systems.
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