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Context Puts a Face on Knowledge and Lets You See Inside

A lot of the consulting solutions we provide involve improving the effectiveness of knowledge transfer (sharing) between people and across organizations; why it’s so hard to effectively transfer critical knowledge or that it’s less effective than it could be. 

Among a diverse group of factors, I will tell you that I believe that missing or poor “context” is at or near the top of the list.  Context provides insight to the knowledge being shared, how it was captured, how it has been used, and can be reused. Context puts a face on knowledge and lets you see inside.

The figure in this discussion “Understanding the Impact of ‘Friction’ on Knowledge Transfer” provides some insight I offer for your consideration on this subject. Let me suggest two concepts I have found to be useful and true: (1) a very simple, practical definition of knowledge (information + experience = knowledge) where information is explicit and codified and experience is tacit and personal, and (2) context provides the insight or perspective to make information actionable (to become knowledge).

Moving from top to bottom, from direct to more indirect knowledge transfer, the ability to access and leverage context decreases, creating friction around one’s ability to leverage knowledge for reuse. The most powerful, effective method for knowledge transfer is “tacit to tacit” (F2F),  This enables the direct transfer of high level concepts, complex subject matter, and the ability to quickly and effectively understand the details of the knowledge being sought and the knowledge being shared (transferred).  You can gain context either through a story, an interview, a process like targeted knowledge capture and transfer, and a collection of other direct knowledge transfer techniques. Your trust factor for this knowledge will likely be high.

Next is “tacit-explicit-tacit.” An example of this is when an organization captures knowledge around particular subject matter or experience and the captured knowledge is characterized (distilled) for display, retention, access, and reuse in the context of the organization that will be using this knowledge.  Knowledge distillation and characterization is a skill set not easily mastered so the outcomes and outputs from this effort can vary by organization.  Context may be available to understand and reuse this knowledge effectively and provide what is needed to create value from this knowledge.  The difference from F2F is there may not be the ability to immediately or ever ask questions about the knowledge to be reused. Much depends on the quality of the elicitation and sense making, and characterization for the quality of the context to enable you to create value from this knowledge. Your trust factor for reuse of this knowledge may likely be lower.

At the bottom is “explicit-explicit.” An example of this is when someone searches for specific knowledge in the form of, f or example, either artifacts or online content.  You can likely find something relevant and depending on the quality of the characterization of the content, you may find it useful.  What is also likely to happen is that the context you need to apply this knowledge in your situation will be missing; you will have no idea from where the knowledge came, or who provided this knowledge, or how to most effectively reuse it.  Your “trust” factor will likely be lower and you may decide that it is not credible for your reuse.

[Note: I believe that it’s interesting to point out that Communities of Practice (CoPs) effectively operate in all three levels – for a later discussion].

The “so what” is to understand the necessity of and value in ensuring that knowledge is effectively elicited, captured, made of sense of with great focus, and uniquely characterized for reuse in the context of the reusers of that knowledge so that individuals, teams, and organizations can create the greatest value from their knowledge.