The challenges and rewards leaders experience when encouraging the externalisation of tacit knowledge from their employees


Knowledge is an extremely important thing in the modern organizational world. In fact knowledge management is accepted as one of the major organizational activity in the present business world. It is impossible for an organization to develop properly if it fails to manage the knowledge of its employees in the right manner. Knowledge is usually classified as explicit and tacit. The concept of explicit and tacit knowledge was formally introduced by Michael Polanyi during the latter half of twentieth century (Ryle, 1950). Explicit knowledge can be defined as the knowledge that is learned consciously. Such knowledge can be accessed by the holder any time he wants. On the other hand, tacit knowledge is the knowledge that is learned unconsciously and it stores in the subconscious mind of the holder. It cannot be accessed easily (Tagger, 2005). In other words, tacit knowledge is stored in areas that were inaccessible to a conscious process (Reber, 1995). The nature of knowledge is difficult to evaluate. It can be tacit at times and explicit other times. (Augier and Thanning, 1999; Leonard and Sensiper, 1998)

The major aim of extracting tacit knowledge is to counter the negative consequences faced by an organization because of the removal, moving on or retiring of experienced personnel (Yu and Abidi, 2000). Departure of experienced employees may cause several problems to an organization since such employees may have immense amount of tacit knowledge that were used for the benefit of the organization in the past. While an organization loses experienced employees, it loses tacit knowledge also. Since tacit knowledge of employees play a vital role in the success of an organization, it is important for leaders and managers to externalize such knowledge before an employee ends his career with the organization. The conversion of tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge is often referred as externalization (Nonaka, 1994). However, externalization is a difficult task even though it helps leaders in many ways. This paper explains the challenges and rewards leaders experience when encouraging the externalisation of tacit knowledge from their employees.

Challenges and rewards leaders experience when encouraging the externalisation of tacit knowledge from their employees

According to Nonaka & Takeuchi (1997), tacit knowledge plays an important role in knowledge creation and sharing. However sharing of tacit knowledge is not an easy task. Conversion of tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge is the major challenge facing by leaders while they try to externalize the tacit knowledge of employees. According to Tagger (2005), the extraction of tacit knowledge from employees is a complex process for leaders and managers because such knowledge is located actually inside the expert’s head. In other words, tacit knowledge is located at some inaccessible areas or the subconscious levels of the employee brain. Normal processes may not help leaders to bring out this knowledge. Moreover, the holder of the tacit knowledge may not know whether some information stored in his subconscious mind may come under the knowledge category or not. It is easy for him to externalize explicit knowledge since such knowledge is accepted as knowledge by the holder. On the other hand, the holder of tacit knowledge may not accept even useful information as knowledge. As a result of that, he may not be aware of the tacit knowledge stored in his memory. In short, one of the major challenges facing by leaders while they try to externalize the tacit knowledge is the difficulties in translating tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge (Stacey, 2002).

Another problem facing by the leaders in the externalization of tacit knowledge is with respect to cognitive dimension. Tacit knowledge has two dimensions: technical and cognitive Technical dimension refers to the know-how whereas cognitive dimension refers to beliefs, ideals, values, mental models, schemata etc (Nonaka and Konno, 1998). The cognitive dimension of the tacit knowledge are mental models (Senge, 1996) that are controlling people’s actions and are, vice versa, shaped by them. For example, it is easy to judge a person’s actions if his thinking process is known. However, it is extremely difficult to realize the thinking process of a person and hence it is difficult to judge or anticipate his actions.

Identification of people who possess the worthwhile knowledge is another problem facing by the leaders while they try to externalize the knowledge (Tagger, 2005). It is not necessary that all the experienced employees have worthwhile knowledge. At the same time, it is possible that even an employee working in the clerical or lower levels of the organization might have worthwhile knowledge. It is the duty of the leaders to identify employees who possess worthwhile knowledge, irrespective of which category they work for the time being.

It is not necessary that the extracted knowledge is always valuable for the organization. It is quite possible that the extracted knowledge might already been captured elsewhere (Tagger, 2005). The efforts of the leaders to externalize tacit knowledge could be meaningless on such occasions. Therefore, it is necessary for the leaders to make sure that the employee possesses valuable knowledge that were uncaptured so far, before trying to externalize those knowledge.

The extraction of tacit knowledge is profitable for an organization. It should be noted that experience is the best available teacher in this world. No other teachers can teach a person as effectively as experience does. An employee might have enhanced his knowledge and skill as he spends more time in an organization. A fresh employee may struggle to adapt with an organization even if he is well talented, highly skilled or educated. Externalization of tacit knowledge from experienced employees would help fresh employees to manage their jobs and responsibilities with ease. Moreover, “the results of the externalization process enables people with different backgrounds to share the former tacit knowledge” Hemmecke and Stary, N.d., p.3).


Leaders often face many challenges while externalizing the tacit knowledge of the employees. Tacit knowledge is embedded in the subconscious mind of the employees. It has technical as well as cognitive dimensions. The cognitive dimension of the tacit knowledge is raising many challenges while leaders try to externalize tacit knowledge. Externalization of tacit knowledge is helpful for an organization for its development. The valuable knowledge and skills learned by the experienced employees can be transferred to new employees with the help of processes such as externalization of tacit knowledge.











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Nonaka, I.; Konno, N. (1998). The concept of ‚Ba’: Builing a foundation for knowledge creation. California Management Review, 40 (3), 40-54.

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Stacey, R. (2002) The Impossibility of Managing Knowledge. Hertfordshire University Business School, 2002.

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Yu N, C. Abidi, S.S.R.(2000) A Scenarios Mediated Approach for Tacit Knowledge Acquisition and Crystallisation: Towards Higher Return-On-Knowledge and Experience. Third International Conference on Practical Aspects of Knowledge Management, Basel, Switzerland.

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