Human capital is defined as the skills, experience and knowledge employees use in the workplace to get work done efficiently and effectively. One often overlooked but important component of knowledge is tacit knowledge — the culmination of an individual’s know-how, beliefs, experiences and values that helps her or him function more effectively. Tacit knowledge is gained over a lifetime of experiences and often expressed in stories or anecdotes, but it is a powerful asset.
Tacit knowledge has an ever-increasing importance, especially now, in a marketplace faced with 77 million retiring baby boomers coupled with a long road to economic recovery. Although economists suggest the recession is over, the recovery will be slow and painful. What makes recovery even more painstaking is the fact that a majority of organizations aren’t planning to or don’t intend to formally transfer tacit knowledge from retiring baby boomers to generations X and Y.
The issue that most companies struggle with is how to transfer that knowledge to new workers. Throughout the past year, 90-year-old human services agency Boys Town has experimented with and embraced how to make tacit knowledge transfer effective. Although tacit knowledge transfer is vital to all organizations, it’s especially important in service organizations, where high performers are often those who are skilled at learning from direct field experience.
That is why Boys Town decided to study how employees use tacit knowledge to do their jobs and how it can be harnessed, cultivated and transferred.
Intentional or not, Boys Town has evolved into a knowledge organization, one that generates, transforms, manages, uses and transfers knowledge in alignment with the goals of the organization. “This innate cultivation of tacit knowledge may be partly attributed to the rich history and strong sense of commitment established for Boys Town by founder Father Flanagan,” said James Gross, associate vice president of the training, evaluation and certification division of Boys Town. “Today, Boys Town relies on those experiences and collaborative relationships.”
Boys Town’s organizational strategy is aligned with knowledge-sharing practices and consistent learning strategies. There is a lot of tradition inherent in the organization’s tacit knowledge cultivation practices, which filter into organizational practices as well. Often, the way things are done in the organization is based on what Flanagan initially intended. Some practices that were initiated many years ago continue today out of a respect for the history of the organization.
Those stakeholders committed to the Boys Town mission — employees, volunteers and board members — readily share knowledge with one another. Boys Town promotes and rewards open knowledge sharing by cultivating an environment where making and learning from mistakes is respected, collaboration is expected and asking for help from other departments to accomplish tasks is required. Much of the tacit knowledge is recorded, which results in more consistent messaging throughout the organization.
The organization’s use of role-play to capture and transfer tacit knowledge between employees is one example of this. Role-play is used during new employee training and is recorded. Role-play videos are posted on the organization’s training Web site. In the videos, experienced employees portray the role of a child asking permission to do something and the trainee responds and reacts to the request. The trainers use a best practices book containing several real-life scenarios that have occurred in the organization. Additionally, Boys Town records re-creations of interactions when dealing with family clients, children and external certifying professionals. These experiences are passed on to new employees, who in turn add their own tacit knowledge through further role-play.
Although not as formal as that for employees, volunteers and board members also receive training. The participants work with a volunteer coordinator who shares real-life examples of volunteer experiences with the children, rules the children must behave by and best practices for discipline and engagement with the youth. Volunteers are encouraged to talk with the children about why they are volunteering, which helps the youth understand the concept of people being generous with their time. Each child has a binder in which volunteers record all interaction and responses, creating continuity for other volunteers.
Board member orientation is ongoing and consists of a checklist coordinated by the executive director or board secretary. The overarching goal of this orientation is to see the Boys Town program in operation. The clear focus on the Boys Town mission instilled in all stakeholders serves as an informal yet consistent driver for enabling and cultivating knowledge. In turn, the organization’s knowledge enabling and cultivating practices are key drivers of human capital value for Boys Town.
“We’re not afraid to tread new waters,” Gross said. “We don’t care if 99 percent of organizations do something one way. If it makes sense and aligns with our strategic mission, we’ll do it another way. This mindset is built into the entire structure of our organization and feeds our knowledge-sharing process.”
Mission Driving Strategy
At Boys Town, the organization’s mission drives the strategic plan, which in turn guides the knowledge management strategy. Knowledge-sharing methods are necessary to the tacit knowledge-sharing process at Boys Town so that all stakeholders understand what is meant by specific terms and ways of viewing things in the organization. Common terms for work practices, such as “feedback,” “mentoring” and “collaborating” are used in communities within the organization to ensure cohesiveness. Existence of knowledge repositories helps capture the tacit knowledge that is being shared naturally. Activities surrounding these work practices are prevalent as well, as evidenced by the common practice of using constructive feedback, the existence of a formal mentoring program and numerous opportunities for interdepartmental collaboration.
Feedback is deeply embraced by the organization and integral to Boys Town’s knowledge cultivation. At an organization where learning is so highly valued by mission-minded individuals, mentoring is a natural progression. A formal leadership trainee mentoring program is being created at Boys Town, but at present most mentoring is informal and is an outcome of conversations and relationships as part of the supervision process.
Expertise is acquired through experience, which can be directly attributed to collaboration. Collaboration is part of Boys Town’s stated values and is practiced both internally and externally. In fact, at employee meetings, a portion of the agenda is dedicated to understanding which departments need collaborative help — those that do are expected to ask colleagues for assistance.
Avoiding the Silo
A study by Bellevue University’s Human Capital Lab found that collaboration at Boys Town is in direct contrast with the work of other nonprofit organizations where “stovepipes” or “silos” are created due to the departmentalization of organizational knowledge. Although these segments develop specialized knowledge in service-specific departments, it’s done at the expense of holistically understanding the overall organizational processes and services.
Motivation to share tacit knowledge is seen at Boys Town because its employees gain personal satisfaction in knowing that knowledge sharing helps Boys Town achieve its mission of helping children and families. Encouraging people to explore other ways of doing things — even if it means learning from mistakes — creates a culture supportive of knowledge-sharing methods.
One major contribution of the organization’s stakeholders is how they share Boys Town’s mission with those inside and outside of the organization. They use a combination of tacit and explicit, written knowledge. The dependence between the two forms of knowledge is especially interesting. Tacit knowledge seems to be the driver of knowledge for Boys Town, particularly with the organization’s emphasis on collaboration to build expertise. Explicit knowledge is equally relied upon. It is used as a way to document and share tacit knowledge in the organization. The mission, strategic plan and organizational newsletter are the most common forms of explicit knowledge. Shared throughout the organization, they help ensure that the information is consistent.
Stakeholders create and function as a community in enabling and cultivating knowledge toward the goal of achieving Boys Town’s mission. Boys Town encourages stakeholders to focus on the mission by enabling those within the community to rely on each other. Employees, volunteers and board members enjoy being seen as leaders by sharing knowledge with one another. Board members think critically about improving the quality of the organization’s services and share knowledge to do so. They contact employees to learn about specific program functions and outcomes so they better understand how to communicate with those outside the organization.
Boys Town demonstrates a successful model of tacit knowledge management. It is a community of passionate, mission-minded stakeholders collectively sharing knowledge to advance its mission. The stakeholders have a holistic understanding of Boys Town’s mission, strategic plan, processes and services, which is important to achieving the mission.