Understanding the different forms that knowledge can exist in, and thereby being able to distinguish between various types of knowledge, is an essential step for knowledge management (KM). For example, the knowledge captured in a document would need to be managed (i.e. stored, retrieved, shared, changed, etc.) in a totally different way than that gathered over the years by an expert craftsman.
Within business and KM, two types of knowledge are usually defined, namely explicit and tacit knowledge. The former refers to codified knowledge, such as that found in documents, while the latter refers to non codified and often personal/experience-based knowledge. In practice, all knowledge is a mixture of tacit and explicit elements rather than being one or the other.
There is also distinction and talk of embedded knowledge. This way, one differentiates between knowledge embodied in people and that embedded in processes, organizational culture, routines, etc.
This type of knowledge is formalized and codified, and is sometimes referred to as know-what. It is therefore fairly easy to identify, store, and retrieve. This is the type of knowledge most easily handled by knowledge management systems (KMS), which are very effective at facilitating the storage, retrieval, and modification of documents and texts.
From a managerial perspective, the greatest challenge with explicit knowledge is similar to information. It involves ensuring that people have access to what they need; that important knowledge is stored; and that the knowledge is reviewed, updated, or discarded.
Tacit Knowledge (Embodied Knowledge)
It is sometimes referred to as know-how and refers to intuitive, hard to define knowledge that is largely experience based. Because of this, tacit knowledge is often context dependent and personal in nature. It is hard to communicate and deeply rooted in action, commitment, and involvement. Tacit knowledge is also regarded as being the most valuable source of knowledge, and the most likely to lead to breakthroughs in the organization. One can link the lack of focus on tacit knowledge directly to the reduced capability for innovation and sustained competitiveness.
This type of knowledge cannot be handled by knowledge management systems (KMS). Imagine trying to write an article that would accurately convey how one reads facial expressions. It should be quite apparent that it would be near impossible to convey our intuitive understanding gathered from years of experience and practice. Virtually all practitioners rely on this type of knowledge. An IT specialist for example will troubleshoot a problem based on his experience and intuition. It would be very difficult for him to codify his knowledge into a document that could convey his know-how to a beginner. This is one reason why experience in a particular field is so highly regarded in the job market.
Embedded knowledge is found in rules, processes, products, manuals, codes of conduct, ethics, culture, routines, artifacts, or structures. Knowledge is embedded either formally, such as through a management initiative to formalize a certain beneficial routine, or informally as the organization uses and applies the other two knowledge types. It is important to note, that while embedded knowledge can exist in explicit sources (i.e. a rule can be written in a manual), the knowledge itself is not explicit, i.e. it is not immediately apparent why doing something this way is beneficial to the organization.
The challenges in managing embedded knowledge vary considerably and will often differ from embodied tacit knowledge. Culture and routines can be both difficult to understand and hard to change. Formalized routines on the other hand may be easier to implement and management can actively try to embed the fruits of lessons learned directly into procedures, routines, and products.
IT can be used to help map organizational knowledge areas as a tool in reverse engineering of products (thus trying to uncover hidden embedded knowledge); or as a supporting mechanism for processes and cultures.
Due to the difficulty in effectively managing embedded knowledge, firms that succeed may enjoy a significant competitive advantage.
Successful knowledge management initiatives place a very strong emphasis on converting tacit and embedded knowledge into explicit knowledge. Documenting the knowledge that resides in employees' know-how and storing it in the central location where everybody can find it would greatly increase efficiency and productivity. It also would eliminate dependency on selected individuals who may not be available when needed.