Introduction

How might the managers of an organisation manage successfully the many sources of knowledge that it contains and be in a position to make good use of them? This is a key question for the process of knowledge management. For Nonaka (1994), the answer to this question is to be found in the manner in which an organisation manages the relationship between its sources of explicit and tacit knowledge and converts one type of knowledge into the other type.

Knowledge Conversion


What Nonaka is recommending is that organisations need to develop processes to ensure that one type of knowledge can be converted into the other type. There are four processes:

From tacit to tacit


The first process is where tacit and covert knowledge is transferred from one person (or group) to another person (or group.) The focus here is spread of beliefs and values, accepted ways of doing things and norms of behaviour.

According to Nonaka, this process of knowledge conversion occurs through socialization and informal learning over a relatively lengthy period of time.

From explicit to explicit


The second procedure is when existing sources of explicit knowledge are combined together, or reconfigured in some way, in order to create new sources of explicit knowledge. This process is likely to employ written documents and discussions about their contents.

Nonaka refers to this process as ‘combination.’

From tacit to explicit


In this process the tacit knowledge of a person or a group is ‘made public’ and codified into sources of explicit knowledge, which can then be widely communicated and disseminated throughout an organisation. It is process for ensuring that somebody’s excellent know-how, or good practices, are available to others in an organisation.

Nonaka refers to this process as ‘externalization.’

From explicit to tacit


Here explicit and formal knowledge that is widely disseminated throughout an organisation and is then incorporated into the everyday routines and behaviours of employees to become, over time, their tacit knowledge. This process needs to be supported by many learning and training opportunities for employees.

Nonaka refers to this process as ‘internalization.’

Nonaka refers to these processes as collectively forming a ‘spiral of knowledge creation.’ Noon and Blyton (2007) summarise this model in the following terms:

‘The organisation has to encourage individuals to pass on their tacit knowledge to others who then standardise this as explicit knowledge, in the form of procedures, manuals and so forth. This experience in turn enriches the tacit knowledge of the individuals involved and the cycle repeats itself, thereby producing a virtuous spiral of knowledge creation’.


Figure_1.gif
The chart above, I believe, shows clearly how the two types of knowledge can be changed. The source can be seen above.

Challenges


Noon and Blyton (2007) define knowledge management as ‘the processes through which managers try to acquire the ideas, judgement and creativity of those intimately involved in the work and develop this as explicit knowledge.’ As we’ve just discussed, Nonaka’s ‘spiral of knowledge creation’ is one way of conceptualising how this might occur.
Other challeges that practitioners might face when implementing knowledge conversion is lack of resources, time to engage in organisational knowledge creation and lack of mutual trust amongst practitioners.

The unspoken assumption in the much of the literature on knowledge management is that employees willingly surrender their tacit knowledge and allow it to be captured by the organisation to be transformed into explicit knowledge. I find this assumption to be problematic and questionable. This is because there may be many reasons why employees might resist surrendering their tacit knowledge – such as to be ‘bloody minded’ or to gain power through having expertise in areas that is not possessed by others. Thus, the process of knowledge conversion is always likely to be challenging and difficult to accomplish successfully.

Another challenge associated with knowledge conversion, illustrated by Grinsven and Visser (2011), is that when attempting to improve organizational knowledge via knowledge conversion it may positively affect one dimension but have a negative effect on another dimension.

Considered outcomes of knowledge conversion

  • 'Knowledge outcomes'
  • 'Social practice outcomes'

Tacit Knowledge and Knowledge Conversion: Controversy and Advancement in Organizational Knowledge Creation Theory

(Item 4.3) However the entire article raises interesting questions.

Questions


  1. What might managers have to do in order to manage effectively each of these four processes? Which one is likely to present the greatest challenge to managers and why?
  2. Am I right when I suggest that employees might resist surrendering their tacit knowledge? How might this situation be managed?

Sources


Grinsvin, M. V. and Visser, M. (2011) 'Empowerment, knowledge conversion and dimensions of organizational learning'. Learning Organization, 18 (5), pp. 392-405.

Nonaka, I (1994) ‘A Dynamic Theory of Organisational Knowledge Creation’, Organization Science, Vol.5, No.1

Noon, M and Blyton, P (2002) The Realities of Work: Basingstoke, Palgrave