Tacit knowledge and personal competitive advantage: an autopoietic framework for knowledge management in human resources.Have you ever been in a situation where you knew how to do something, but were unable to explain it in enough detail to transfer the knowledge to others? Have you ever been in a situation where the step-by-step procedure that you have written was unable to capture all the nuances of the task being described? Furthermore, have you ever been unwilling to even attempt to codify this knowledge so as to maintain your personal competitive advantage within your organization? This personal human capital, or the tacit knowledge that individuals possess, is often viewed as being inseparable, or difficult-to-separate from the people that possess it. This tacit knowledge developed over a lifetime of education, training, social interaction, practice, iteration, reflection and interpretation. Its development was a complex weave of social, cultural, technical and emotional interactions that are non-linear and multifaceted. This knowledge has a finite useful lifespan, which corresponds to the normal lifespan of the person possessing them. Since this knowledge is in the possession of an individual, it can be classified as private good and excluded to those that are not willing to provide compensation for it. This opens the holder of this tacit knowledge to be able to negotiate the best price for services rendered that make use and application of this knowledge.
General management theories posit that knowledge sharing is good for an organization, the individuals within an organization and those that use the services or products of an organization. Corporate human resources and competence development programs encourage knowledge sharing, codification of knowledge within databases and expert systems, and the general exchange of knowledge across employees. The use of teams within the workplace is a strategy to distribute this knowledge across multiple individuals and hedge against the departure of any one person from the organization. On the surface, this proposition does not exhibit negative connotations to the employee or employer, yet has fundamental consequences to personal competitive advantage. In a free-market system, goods and services command a price that is exchanged fairly and without prejudice to those that are willing to provide compensation for them. Within organizations, wages are paid for those individuals to provide services to the organization in exchange for a fair remuneration. Often, these services are standardized and do not command a high wage (such as making hamburgers at a fast-food restaurant). However, these services can also take the form of higher-order knowledge (such as designing the next generation of microprocessor or developing a new structural aircraft alloy) and command a higher wage. The question that arises is what level of tactic knowledge codification is expected by the organization of the individual? In this domain of tacit knowledge the holder has to determine at which point they part with their internalized tacit knowledge for the purposes of the organization and what long-term effects can be expected through loss of control of this knowledge.
If this internalized tacit knowledge is effectively codified and entered into knowledge management or expert systems, does the organization effectively minimize the value or the originator of this knowledge and potentially render this person redundant? With the forward march of the globalization of markets and production, and the "offshoring" of certain knowledge-based service positions such as software development, medical radiology, accounting services and the like, at which point does personal competitive advantage take precedence? The author posits that this question will become more prevalent amongst employees and employers as jobs that were once safe from the march of globalization are increasingly moved to lower-wage regions for organizational cost-reduction purposes. With offshore employees in the developing world taking on higher levels of knowledge work, the ramifications of this cannot be ignored by Canadian knowledge workers and industry.
As an example, within the legal profession, the capabilities of a skilled criminal trial lawyer cannot be written down. All trial lawyers have access to basic legal information and precedence, yet some lawyers command a higher premium than others because of their exceptional abilities. Since this legal knowledge is internalized and based on individual rules, the transmission of knowledge is difficult due to internal interpretation. Arguably, the legal profession is one where the internalized tacit knowledge is so complex that the free market can provide a higher wage and it is fully expected that the lawyer capitalize on this fact. These trial lawyers have command over their marketability based on their personal abilities. Yet we ask often other professions to share their knowledge freely and codify that knowledge for others to use at no cost and for no benefit outside of basic remuneration and the negative possibility of redundancy within the organization. Does the sharing of knowledge for no compensation and the possibility of the reduction of personal strategic advantage actually align with the principles of free-market economics, at least at the personal level?
An autopoietic system where knowledge privacy is respected and knowledge is shared based on personal rules follows a free-market philosophy which is consistently aligned with allowing individuals and groups the power to manage themselves and exist within a broad social system as prescribed by the mission of the organization. The exchange of knowledge is based on personal advantage while staying within the framework of organizational objectives. By utilizing an integrative thinking perspective, one can develop a framework in which two apparently opposing goals (keeping knowledge personal versus codifying it) can be accommodated for the benefit of both parties (in this case, the individual and the organization). By taking these nonlinear relationships into consideration, one can develop a model for personal knowledge versus organizational advantage that meets the needs of both parties, with the added interaction of the competitive environment. Figure 1 represents the interaction of competition, personal knowledge and organizational requirements. The central area is where these competitive elements overlap and provide the most value-added benefit and area of knowledge incubation to all within the framework.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
What does this mean to employees possessing extensive tacit knowledge that has been accumulated over a lifetime of education and experience? A good first step would be to understand the expectations of the organization when it comes to knowledge transfer, mentoring, teamwork, training and explicit codification of tacit knowledge. Organizations that fall toward the autopoietic pole of the organizational spectrum may be perfectly content with the concept of tacit knowledge and respect the rights of individuals to their own personal abilities as long as the interests of the organization are served as indicated in the overlapping area of Figure 1. Those organizations that fall toward the cognitivist end of this spectrum might expect knowledge to be detached from the individual and made direct organizational assets, effectively removing the personal tacit knowledge and competitive environment elements from Figure 1. These organizations see knowledge as detachable from the individual and the property of the organization. Ultimately, how amenable you are to the dissemination of your tacit knowledge is your personal decision to make, based on the self-determined value of your knowledge assets and the philosophy of your organization to knowledge sharing and human resources.
Dr. Matthew Jelavic, C.Mgr.
Dr. Matthew Jelavic is a Professor within the School of Science and Engineering Technology at Durham College and Adjunct Assistant Professor within the Faculty of Business and IT at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. He holds a Doctorate in Business Administration from the Grenoble Ecole de Management and a Master's Degree in Management Sciences from the University of Waterloo. He also holds undergraduate qualifications in mechanical engineering and industrial technology. Dr. Jelavic possesses extensive experience in the field of management and engineering within private industry, academia and consulting practice. You can contact him at www.strategyoneconsulting.ca.