Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Conveying Tacit Knowledge in eLearning

By Shelley A. Gable

Tacit knowledge can be challenging to teach in formal training, but it's not impossible. So how can we convey tacit knowledge in eLearning?

Ikujiro Nonaka has been researching knowledge creation in organizations for over 15 years, which includes trying to understand the nature of tacit knowledge. Nonaka characterizes tacit knowledge as concepts we understand intuitively, but struggle to explicitly explain or describe in writing.

If you’ve ever stumped subject matter experts by asking how they made certain decisions, you may have stumbled upon tacit knowledge. When you get vague responses like “I just know,” or “I just caught on from experience,” you may be entering the realm of tacit knowledge.

Can you clearly explain how to maintain balance when riding a bicycle? In a May-June 2009 article printed in Organization Science, Nonaka suggests knowledge of wine tasting or crafting a violin as other examples of tacit knowledge.

So, back to our original question:

How can we convey tacit knowledge in eLearning?

Storytelling is an excellent approach to tacit knowledge. Think about it – fairy tales often convey a lesson without explicitly stating what the lesson was. Details about context, circumstances, challenges, actions, and consequences allow an audience to infer an understanding that might be hard to articulate, but is understood nonetheless.

You can include stories in eLearning via text, audio, and/or video.

Social interactions can also help. You might achieve this through a live, instructor-led session (in a classroom or via web conferencing) or by using social media. Even if a concept is not easily outlined through step-by-step instructions or basic recall, various learners may manage to articulate pieces of implicit rules of thumb, creating “ah ha” moments for others and a broader shared understanding.

Scenarios with consequences can help learners practice and test their tacit understanding of concepts and decision making. Such scenarios would likely need to be more elaborate than a few sentences followed by a multiple choice question.

Think multipart, branching scenarios that prompt learners to make several decisions, and where the next step of the scenario is dependent upon how the learner responded in the previous step.

Finally, a curriculum heavy with tacit knowledge especially benefits from level 3 evaluation (i.e., are learners performing as expected on the job?). If time constraints on training limit the variety of scenarios learners can practice with, it may be difficult to objectively assess whether they “get it.” Observing outcomes on the job and debriefing decision making can help cement their practical use of tacit knowledge, and may even help make some of it more explicit.

What examples can you think of?

What are other examples of tacit knowledge that come to mind? And do you have certain methods you use to convey these implicit concepts, especially in an eLearning environment?

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