Navigating the Knowledge Iceberg

There is a belief that things – good and bad – come in sets of three. There are many examples of this … primary colours, Freud\’s theory of personality, little pigs, functional smokestacks on the titanic, and as it turns out knowledge. 

The three core types of knowledge are:

  1. Explicit knowledge is documented information. It is easy to capture, articulate, and share and is the most basic form of knowledge. Examples include math formulae, laws, training documentation, datasheets, research reports, etc. 
  2. Implicit knowledge is applied information. It typically comes from personal experience and the context of applying explicit knowledge and is acquired without realizing that learning is occurring. And with some effort, can be documented. Examples: best practices and transferrable skills.  
  3. Tacit knowledge is information that is understood. This is knowledge gained from personal, first-hand experience, and is difficult to express, and even more difficult to capture. A type of implicit knowledge, but more nuanced. It is the je-ne-sais-quoi that experts and specialists have that sets them apart from others in their field. 

Fun facts: 

  • Explicit knowledge is also referred to as expressiveknowledge
  • Implicit + tacit Knowledge is often referred to as tribal knowledge, experiential knowledge, and ‘know-how’ knowledge.


Regardless of the handles used, together this trifecta of knowledge, when put together, forms the basis of how people share information to teach, learn, and grow, regardless of the discipline. 

So, getting your hands around the institutional knowledge that exists and will support your endeavour is a wise place to start when building a plan to roll a revamped content strategy, a new program or change in process. Getting these efforts from the ideation and conceptual to the operational stage is difficult. It takes time, patience, and a commitment to getting things done. And one of the most common questions we hear from our clients, regardless of whether it’s about executing their content marketing strategy or operationalizing their brand-new content ops plan,  is “Where do we start?”. 

A fair question. 

Start at the surface – The What

In our combined decades of experience, we have found that starting with something tangible and logical enables a quick start and some early success. So, in terms of revamping or starting something new, it is good to document the related knowledge and information that already exists. This means documenting the “what” of how to do something, or how things work in regards to the project/topic at hand. Some typical types of explicit knowledge containers include:

  • Manuals
  • Procedures
  • How-to and quick reference guides
  • Databases
  • Training materials

Easily accessible and shareable, explicit knowledge forms the baseline for all employees to have access to the information they need to do their jobs and about the company they work for. It is the foundation for knowledge growth within the organization enabling quick decision-making via self-serve access to the right information at the right time and minimizing (hopefully eliminating) redundancies via documented/ing processes, data, and analysis as it grows and matures. While obvious, this is often overlooked, or ignored once it has been done once. Keeping explicit knowledge vessels up to date is an important perpetual task.

Go deep, below the waterline – The How

Capturing tribal or implicit knowledge is trickier than the straightforward how-to of explicit knowledge, as it means capturing the “how” of applying and successfully executing explicit information. Documenting tribal information relies on capturing the knowledge and expertise from teams and SMEs (subject matter experts). This is often difficult to do because some like to keep what sets them apart from others – their own honed best practices and tricks of the trade – from just that, away from others.

Diving deep and going the distance to capture implicit knowledge is well worth the effort. Because it is this deeper, more intimate level of knowledge that propels teams and organizations to gain competitive advantage by enabling a cultural approach of continuous improvement to innovation, processes, and procedures, as well as helps protect against knowledge loss by capturing this know-how in a knowledge base that will persist even after the SME has left the building.   

Dark waters ahead – The Why

Understanding the intricacies of “why” some people can do or understand things better than others requires moving beyond documentation. Tackling tacit knowledge necessitates creating an atmosphere that embraces knowledge sharing through dialogue, coaching, and open forums. It also respects the boundaries of individuals and recognizes that it is impossible to expect to capture and share all their expertise. Letting SMEs keep some of their secret sauce is important for company growth and success. James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds said it well in that “Groups are only smart when there is a balance between the information that everyone in the group shares and the information that each of the members of the group holds privately. It\’s the combination of all those pieces of independent information, some of them right, some of the wrong, that keeps the group-wise.”

Keep watch for what you can and cannot see

Like all things we do well, success comes from a blend of knowing the rules – explicit knowledge, best practices, the skills that come from hands-on doing – implicit knowledge, and the finesse that comes with experiential learning and finesse. Documenting, sharing, and embracing these different types of information across disciplines will enable long-term and continued growth and success, and help avoid crashing into icebergs along the way.  

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