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Knowing What You Know—Who Has, Where Is, Your Tacit Knowledge

D'es IT on your campus know what it knows? For example, if a technician in the Anthropology Department were to call your support line and say: "I’ve got a professor here who’s just bought a Nextel (Motorola iM1100) wireless modem and wants it installed to work on his Windows XP machine, but I’m having problems," what do you tell him? Pick one:

(a) Never heard of it. We don’t support that.
(b) Never heard of it. I’ll ask around.
(c) Never heard of it, but wait a sec … "John D'e over in the School of Education has installed one of those, why don’t you call him."

At most universities, the helpful intent but ignorance represented by (b) would be the typical response, even though at many of those schools the senior IT staff would prefer the answer to be (a). I hope you didn’t pick (a), but maybe you did. [It’s not the direction this piece is going, but we will write some other time about the dissonance between making our jobs easier (and fitting into the budget) and supporting the institution’s mission.]

We think that more of you could have answers like (c), and within budget too, if there were some effort put into campuswide knowledge management systems for IT staff.

What we need to do is find better ways to share "tacit knowledge." In a very simple sense, that’s knowledge that we have that is embodied in our expertise but that we may not even be conscious of. Someone who knows how to install a Nextel cell modem d'esn’t go around thinking, "I know how to install a Nextel modem," but it is inside their head somewhere. For a simple exercise to clarify what tacit knowledge is, using your nose, go here. And there can be tacit knowledge not only within an individual person, within a department, or within an entire university. The goal is to move tacit knowledge within an individual to the place where it is explicit knowledge for the organization; explicit knowledge being knowledge that everyone is consciously aware of, or at least knows exists and can find.

Some call the various ways of doing this "knowledge management." Knowledge management is not an "IT thing," in fact, in large enterprises it is not usually run by the CIO, but it can be a good thing for IT departments and there are some easily implemented IT tools to leverage it with. It would be a shame if the departments that run IT could not maximize their usage of automated knowledge management tools to identify, capture, find, and serve up appropriate knowledge. Going back to our hypothetical question about the Nextel cell modem, you can easily imagine simple data collection systems that would have let you search on the appropriate key words and found the technicians on campus who’ve dealt with that particular issue before. If those systems aren’t in place, why not?

D'es it matter what department those technicians are in? It might for that department’s budget, but institutionwide and strategically speaking, knowing that somewhere in your institution someone knows that piece of information is a good thing. But you don’t even need databases of information to move toward tacit knowledge becoming more explicit.

D'es your campus have any e-mail lists of IT professionals they can use to ask each other questions? Even a single list would be useful, but lists on various topics can also be invaluable. Do you have classes for faculty and staff on particular software tools? If so, do those who attend get to join virtual communities of other users and professional experts for further learning and to share tacit knowledge? If not, why not? Setting up a Lyris list is very little work.

One minimalistic knowledge management tool is to break down structural barriers to communication. In a recent interview with the CIO of Johns Hopkins University, one of the main points made was that having a single CIO for the hospital system as well as for the university created major benefits for IT. "When it was two separate IT organizations we tripped over each other a little bit and did not use our collective resources as well as we could have." She g'es on to say that she’s worked to utilize the talent in the school of engineering’s computer science department and institute for security as well. So, just by having one CIO for a collection of units that in most places might have two, there is more sharing of knowledge than there otherwise would be—a form of knowledge management.

Collaboration is something that we used to think of as optional, to be done when more important things are out of the way. As Brian Hawkins of EDUCAUSE puts it: "In essence we thought of collaboration as an avocational approach. The challenges that we face today with the speed of change, and the transformations that are overtaking us, call for us to firmly come to grips with the notion that collaboration is the only means of competitive survival." [For a superb example of an IT-related higher education association that is working with a good topical taxonomy and good IT tools to manage knowledge, check out the EDUCAUSE Information Resources Library.]

Brian Hawkins is speaking of inter-institutional collaboration and we’re encouraging intra-institutional, cross-departmental collaboration, but the principle’s the same—it’s no longer a luxury to collaborate, but a minimal practice. Probably no department on campus collaborates, at least within itself, better than IT, so we’re ahead of most there. But how often do the folks in IT at the business school talk to the folks in IT at the medical school on your campus?

So, what will it be? Minimal databases of who-knows-what, or open communications channels between departments, or ongoing virtual communities for post-meetings and post-workshops? What d'es your school’s IT staff do to encourage movement of individual tacit knowledge to institutional explicit knowledge? We’d love to hear from you: [email protected].

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