Baking may not seem related to the work we do. However, my experience teaching a friend how to bake bread highlighted explicit and implicit knowledge. And that has everything thing to do with learning new ways of working and organizational change. 

We started with explicit knowledge: a recipe. It was quite simple:  mix flour, yeast, salt and water, let the dough rise, bake. Explicit knowledge is easy to write down, convey, train, and assess. But, as we put the ingredients together, implicit knowledge came into play.

The first instruction after the ingredients is, “stir until you have a wet, sticky dough.”

Recipes derived from other organizations focus on explicit knowledge, but not the thought process that got them there.

What does wet sticky dough look like? I know, based on experience and deep immersion in the work (in this case baking bread). That’s implicit knowledge. That the sort of “know how” that seldom exists in books or data bases. It gets passed on through interactions.

For a novice baker—like my friend—following this bread recipe exactly won’t guarantee a successful result. 

Likewise, the explicit knowledge contained in a pre-defined process, framework, or solution may be a starting point. But it won’t lead to solving organizational problems—at least not without the judgement that comes from implicit knowledge. 

Three Ways to Build Implicit Knowledge

Unfortunately, you don’t have implicit knowledge the fist time you try something. And it is not easy to transfer implicit knowledge. Nonetheless, it is absolutely crucial. Here are three things to try.

  • Work with a guide. When the guide demonstrates, or offers options have them work out loud.That way, you can understand why they they choose the options they do, and discard others. Understand what problem they are trying to solve and the trade-offs they consider. This reveals implicit knowledge.
  • Activate social networks to engage in socially constructed learning. People learn through conversations, sharing experience and solving problems together. These networks may span your organizational boundary and include outside forums
  • Use guided experiences—similar to what my friend and I did baking bread. I set the stage, he did the work, and I offered feedback as we went. (His wife offered feedback on the bread and pronounced it very good.)

Making a significant change in methods, practices, and mental models in your organization requires both explicit and implicit knowledge. Recipes derived from other organizations focus on explicit knowledge, but not the thought process that got them there. Training can impart explicit knowledge, but that’s not enough. And there’s a lot more at stake than there is making a loaf of bread.  

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