Book Review: What is Common (Tacit) Knowledge?

By Rob Cooney

Ask Google to define knowledge and it will tell you that knowledge is, “facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.”

While this definition is accurate, Nancy Dixon explains in her book, Common Knowledge: How Companies Thrive by Sharing What They Know, that there are other kinds of knowledge.  Specifically, she focuses on “common knowledge,” or, “knowledge that employees learn from doing the organization’s tasks.”

As healthcare becomes increasingly complex, the need to “manage” knowledge in departments, between departments, and even across and between organizations has become of critical importance.  In essence, we need to identify our “common knowledge,” capture it, and disseminate it.

The formation of common knowledge is rarely an individual accomplishment, rather, it follows an iterative cycle in teams such that (p. 19):

Common Knowledge

Once common knowledge is “learned” it can then be leveraged by designing systems to transfer that knowledge to other teams within or across the organization.  Dixon goes on to define five types of transfer:

  • Serial transfer,
  • Near transfer,
  • Far transfer,
  • Strategic transfer, and
  • Expert transfer.

These types of knowledge are distinct based on the:

  • Similarity of task and context (is the task routine vs. non-routine, frequency, setting);
  • Nature of the task (similar vs. different task, similar vs. different context); and
  • Type of knowledge (explicit, tacit, both).

She then offers design guidelines based on lessons gleaned from organizations as different as the US Army and the Ford Motor Company.

While the examples are dated (the book was published in 2000), the lessons are important to educators and leaders alike within healthcare settings.  For example, consider the problem of physician reporting of medical errors.  The type of knowledge gained in patient safety events often is represented by both tacit and explicit knowledge. Moreover, the nature of the error can vary from frequent and routine to infrequent and non-routine.  Trying to apply a single management system to these disparate types of patient safety events can partially explain why current efforts to improve reporting do not create to the desired outcomes.

The book is a quick read, but it will leave a lasting impression as you reflect on it’s potential applications.

For those wanting to learn more from Nancy Dixon about knowledge management, check out her blog at: http://www.nancydixonblog.com/