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Tapping a SME’s Tacit Knowledge: Part 2

Written By Shalini Merugu

In continuation of yesterday’s post, here are a few steps for getting into the mind of the SME when working with him/her for inputs for your training solution.

Tapping a SME's Tacit Knowledge: Part 2

Decide on technique for asking questions

You can conduct a structured interview for inputs or you can let the SME speak spontaneously, analyze what he/she said, and get back with a set of questions. I believe that both are equally important for capturing the right kind of information. Structured interviews are a very time-efficient way of capturing relevant knowledge, whether explicit or tacit. A SME’s free-form narrative (story-telling or recording organizational stories) can also provide many context-related perspectives and anecdotal information through which you can glean a lot of tacit knowledge.

Ask the right questions

Asking the right questions is a make or break skill for any project. To be able to do this, some degree of preparation is required on both sides. To be able to extract critical information, guide the questions along a definite direction. Your questions should cover all aspects of a topic, both the must-dos and the don’ts.

Give enough response time

A simple tip here is that if you have a call with the SME to discuss inputs,do your homework, get the preliminary research in place, make your list of questions and mail it to the SME at least a day before the call. This gives him/her adequate time to be prepared with the responses that can be discussed on the call or on that meeting.

Use active and reflective listening

The second aspect of questioning is to validate your understanding by and then consolidate it into usable course content. This is possible with active and reflective listening. Much has been written about on this.

During the call or meeting, your ability to be an active and reflective listener will help you get the required inputs. Your ability to be a reflective listener will help you summarize, synthesize and reflect on the inputs so that you can synthesize raw information provided by the SME into a coherent, cohesive format.

Get your inputs validated

Once you gather your inputs, put down the synthesized information in a mail or a doc and send it across to the SME for validation. This small step can save many changes at the story-board stage. You can also use this doc as a spring-board for further questions to close any gaps.

Your course is going to be as good as the inputs you manage to gather, which in turn in going to be as good as the techniques you follow to tap the tacit knowledge in a SME’s head.

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  • Michael J. Spangle

    Very useful advice and an excellent continuation of the previous article. Sometimes tacit knowledge can be drawn out of the SME by getting the SME to tell “war stories” about the work that they did. When the SME says something like, “Nobody thought I could figure that problem out, but I showed them and got that pump up and running again.” Then you could ask them questions such as, “That was pretty smart of you to figure it out. What was it that put you onto that bearing as being the problem?” Take good notes when you get the answer because the SME, without even knowing it, will have let you into the inner sanctum of their thought processes, as well as given you some Operating Experience to incorporate into the lesson plan material.

    A similar method could consist of, after observing the SME perform a task, say something like the following, “I noticed that when you calibrate this type of transmitter, you always hook up your test equipment this way. What are your thought processes behind that?” This takes the questioning to a deeper level than just, “How do you calibrate this type of transmitter?” and then just get a dry list of procedural steps as a response.

  • Decide on technique for asking questions

    To come up with a good technique for asking questions, a person has to have a talent for perceiving a possible future. In order to frame questions, the person must be very astute at perceiving what the SME means by what s/he is saying. The nuances are the key to mining for tacit knowledge. What is said is usually not even the tip of the iceberg.

    Ask the right questions

    What works for me is thinking of the one question I want answered – the core question. I can get many answers from one question. To get to the tacit information, the asker must be curious, confident, and able to continuously go deeper into the question.

    Give enough response time

    I have had success giving the one question, and no more than two (related) questions, then digging deeper. Time, as you suggest, is very important because if I am asking well, neither of us has explored the emerging territory.

    Use active and reflective listening

    Listen as much for what is said as for what is not said. Ask what they mean by … (reflect what they have said). Ask if such and such fits into this “scenario.” Stay on track and stretch it a bit beyond its boundaries.

    Get your inputs validated

    I usually depict what has been said about the ONE main question in a visual drawing. Then we adjust the drawing and eventually come out with a very nice working model of an answer to a strategic question.

    Your steps work form me, but in a different way of understanding and implementing.

  • Kaushilya Weerapura

    Simple and practical, as always.

    I like this blog mostly because it provides pragmatic implementations of fundamentals and core theories – which is how it should be, knowledge in action.

  • Thanks Michael and Chavah for those excellent inputs! I think what you’ve shared should work for any kind of SME, even the taciturn ones. In fact that gives me an idea for another blog. :) Thanks for your compliment Kaushilya! And your valuable inputs on other CommLab blogs! Looking forward to interesting ongoing discussions with all of you.

  • Danielle McArthur

    This question is at the core of what we do. It is hard for an expert to put on ‘beginner mind”. Lots of good thoughts here and in the comments.
    I have a few more thoughts:
    1. Set the beginer context for the SME so they can meet you half way.
    2. You are probablly a beginner, so ask a lot of questions.
    3. Stop periodically and ask the SME to think through a step they just described as though they are trying it for the first time.
    4. Involve someone from your target audience – either in the interview itself or in a review of your findings.
    5. Test your training with your target audience before roll-out.

  • Danielle, thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s true, it can be quite a challenge to get an expert to walk in the beginner’s shoes. It’s equally important to ensure that the SME drills down to a granular level for them to be of any use to beginners. I guess the challenge here is to ensure that we don’t miss out on these steps in the face of pressing deadlines.

  • Michael J. Spangle

    Shalini;
    A standard practice, when writing procedures, is to have the senior craftsperson try to use the procedure, to work the bugs out of it. The next step is to give the revised procedure to a more junior person, who still possesses the minimum qualifications for the task, to see if they can follow that procedure. Their feedback is collected and the procedure goes though its final draft revision prior to hitting the streets.

    A similar practice could be used for developing training material. In this case, the senior SME helps to develop the material initially, and then the junior SME reviews the material to see if anything got missed that a newbie might need to know.

  • Stephan Schmacker

    In the first paragraph “Decide on technique for asking questions”
    we very truly read about one of the biggest dilemmas we encounter trying to mobilize tacid knowledge: structured interviews or open speech will support “capturing the right kind of _information_”. The more we ask or let someone speak, the more (bits of) information we may get.

    But, we do not get any more than these bits of information. Mostly neglecting the years of experience, of background any SME uses to build up _his_ context for the bits of information he will pass on. We will just get a glimpse from the complex network between “burnt fingers” and “I can ride the bike” success stories. Looking back to my own over ten years of experience in structured knowledge transfer I feel one sad thing will remain in knowledge sharing: experience can hardly be actively passed on to a system to be stored there – not efficiently with success.

    I thus tend to follow those previous posts focussing on task apprenticeship / job shadowing to keep knowledge sustainable within an organization. This can surely lead an SME group to better success, sharing the same information, in front of common similar context. Mixing young, thriving people and moderate senior experts will keep the cycle alive for a long time. Effective training may require more “father and son” tasks to share information _and_ experience over a longer period than self learning modules.

  • George Kemish MInstAM(Adv Dip) MInstLM MIC MCMI

    George Kemish MInstAM(Adv Dip) MInstLM MIC MCMI • Tacit knowledge is knowledge that is impliedn but not spoken. In other words, it is knowledge that people tend to pick up and keep to themselves. This does not mean that the knowledge cannot be spoken or written down – many organisations are now looking at ways in which to tap into tacit knowledge. They are doing this because they are aware of the fact that when people leave an organisation they take tacit knowledge with them – such knowledge, as well as being a loss to the organisation when someone leaves, could also be useful to a competitor who will use it to gain advantage in the market place. Knowledge capture and knowledge management are becoming increasing important in both the Public and Private sectors in order to enhance efficiency and effectiveness within an organisation. Thank you Nibha for bringing this important subject to the fore.

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