Journal of Knowledge Management Practice, Vol. 9, No. 2, June 2008

A Framework For Tacit Knowledge Transfer In A Virtual Team Environment

Brenda C. Ledford, Zane Berge, University of Maryland, Baltimore County


Tacit knowledge transfer is a contentious subject in knowledge management (KM). Virtual teams and the increased use of ICT to bridge the distance gap among participants further complicate the KM process. Change strategies for virtual tacit transfer will require substantial deviations from traditional managerial practices. To ensure success, leaders, trainers and managers will have to adapt the best practices from the field of distance education. Proposed changes in the framework include altering the top-down management strategy to focus on virtual team individuals, purposefully designing interaction and creating an atmosphere to foster autonomy. The purpose of this paper is to explore the gap in tacit transfer research concerning virtual team environments, and suggest a framework to reduce barriers and facilitate transfer. Also addressed are specific ownership issues associated with tacit knowledge transfer in virtual environments, and a framework is developed that adapts relevant distance education strategies to create a sustainable virtual environment for tacit transfer.

Keywords: Virtual tacit knowledge transfer, Vertical intra-organizational structure, Tacit knowledge ownership, Virtual tacit transfer framework

1.         Introduction

Tacit knowledge transfer remains one of the most allusive aspects of knowledge management (KM) efforts today. Its perceived centrality as the pivotal key to retaining competitive advantage drives researchers and practitioners alike to understand, harness, and retain its power. The position and relationship tacit knowledge has with its counterpart, explicit knowledge, is the subject of debate. Managing the transfer of tacit knowledge is a daunting task when one considers the many barriers that infringe upon success which result in incomplete or suspension of transfer. While the frameworks and models brought forth have provided revelation and value to the practice of KM efforts to manage tacit knowledge transfer, they are incomplete with respect to virtual teams.

The virtual team condition complicates the transfer of tacit knowledge in specific and important ways. Despite efforts put forth, there is a gap in research concerning how distance impacts the transfer process. While there is mention of the prevalent use of information and communication technologies (ICT) for collaborative efforts, few if any,  mention the practices known to enhance tacit transfer among virtual teams. Organizations and individuals endeavoring to understand, capture, and use tacit knowledge for all the reasons researchers provide are falling short if they do not address this gap. Adapting change strategies with proven distance education practices will help mitigate the geographical distance and increase tacit transfer within virtual teams.

The purpose of this paper will be to address how this gap of proximity among individuals impacts tacit knowledge transfer and offers a resolution for consideration. The barriers to transfer within organizational levels and proposed cultural changes will be analyzed. Finally, a framework is given for facilitating and sustaining tacit transfer in virtual environments as well as thoughts on future studies to validate the given framework.

2.         A Review Of Knowledge Management

Research reveals a general disagreement over what knowledge management is or how one can assess its achievements. Although several researchers can agree on specific defining characteristics and mode of conveyance, divergent views on parameters are distinct. Researchers agree knowledge management relates organizational structures and management of knowledge existing within organizational contexts. This knowledge exists within organizational communities and individuals. Knowledge is transferable and generally can be used to alter organizational contexts in constructive ways (Hiebeler 1996; Iyer & Aronson, 2000; Koenig, 1997; Styhre, 2003; Takahashi & Vandenbrink, 2004; Wiig, 1997). KM among geographically dispersed teams today entails a connective strategy to manage the respective transfers occurring across organizational contexts bringing together human individuals and ICT.

Many researchers and practitioners see ICT an “enabling tools” to support the efforts of the KM processes. However, differences arise when discussing the manageability of tacit knowledge because of its perceived non-linear structure (for example, Abou-Zied, 2004a; Gupta, Iyer, & Aronson, 2000; Hiebeler, 1996; Styhre, 2003). Conflicting organizational cultures and inconsistencies in practice further complicate the management process. Some see knowledge as internal and others view it as external. Still others debate concerning how much effort needs to be put forth in planning KM processes. As a result, organizational structures are changing to assist in KM efforts because of the collective belief that the untapped knowledge within organizations has tremendous value.

2.1.      Value Of Knowledge Management

Research indicates that altering one’s business approach to accommodate fluctuating KM demands is imperative (Abou-Zeid, 2004a). By doing so, one could possibly reveal key enablers that can shape the tacit transfer process and ensure sustainability. Change strategies target organizational structures and culture to meet global needs (Pena, 2002). Unlocking the existing tacit knowledge within organizations will amplify the value placed on tacit knowledge which can provide leverage for negotiating success (Hiebeler, 1996). In addition, change strategy will have to accommodate the integration of ICT into tacit transfer techniques or risk losing the competitive edge (Hiebeler, 1996; Wiig, 1997). However, the changes could well be worth it as Gupta et al. (2000) revealed that effective KM management will reduce redundancy and enable flexibility. Pena (2002) stated that timing of integration coupled with flexibility will be important when navigating the Knowledge Age. Competition is as fierce inside organizations as outside, thus making KM essential. As such, KM can assist in developing an organization’s external and internal character that will reflect its capabilities in competent ways.

2.2.      Parameters Of Knowledge Management

In analyzing what KM entails, one must consider various aspects that research presents. Abou-Zeid (2004a) notes there is a decisive shift away from knowledge as a commodity toward knowledge as a process. This drives the search for best practices and reinforces that KM has many contexts and parameters including knowledge creation, managing personnel and processes, storage of knowledge, retrieval processes and central to all, is transfer. Hiebeler (1996) favors team efforts in transfer because he believes that such self-directed learning leads to innovation. Others likewise encourage specific use of ICTs that encourage productive interaction and tacit transfer (Abou-Zeid, 2004a, Gupta et al., 2000). Gupta et al. (2000) provide insight into the challenges facing new KM efforts and assigns the intensity of such challenges to maturity and strategic ability to adapt to necessary changes. Interesting to Gupta et al.’s argument of maturity is valuing the “human element” in the process of managing knowledge. Takahashi and Vandenbrink (2004) pick up this discussion to convey that culture that values this human element will triumph in the knowledge creation race. Beyond the scope of KM this value will also serve to recruit the best and most promising individuals to an organization. Pena (2002) injects into this discussion that obtaining soft skills to promote collaboration is essential. A strategy that is sure to foster tacit transfer among virtual team members, if an attitude of value is infused with it. Emerging from this research is the overarching element to prescribe value to people and provide tools to maximize their contributions of knowledge creation rather than inhibiting knowledge transfer. This overwhelmingly is seen accomplishable through management practices that prefer individuals not just what they can produce.

2.3.      Types Of Knowledge

Most experts can agree that KM efforts encompass two distinctive types of knowledge:  explicit and tacit. Understanding the distinct differences in these two types of knowledge is relevant to understanding the conditional features of virtual tacit transfer. Prior to discussing each type of knowledge it is necessary to bring forth the leading schools of thought surrounding the overall nature of knowledge. The first sees knowledge categorically and thus strives to influence the separation and distinctive features of the two types. The second view considers knowledge a constant force moving fluidly between the two. With this in mind, understand how the KM effort may impinge on these views, and sometimes brings into question their distinctions.

2.3.1.   Explicit Knowledge

Daneshgar and Amaravadi (2004) characterize explicit knowledge as “a kind of information that is made available to certain people for a specific purpose” (p. 2). Jasimuddin, Klein and Connell (2005) label it as “knowledge that can be codified in a tangible form” (p. 103). This enables explicit knowledge to be easily transferred, and therefore accessible. Because it can be easily stored, Jasimuddin et al. (2005) also note that there is a reduction in opportunity for loss of explicit knowledge due to employee relocation. For the purposes of this paper explicit knowledge will be knowledge that has been transferred out of someone’s head and now is contained in a storage-able form (papers, products, digital documents, print, audio, etc.).

2.3.2.   Tacit Knowledge

Tacit knowledge is commonly referenced as the knowledge that is contained inside our heads and is therefore inexpressible. Abou-Zeid (2004a) identifies four types of tacit knowledge: embrained (know that), embodied (know how), embedded, and encultured. Each is dependent on ability or context and can be shared, but universally is hard to convey. He further delineates tacit into individual, group, or enterprise fractions (2004a, p. 487). Gupta et al. (2000) furthers this understanding by suggesting that it encompasses the “subjective, cognitive and experiential” domains. For the purposes of this paper, tacit knowledge will be defined as the innovative concepts and functions that internally exist within individuals prior to transfer.

Managing tacit knowledge cannot be accomplished with traditional approaches used to assess explicit knowledge. This is one reason for the push to convert tacit into explicit knowledge. Kreiner (2002) though, considers that tacit knowledge must be managed in a new way. Kreiner puts forth that refocusing efforts to mobilize tacit knowledge rather than securing possession may be a place to begin. Imel (2003) sees this change occurring with the creation of an organizational culture that facilitates learning, sharing and creation of knowledge. Linde (2001) finds language the most tacit form of tacit knowledge and urges a system that assists individuals in appropriate articulation. Such strategies would include “active” rather than passive interaction when considering ICT use (Linde, 2001).

2.4.      The Role Of Knowledge Management And Tacit Knowledge Transfer

The research consulted sets the change strategy in motion for the way tacit knowledge, and corresponding transfer is handled in an organization’s KM process. Kreiner (2002) calls for organizations to “protect and utilize existing knowledge resources. . . and to facilitate the mobilization and expansion of new knowledge. . .” (p. 122). This means a re-evaluation of the organization’s role and purpose for engaging in the transfer process. The solutions for managing the transfer of tacit knowledge are still emerging. Linde calls for evaluating lessons learned and reflection as a way of progressing. However, if tacit transfer is reliant on the interactive encounters of people who make up organizations, then the leaders and managers are central to creating an effective KM strategy and conveying that insight in responsible ways. One thing is certain, while the changes researchers are calling for will result in new and different organizational structures and cultures, it begins with leaders and managers and how they choose to approach virtual tacit knowledge transfer.

2.4.1.   Elements Of Transfer

The previous discussions suggests that tacit knowledge is the new currency for sustaining organizational power that transfers from person to person through their interactions. The use of virtual teams provides opportunity for increased tacit transfer and application as knowledge transfer becomes time and place independent. The transition supporting virtual tacit knowledge transfer indicates a need for change across many parameters if efficiency and effectiveness is to be sustained.

2.4.2.   Barriers To Transfer

The barriers and obstacles to tacit transfer exist across organizational levels. A bottom-up analysis reveals that individuals become barriers to transfer when they hoard knowledge and resist collaboration. The reason for such actions includes anti-trust issues embedded in organizational culture (Augier & Vendele, 1999; Falconer, 2006; Lucas, 2006), ownership rights (Smale, 2008), and inappropriate skill level (Lee, Bonk, Magjuka, Su, & Liu, 2006). At the management trainer level barriers may take the form of unidentified tacit assets, failure to accommodate global need (Smale, 2008), resistance to change (Ordonez de Pablos, 2004), or misconceptions about ICT benefit or use (Perez-Araos, Barber, Munive-Hernandez & Eldridge, 2007). Top level leadership may deemphasize transfer to maintain competitive advantage (Augier & Vendele, 1999; Uzzi & Lancaster, 2003), or fail to understand the changing role of management in virtual transfer environments (Hackney, Desouza, & Loebbecke, 2005). Regardless of level, these barriers relay an underlying current for change. Abou-Zeid (2004b) notes that the value organizations place on knowledge shapes the culture that either facilitates or hinders transfer. Although this cultural issue is complex, many researchers believe that traditional top down approaches and value placement are outdated and need to change to reflect bottom-up approaches that promote tacit transfer (Falconer, 2006; Hackney et al., 2005; Lucas, 2006; Perez-Araos et al., 2007; Uzzi & Lancaster, 2003).

3.         Impact Of Change On Virtual Teams

The implications such changes would have on virtual teams is significant. Smale (2008) stated that teams are greatly influenced by organizational culture. If value changes were to reflect a restructuring of incentives (i.e. partnership over contractual arrangements) and the increased value of the human element (transfer of ownership to the individual) the results would increase cooperation to transfer. Sherman (1999) noted that such improved ability to transfer, capture or combine tacit knowledge would also sustain competitive advantage. Perez-Araos et al. (2007) notes that such actions would coincide with recent efforts to shift focus toward tacit transfer in peer to peer interactions. Today’s virtual team members have the ICT advantage of fluidity to change positions from “appropriators” of knowledge to “generators” (Lucas, 2006). This obviously demonstrates a literal transference of power control toward the individual. In summation, the use of ICT to support virtual team tacit transfer is necessitating a paradigm shift in power and corresponding change of duties and responsibilities away from the traditional top-down models toward ICT enhanced bottom-up forms.

4.         The Information And Communication Technology Connection

With ICTs at the center of this shift, it is important to make the connection of tacit transfer within virtual teams more concrete. The distinguishing proximity among virtual team members is conducive to analysis of distance education best practices for effective evaluation of proposed change modifications. Lee et al. (2006) and Falconer (2006) primarily dealt with distance perspective of virtual teams or learning, and for that reason they will be used extensively for this discussion. Although both support the essential need of a facilitator; Falconer (2006) identifies this role within the organization as the trainer, manager, or sometimes peers. Lee et al. (2006) places “understanding the dynamics of teams and teaming operations in online environments [as] critical to the success of virtual teams in practice” (p. 508). Hackney et al. (2005) consider the use of ICT as a bridge that narrows the distance gap among individuals. Falconer (2006) echoes Lee et al.’s virtual team research that distance learning can facilitate transfer. The purposeful use of ICTs is widely supported (Abou-Zeid, 2004b; Falconer, 2006; Lee et al, 2006). Falconer identifies a resounding characteristic of distance education practices: the development of learner autonomy and the creation of secure space for experimentation. Lee et al.’s discussion linking virtual team protocol to business efforts makes the proposed changes for organizational structure and culture supportive of the best practices employed to facilitate learning in distance education virtual team environments.

This section has discussed the barriers and challenges that face tacit transfer within virtual team environments. It has also examined research for change modifications to enhance tacit transfer. These proposed changes include altered culture and emerging roles for managers and trainers that support individual-centered approaches for promoting tacit transfer within virtual team environments.

5.         Conclusion

To attain optimal tacit knowledge transfer within virtual team environments, organizational structure and culture concerning tacit transfer and virtual protocol will have to be purposefully re-designed. The distance factor magnifies this need and is driving framework development. The best practices identified within the field of distance education that promote healthy virtual encounters can be adapted to accommodate organizational virtual team efforts to exchange and transfer tacit knowledge. The following virtual tacit transfer framework adapts six key distance education strategies to foster tacit transfer among organizational virtual teams: employee-centered approach, periphery management guides interaction and knowledge creation, select appropriate technologies to promote autonomy, partnership oriented incentives, tacit knowledge ownership negotiation, and ongoing opportunities for lifelong learning.  Future efforts need to evaluate the effectiveness of the proposed framework within the organizational virtual team environment.

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