Knowledge Isn’t Enough When You Don’t Know What You Know

Jerry Junkins, the late CEO of Texas Instruments, knew only too well that his company employed very knowledgeable people – and that, in many ways, this was a problem.  

“If TI only knew what TI knows,” he famously said.  Junkins knew that a very significant portion of the intellectual property that made Texas Instruments competitive, that TI relied upon, was locked in the brains of his engineers.  When those employees were lost to competitors, life circumstances, or simply age, much of the time their knowledge was lost to Texas Instruments as well.


Image:Jerry Junkins

This wasn’t a problem unique to TI.  Virtually every business that depends on highly skilled, highly knowledgeable staff members shares the same challenge: how to capture and preserve important data that has not been formally documented, known in research circles as tacit knowledge.

It’s also not a new problem.  An oft-cited 1994 study by the American Productivity and Quality Center reviewed the best practices of hundreds of leading companies, discovering that in even the most favorable circumstances, it took on average 27 months – over two years – for design best practices to propagate from one part of an organization to another.  

Subsequent studies have found that global telecommunications, video teleconferencing, social media, and other technology advances have improved that situation considerably.  However, they still haven’t completely solved what is essentially a human problem: the efficient transfer and utilization of critical skills, experience, data, and ideas within a consistent product design process.   


Is inefficient knowledge management damaging your ability to deliver great products?  Studies suggest several important insights into the challenges of tacit knowledge:

Knowledge hoarding isn’t the problem.  

It is often easy to assume that knowledge isn’t being shared because someone fears for their job otherwise.  But research studies have demonstrated the opposite: on a whole, most people want to share their knowledge but simply lack the effective means to do so.

The problem is that we don’t know what we know.

Studies suggest that in most cases, the challenge lies in one party not knowing that their knowledge is sought, and another party not knowing that it is available.  When a reliable collaborative system is in place to connect knowledge holders with knowledge seekers, great things happen.

Knowledge management works best when it reflects the rich oral nature of the design process.  

Much of the time, tacit knowledge is shared in discussion, critiques and brainstorming, but somehow rarely becomes formalized.  Knowledge management tends to get the best results when these systems resemble and enhance these oral discussion processes.

Value process as well as product.

When the rush to product leaves process undeveloped, vital knowledge often ends up trapped in heads of individual designers and in the objects that they create.  Prioritize creating a design and development process that incorporates complex and rich collaboration mechanisms and that thoroughly tracks the results.

Knowledge management in product design is a big and complex challenge, one that cannot be solved quickly or easily.  But by first understanding the problem – and rising to that challenge with new tools, ideas, and strategies – your company can stay competitive with great products that stay ahead.

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