Managing knowledge is of central importance to organisational success (Chia, 2003). The focus of knowledge management systems has progressed from the management of explicit knowledge to management of tacit knowledge. The importance of tacit knowledge is highlighted by Wah (1999:27) who argues that 90% of the knowledge in any organisation is embedded and synthesised in people’s minds. However, tacit knowledge is the specific type of knowledge that is characterised as extremely difficult to capture or to articulate (Nonaka, 1994). Academics and practitioners alike have gained an appreciation for this type of knowledge. Tacit knowledge has become recognised as a significant and advantageous part of the knowledge base of both individuals and organisations. However, in order for organisations to take full advantage of their current tacit knowledge base they must encourage individuals to both capture and transfer it.

This article addresses the difficulties associated with the capture and transfer of tacit knowledge. Szulanski (2000) identified a concept he called ‘stickiness’ to describe the difficulty of this process. It is generally assumed that tacit knowledge is both costly and time-consuming to transfer (Szulanski, 1995). It has been shown however, that tacit knowledge is transferred on a regular basis within organisations, sometimes with great difficulty and sometimes with ease. In order to assist both individuals and organisations in their attempt to transfer tacit knowledge we must first identify the obstacles that stand in their way. Szulanski (2000) discussed eight areas of difficulty which are experienced during a knowledge transfer. He categorises them into two separate areas of the transfer, namely, knowledge characteristics and situational characteristics, with four difficulties identified within each. This paper uses these eight areas of difficulty as the bounds within which to test the ‘stickiness’ of tacit knowledge transfer.

The authors conducted a systematic empirical investigation into the ‘stickiness’ of tacit knowledge transfer through qualitative semi-structured interviews and an in-depth literature review. The semi-structured interviews consisted of a detailed examination of tacit knowledge transfers among IT support professionals and both integration and software engineers. The interviewees were asked to discuss in detail times when they were involved in a transfer of tacit knowledge, and were then probed for further information on the difficulties they experienced and the obstacles they encountered. Analysis of the interview transcripts showed a vast difference in the spread and significance of difficulties experienced during the transfer of tacit knowledge compared to that of knowledge in general. However, it is important to note that Szulanski’s eight areas of difficulty are a sufficient basis upon which to study tacit knowledge transfer. Three areas of difference stood out, firstly the influence of the source on the transfer of tacit knowledge is significantly stronger than that of knowledge in general, secondly the reasons for transferring incomplete knowledge varied greatly from that discussed by Szulanski, and finally the effect of organisation and industry culture on the likelihood of tacit knowledge transfer is considerably higher. Being aware of the difficulties that emerge during a tacit knowledge transfer allows those engaging in it to reduce these difficulties and to seek solutions to them.





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