Opinion: Is tacit-knowledge transfer another hype in the development community?

Development Asia is an initiative of the Asian Development Bank that shares knowledge solutions to help achieve the SDGs. Photo by: ADB Development Asia

Multilateral development banks put a lot of currency into knowledge sharing to spur innovation and help countries leapfrog development. At the same time, they find it quite difficult to capture and share tacit knowledge from operations in a practical manner.

As part of its long-term strategic framework, the Asian Development Bank has identified knowledge solutions as one of the core drivers of change to stimulate growth and to broaden and deepen the impact of development programs.

In the development world, communities of practice are informal voluntary groups formed among peers who share their experiences, expertise, and lessons on particular issues. ADB took it one step further by institutionalizing 15 sector and thematic groups, giving them formal mandates and resources to capture and share tacit knowledge from ADB’s operations and to promote more holistic approaches to developmental challenges we face today.

“If we are to promote the transfer of tacit knowledge ... we must begin by connecting those seeking solutions with willing experts so they can find practical solutions together.”

— Young Uck Kang, communications specialist, ADB

Many of our peers in the MDB community are, however, questioning the effectiveness of knowledge activities to capture and share development know-how to generate embodied knowledge and achieve better development results. How do we know that knowledge transfer has taken place? How do we improve the process if we do not have a clear understanding of what works and what does not? How do we then justify spending time and resources to capture and share tacit knowledge to help recipient country officials make better decisions and take effective action?

At the same time, our MDB peers increasingly recognize that complex and persistent problems that commonly burden developing countries — such as poverty, inequality, and climate change — require more holistic approaches embedded in localized policies, projects, and programs. That is why MDBs are hyped about tacit-knowledge transfer and emphasize the importance of working closely together with recipient country officials to understand their knowledge needs.

Dealing with tacit knowledge

By definition, tacit knowledge is something that cannot be fully captured by written documents, video recording, and/or simulations because it is not easy to express. Yet it is important for replication, which leads to innovation. This point can easily be illustrated by our own personal experience with learning how to cook. Knowledge and know-how are often captured through written instructions: the cookbook. Following instructions, however, does not produce consistent outcomes: Not all knowledge is captured by the cookbook, and there is tacit knowledge that needs to be shared.

Cooking shows complement the cookbook by letting you watch and imitate the expert: the master chef. Some would even go one step further by creating a robot that simulates the motions of the chef with detailed programming that consistently reproduces the dish. So now we may pat ourselves on our backs as we have captured the tacit knowledge.

Then what about the actual transfer of tacit knowledge to generate embodied knowledge?

Simply following instructions, regardless of the modality, cannot be evidence of tacit-knowledge transfer — not to mention embodied knowledge — to say that someone has reached a level of proficiency that enables them to consistently replicate and innovate.

Using different content types, Development Asia aims to capture development experiences that would be beneficial to ADB’s developing member countries. Credit: ADB Development Asia via YouTube.

Recipe for success

Let’s go back to the example of learning how to cook. In Asia and many other parts of the world, popular TV shows are centered around chefs transferring tacit knowledge to a group of willing learners. The underlying purpose — such as helping a growing number of people to cook for themselves, or preserving a traditional way of cooking — is clear. Notice that these shows provide the same learning environment and ingredients for the participants.

The results are quite shocking at the beginning: The dishes prepared by the learners, regardless of whether they are novices or experts, would taste different despite the same instructions, ingredients, and cookware. In succeeding episodes, the discrepancies in the dishes would decline. Then they would localize what they’ve learned in their own home setting, applying their understanding of transferred tacit knowledge. They may even reach the point of creating new dishes for themselves, families, and friends, demonstrating the true embodiment of transferred tacit knowledge.

Facilitating knowledge transfer

What are the underlying implications of this example? To transfer tacit knowledge to a point where it actually gets embodied by someone, regardless of whether the person is a novice or an expert, would require repeated face-to-face interactions between those seeking knowledge and those who can provide it — whom we might call seekers and providers, respectively.

Even so, the following preconditions must be met for effective and successful tacit-knowledge transfer to take place:

• There should be a clear purpose — a need to learn.
• There should be a willing knowledge seeker and provider.
• There must be mutual trust and respect between the two.
• Both must be able to communicate well with one another.

If we are to promote the transfer of tacit knowledge systematically in the development community, we must begin by connecting those seeking solutions with willing experts so they can find practical solutions together. The rest of the recipe would have to be improvised based on the needs of the knowledge seeker and availability of knowledge providers, and with repeated interactions supported by the time and resources of a benevolent intermediary: MDBs.

Development Asia

Launched in July 2017, Development Asia is a knowledge collaboration platform for connecting knowledge seekers, such as policy- and decision-makers, with an international network of experts focused on addressing challenges in achieving the SDGs. Curated solutions draw upon best-practice cases from other countries and regions. Lessons from projects are shared so that people can learn from the success and mistakes of others.

Once connected, experts share their perspectives and suggestions with development professionals on topics ranging from energy to economics and from water to waste management. We also have affiliate online communities where knowledge seekers can discuss and exchange ideas to help find localized solutions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Harnessing digital platforms

MDBs support capacity-building activities, such as workshops and seminars, which provide opportunities for face-to-face interactions between those seeking solutions and experts. They measure the intensity and effectiveness of knowledge transfer with proxy indicators and anecdotal evidence from surveys of participants.

There is, however, no guarantee that these activities generate embodied knowledge and achieve better development results. Skeptics would even say that simply presenting an opportunity for seekers and providers to interact with each other, with the hope of subsequent repeated interactions between the two, does not provide strong justifications for spending scarce time and resources just to bring about such opportunities.

What if we can provide standing opportunities for seekers to interact with the right providers that are not bound by time and space?

MDBs such as ADB are looking at digital platforms, including websites and online communities, that offer easier yet sure ways to connect knowledge seekers and providers while broadening the dissemination of development know-how.

Knowledge seekers are assured of the quality and reliability of the advice and solutions, as these are curated by a trusted mediator. Experts can quickly provide practical policy advice and share lessons and best practices. Once connected, they may decide to work closely with each other to find localized solutions through repeated face-to-face interaction.

With such an approach, the time and resources spent on transferring tacit knowledge are not wasted. This would have a higher probability of connecting those seeking solutions to the right experts and peers at the right time — finding the right people when one needs them.

To overcome the challenges we face today and move rapidly toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, knowledge collaborations among practitioners, policymakers, civil society, and experts are the building blocks for “finding solutions together.” And one must not hesitate to share their experiences and lessons through trusted and willing mediators: the MDBs.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Young Uck Kang

    Young Uck Kang currently leads the Development Asia project at ADB. His areas of expertise are knowledge management, economic and social development policy, public finance, cost benefit analysis, income distribution, policymaking process, and strategic leadership. Before joining ADB in July 2014, he was a professor at KDI School of Public Policy and Management in the Republic of Korea. He has a Ph.D. and M.Phil in public administration from New York University, MPP from University of Chicago, and MBA from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.