Understanding different types of knowledge and their importance

By Randi Sherman

6 min read

Understanding different types of knowledge and their importance
Illustration by Maya Ramadhina

As the saying goes, knowledge is power. To make smart choices, tackle tough challenges, set clear targets, and hit them, you must have your facts straight. Knowledge fuels progress. 

Is your company’s know-how tucked into the minds of team members and leaders? That’s pure gold. When you tap into what you know and push it to the max, it can really open doors and give your company a competitive edge. 

In today’s whirlwind of a business world, staying sharp with up-to-date knowledge can give you the edge you need. But did you know there are different types of knowledge? 

Today, we’ll look at three types of knowledge—tacit, implicit, and explicit—and define them more precisely to understand how each can be leveraged in various real-world settings and circumstances.

Unpacking the three types of knowledge: Implicit, explicit, and tacit

There are three primary types of knowledge – implicit, explicit, and tacit. 

Implicit knowledge refers to knowledge that is not easily articulated or written down but learned through experience or intuition.

Explicit knowledge can be easily documented, shared with others, and passed along in a workplace or between groups without any fuss.

Lastly, tacit knowledge is difficult to articulate and is often deeply ingrained in an individual’s experience or skills. Some skills are challenging to put into words; they’re woven into a person’s expertise like it’s second nature.

Though there are more types of knowledge, we’ll focus on the above three as it’s easy to apply them to a company’s organizational and cultural success.

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Explicit knowledge

Explicit knowledge is a good jumping-off point. This type of knowledge is easy to communicate and can be easily documented, shared, and transferred among individuals or within organizations. Explicit knowledge is part of an organization’s structure and informs capability. When it is well-rounded, documented, and managed, explicit knowledge informs business decisions, provides a basis for job-related documentation, and provides a solid basis for establishing subject matter authority. 

Explicit knowledge includes textbooks, manuals, reports, FAQs, diagrams, schematics, policies, and procedures. 

Methods and tools for capturing and sharing explicit knowledge include databases, documentation systems, and knowledge-sharing platforms, like a CMS, intranet, or employee success platform. 

The challenge with explicit knowledge is that it can quickly become outdated if key employees leave the company or the business model changes. The knowledge base containing explicit knowledge requires continuous maintenance and updating to maintain its value.

Implicit knowledge

Implicit knowledge, as it pertains to a company, is about skills learned in the course of experience. Implicit knowledge can be difficult to quantify or share with others, as the people who hold this type of knowledge often know it instinctively. They have an instinct for how it’s done, what works, what doesn’t. 

Passing along implicit knowledge is often anecdotal. For example, a new employee might be taught the processes, but finessing the results takes time and experience. It’s like learning to swim, drive, or ride a bike. You do it enough, and you’ll take it for granted, but therein lies the challenge. Documenting implicit knowledge is next to impossible, and it’s usually lost when an individual leaves an organization or retires. 

Tacit knowledge

Tacit knowledge is deeply ingrained in an individual’s expertise, skills, or inherent talent. Like implicit knowledge, this can be challenging to articulate, document, or quantify. 

Consider a scientist’s intuition or an artist’s creativity. These are intangible qualities that can’t be replicated. Emulation is possible to a certain degree, but it can’t be duplicated. 

The challenge of transferring tacit knowledge is that it is often implicit, meaning that it is acquired through personal experience. 

Documenting tacit knowledge is possible to a certain extent, but outcomes are not always predictable. For instance, a new manager might access tacit knowledge from a predecessor based on scripted responses to everyday scenarios. The issue with this is that, in the moment, emotions might take them in another direction. 

A better strategy for transferring tacit knowledge is through mentorship and coaching, which would give the mentee the benefit of oversight until the knowledge becomes implicit. 

Mentorship, coaching, and apprenticeship are excellent strategies that can be used to nurture talent, develop future leaders, and encourage innovative thinking. 


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Comparing the three types of knowledge

Explicit, implicit, and tacit knowledge are all essential assets for companies today. 

You need explicit knowledge to inform processes and support consistency. Seasoned employees usually provide this knowledge, which is essential to maintaining quality and providing teams with a baseline of excellence. Tacit knowledge often drives innovation and growth, helping to inform direction and strengthen internal culture as the company grows and evolves. 

The main differences between these three types of knowledge lie in their accessibility and transferability. 

While implicit knowledge can be challenging to articulate and share, explicit knowledge is well-documented and accessible. Tacit knowledge is also difficult to transfer but can be communicated and shared if adequate effort is applied. 

For any firm aiming to lead and innovate, the unspoken know-how that experts bring to the table is absolutely crucial. Employees leaving a company can take years of accumulated knowledge with them, so businesses must design systems to preserve and share that expertise. 

Though tacit knowledge can be the hardest to quantify, it’s not impossible. Businesses must set up solid mentorship and coaching programs so veteran employees’ priceless know-how can be passed down to the new wave of leaders and creators. 

Applying different types of knowledge and implications for the organization

Companies can leverage multiple types of knowledge to gain a competitive advantage in the market, improve processes, and achieve strategic goals. Each plays a pivotal role in innovation and problem-solving, so striking a balance between them is essential. 

For example, if all knowledge is explicit, progress and growth would be challenging. However, we need this knowledge to provide a baseline for essential processes. Implicit knowledge augments explicit knowledge, providing employees with a trusted source of how things should be done. An example could be a long-time manager that people can count on to help them navigate the intangible complexities of the job. 

Tacit knowledge is vital for developing experts and innovators within an organization. The challenges and considerations in managing and applying tacit knowledge include designing effective knowledge-sharing systems, preserving knowledge, and capturing knowledge from departing employees. Though tacit knowledge can be the hardest to quantify, it’s not impossible. Companies need to focus on establishing mentorship and coaching programs to preserve this knowledge and ensure it transfers to the next generation of leaders and innovators. 

Final thoughts

Today, we’ve broken down three vital kinds of knowledge your company should zero in on to stay ahead of the game and sustain a competitive advantage. Companies need to have a firm grip on the knowledge that will push them forward—and knowing how to wield that power is what will set them apart.

From the C-suite to the help desk and everywhere in between, explicit, implicit, and tacit knowledge can be leveraged to help companies achieve their business goals. While documenting and sharing certain types of knowledge can be challenging, a commitment to knowledge sharing through documentation, training, coaching, and mentorship makes even less tangible knowledge part of the fabric of a company’s culture.


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Randi Sherman

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