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The Role of Meta-Abilities in the Diffusion of Tacit Knowledge and

Information Systems
Mohamad Hisyam Selamata and Jyoti Choudrieb
Department of Information Systems and Computing
Brunel University, Uxbridge UB8 3PH, UK
Tel : 0044 1895 203375, Fax : 0044 1895 251686, E-mail :
Department of Information Systems and Computing
Brunel University, Uxbridge UB8 3PH, UK
Tel : 0044 1895 274000 ext 3769, Fax : 0044 1895 251686, E-mail :

ABSTRACT Structured, explicit knowledge is the visible top of the
Diffusing tacit knowledge, a transparent and subjective iceberg. This part of the knowledge resource is easy to
form of knowledge, needs an individual’s ability to find and recognise, and therefore easy to share. This is
externalise and sharing of this knowledge. This paper undertaken in organisations using different forms of
proposes a framework for the diffusion of tacit technological and pedagogical methods. Beneath the
knowledge by using the concept of meta-abilities. The surface, an invisible and hard to express form exists and
argument of this paper is that meta-abilities develop this is the momentous part of the iceberg. This hidden
individual influencing skills and sharing attitudes. These part applies to the tacit knowledge resources in
two elements in turn enable individuals to externalise organisations. Polanyi (1966), when defining what is
their tacit knowledge in the form of creative idea, tacit knowledge, says that “we know more than we can
actions, reactions and reflection. Documenting these express.” Therefore this part of the knowledge resource
externalised and shared knowledge can provide a basis can be difficult to share, and obtain.
to keep Information Systems (IS) updated with relevant
and reliable “best practices”. From a discussion of this The purpose of this paper is to provide a theoretical
framework, it is concluded that the future focus for the understanding on the framework for the diffusion of tacit
diffusion of tacit knowledge should be toward an knowledge which is developed using the concept of
individual’s meta-abilities development that develop meta-abilities. The concept of meta-abilities is proposed
creativity and interpretivity. There should also be an because it consists of competencies that enable people to
impetus towards creating the right organisational use their knowledge effectively (Butcher et al., 1997). In
culture and infrastructure that promotes tacit knowledge other words, this paper tries to understand: does the
sharing and externalisation within and between development of meta-abilities lead to a successful tacit
employees. knowledge diffusion and thereby provide relevant input
for future IS development. This paper begins with
Keywords definitions and knowledge background to the discussion
area. Following that, the description of the diffusion of
Tacit knowledge; Meta-abilities; Influencing skills; tacit knowledge is provided. Thereafter, a brief
Sharing attitudes; Action; Reaction; Reflection; Idea description of meta-abilities is offered. Before defining
the framework that illustrates the relationship between
1.0 INTRODUCTION meta-abilities and tacit knowledge diffusion, the
rationale of the adoption of meta-abilities in the diffusion
There are different levels of knowledge that can be of tacit knowledge is presented. This is followed by the
recognised and understood in an organisation’s section that examines the implications of the framework
knowledge resources (Gore and Gore, 1999). The easiest on the IS area. In the final section, the conclusions and
form of knowledge to understand is that of structured suggestions for further research are dealt with.
knowledge. This is one that can be obtained from
databases and instruction books. Unstructured 2.0 BACKGROUND TO THE DISCUSSION
knowledge which is found in reports or discussion AREA
documents is possible to understand but this is not
always the case. The hardest form of knowledge (in Currently, organisations are facing a turbulent business
terms of understanding or detection) is tacit knowledge environment and need to develop all the resources they
which is the most transparent and subjective form of have (Stewart, 1997a). These resources include cash,
knowledge (Augier and Vendelo, 1999). plant, equipment, land and employees. One of the most
important resources within an organisation are the
An organisation’s knowledge resources have pertinently employees (Saint-Onge, 1996; Stewart, 1997a). This
been described as an iceberg (Haldin-Herrgard, 2000). particular group of resources have knowledge and the

1998.. The performance and productivity of an organisation. Sveiby. why and how meta- abilities will be utilised in the diffusion of tacit Other researchers have similarly stressed the importance knowledge. Also employees have to think and articulate systematically the best actions to Saint-Onge (1996) has found that the importance of tacit tackle a problematic situation. This is because. Bennett. 2002). experience. will lead to conflict between studied. 2001). However tacit knowledge is not easily diffused. 1995.0 TACIT KNOWLEDGE DIFFUSION peoples’ tasks (Smith. On the other hand. They defined Duguid. 2000). 1999). internalisation or strong feelings. Therefore. serving intelligence that guides the use of other kinds of customers or producing goods is improved by the intelligence and skills (Goleman. management (KM) literature and is discussed in the next analogies or metaphors (Nonaka and Takeuchi. 2001). this paper proposes the concept organisational members and inefficiency in an attempt to of meta-abilities. all these methods can only elicit the knowledge that is used to manage a person’s or other 3. 1999). This proposed methods are examples such as. diffusion is also one of the more Stewart. meta-abilities also 1998. raise the factors that prevent individuals from sharing 1971). 1999). section. or.0 META-ABILITIES • The explicit knowledge of “know-what” requires the more tacit “know-how” to put the “know-what” Meta-abilities. time. Wah. This is a wider range of managerial knowledge and skills. 1998. Shariq. 1995). 2001). 2001). individual talents (Haldin-Herrgard. of diffusing tacit knowledge in the organisation. organisational development area. All these justify the need to the IS area and thus warrants a critical understanding. 1995). It is obtained by internal individual processes unwillingness. Further. 2001. warrants a theoretical understanding. Their arguments are summarised as follows: 4. Butcher et al. words. creative and performance. known as the diffusion of tacit knowledge (Augier and narrations or story telling (Stewart. Harvey and Butcher (1998) (Random House Dictionary of the English Language. psychology area and was defined as an emotional • The efficiency of making decisions. anxiety. acquired in nature (Augier and Vendelo. meta-abilities as the underlying learned abilities which play an important role in enabling and making effective. the concept was initially applied in the form into practice (Brown and Duguid. confusion and being carried away by such as. this paper argues that systematic approaches individual’s perception and judgement. Within the use of tacit knowledge (Brockmann and Anthony. reflection. 2001). Tacit knowledge is defined as “… knowledge are also linked with language. Nonaka and further argued that the difficulties in diffusing tacit Takeuchi. Since organisations are developed on • The diffusion of tacit knowledge resolve the the basis of people. 1999. It is often difficult abilities which underpin and determine how and when to express or document knowledge that appears obvious knowledge will be practised within the organisation. knowledge exchange protocols (Herschel been examined in the large amounts of knowledge et al. meta-abilities are those personal. (1997) introduced the concept when one staff leave the company (Srikantaiah and in their research and found that meta-abilities is Koenig. Karhu. These of collecting individuals’ tacit knowledge are inadequate. 1997b) and the creation of concepts or important factors to be used in this paper and thus hypotheses (“what if…”) (Nonaka and Takeuchi. Therefore it will lead to the phenomenon where people often understanding tacit knowledge is critical in establishing externalise and share it through creative and spontaneous cohesion in the process of improving organisational conversations (Smith. 2000). 1998). began to be used. 2000). 1998). knowledge is Since tacit knowledge is not easily measured and externalised and shared in order to improve the quantifiable. Trivialising tacit knowledge. 1991. the ways of diffusing it are several. When activities are undertaken by employees. the repertory grid (Jankowicz. knowledge for which people do not have their tacit knowledge such as lack of confidence. perceptions and judgements in turn are instrumental in This is because the nature of tacit knowledge is such that the organisational decision making process. Vendelo. it is From the understanding of the difficulty in diffusing tacit argued. interview process of externalising and sharing tacit knowledge is sessions (Brooking. Meta-abilities is also a novel concept to achieve organisational goals. The diffusion of tacit knowledge has Linde. value and being understood without being openly expressed” distance. knowledge rationalises the need to diffuse tacit knowledge in the organisation. diffuse tacit knowledge in the organisation. To achieve this. tacit knowledge implicitly develops an knowledge. grounded in the view that an individual’s effective • Coded information is unusable without the performance is inextricably linked to his/her augmentation of tacit knowledge (Brown and psychological development or maturity. The next sections defines what. 1997b. this concept needed to be problem of “reinventing the wheel” which occurs emphasised. 1995). It is as tacit knowledge (Nonaka. Basically. . as argued by spontaneous diffusion of tacit knowledge needed to be Saint-Onge (1996).knowledge that resides in the employees’ mind is known and natural to oneself (Haldin-Herrgard. In due to tacit knowledge being transparent and subjective other words.

Under this model. This is due to creative. These skills allow organisational actions (espoused theories) which can differ markedly members the personal robustness to direct their from the theories implicit in the same actions (theories- energies. This professional work is seen as chiefly creative and spontaneous manner. interpretive Lester (1995) found that there are two views of individuals. analyse problems and provide the solutions. have the capability to diffuse tacit knowledge in a rational model. Includes self-control and provided by Argyris and Schön (1974). and to respond intelligently to unknown situations and go sort and analyse data. As such. This helps organisational members to knowledge has little bearing on practice. meta-abilities enable individuals Such a situation is obtained by acquiring education and to provide greater insight and are more direct in focusing training. Lester (1995) proposes actions. In order to obtain the creative-interpretive models. In a rapidly situations. These skills allow organisational members to tacit knowledge. The creative-interpretive model looks pertinent and distinguishing one’s own needs from those of in understanding creative and spontaneous diffusion of others. The The benefits of meta-abilities were also recognised when dominant approach to develop individuals in general and it was found that the initial development of meta-abilities within the 20th century is the technocratic model (Bines. knowing one’s own motivations and values practice. The first one is the technical. (2) relating this knowledge to cases and puzzles. interpretive consider a range of options in their own behaviour individuals have the capability to determine how and and to make better judgements of what to do. individuals increasingly need to integrate them. deal with intense situations and manage in-use). and balance feelings develop theories for rationalising and explaining their about oneself. this is demanding than just acquiring knowledge and skill. Adding to espoused theories is therefore no challenges healthily. assertiveness. perspective. persist. The second From Butcher et al’s (1997) research. being able or internship. they can influence key people such as the Education and training are primarily focused on the senior and middle management. this paper OF TACIT KNOWLEDGE argues that the development of meta-abilities can be used as a means of developing creative. to envision strategic futures. interpretive individuals. they are able to extend their personal the process of reflecting. In addition. This is In the aforementioned discussions. This involves self-motivation and will be modified. involves increasing self-knowledge. These skills allow beyond established knowledge to create unique organisational members to read situations. enquiring and creating.0 META-ABILITIES AND THE DIFFUSION et al’s (1997) conception of meta-abilities. attention and asking significant questions. It is argued that discipline. They when knowledge will be practised. unlearning past habits and improving meta-abilities. Further it was argued base. this paper intends knowledge and skills they have. This means that there is an understand and resolve problems. serve as role models and acquisition of new knowledge and skills. Indeed it may only lead to further determination. the nature of meta- due to factors which keep individuals from using the abilities has been examined. Drawing on Butcher 5. one is the creative-interpretive model. abilities were identified: the practitioner operates reflectively and intelligently in • Cognitive skills. It offered. concerned with applying expert knowledge objectively to . However. Includes the ability to notice and problematic situations to design and create desired interpret what is happening in interpersonal outcomes rather than just solving problems. become more challenging in the workplace. that meta-abilities contribute in important ways to (3) applying it through some form of supervised practice individuals being more astute and insightful. a willingness to take responsibility rationalising and the apparent lesson that theoretical and risks. (1997) argue that the importance of gaining knowledge is obvious but they are not sufficient in themselves. to entertain multiple perspectives and changing environment. the ability to use emotion well to cope individuals tend to use formal or external knowledge to with pressure and adversity. guarantee that theories-in-use (and therefore practice) • Personal drive. motivate others and meet targets. acquisition of the profession’s fundamental knowledge- persuading and developing others. Further justification for the creative-interpretive model is • Emotional resilience. As a consequence. allow other skills and knowledge to be used more flexibly. increasing need to shift from the technical-rational model • Self-knowledge. Seeing oneself through another’s to the creative-interpretive model in professional eyes. to specifically develop to make better judgements and to see more alternative creative. interpretations and outcomes. but all sphere of influence and provide a more critical within a professional practice and learning situation. individuals need to be creative and interpretive. For this reason they to examine how meta-abilities assist in the diffusion of argue that individual development is much more tacit knowledge and in the following section. On the other hand. dealing with conflict. results in improved personal influencing skills. four main meta. interpretive individuals in turn professional practice. Butcher et al. Creative. It typically consists of three broad stages: (1) communication. such as 1992).

Stage 2: internal evaluation The terms ideas. By and political issues as well as changing technology. a 6. knowledge such as a high level of confidence. Stage 3: influencing skills and sharing attitudes P1. an individual implicitly expresses his/her tacit R-R can provide useful and relevant inputs for knowledge. All the internal elements P5. In order to make a decision Documenting these externalised and shared tacit of the situation. individuals are generating creative resource. seen organisation. As a result. This is attitudes. reflection and ideas. These forms can be transformed externalised knowledge will become information that can into one iterative process. Implicit in these individual responses are an individual’s These propositions are illustrated in the form of a “influencing” and “sharing” activities within the framework in Appendix 1. reflection and ideas. Therefore. ideas. (1997). All these internal processes will interact with the individual expert Having understood the research topic from a theoretical knowledge in order to produce rational solutions to perspective. practicing these influencing skills and sharing attitudes. politics and culture. Stage 1: problematic situation How do meta-abilities assist in the diffusion of tacit A situational problem faced by an organisation or knowledge? Butcher et al. active development of his/her organisation. Lastly. This section will now describe and discuss them. Therefore this paper proposes an I-A-R-R continuum to represent Using the hierarchy of IS as suggested by Laudon and the externalisation process of tacit knowledge. reaction. An individual requires the emotional resilience to be able to retain an objective view of his or herself. determine the best solutions. reactions. Individual actions. (1997) argue that meta. the propositions that have been presented in diagrammatic form. the ideas and reflection. human directly or indirectly. The role of knowledge stewards is to document the externalised tacit knowledge (in I-A-R-R form). actions. Sharing attitudes are positively related to individual willingness. This I-A-R-R continuum Stage 4: I-A-R-R continuum contains tacit knowledge that has been externalised and When undertaking “influencing” and “sharing” activities. knowledge enables continuous re-examination and Further these can be used to understand and resolve modification processes of IS. Examples of physical forms of practices” in dealing with problems or utilising resources knowledge expression are: actions and reactions. as shown in Stage 5: knowledge stewards Appendix 1. which begins with the idea be accessed by all organisational members. enable individuals to generate idea (I). It can be contrastingly. the process of externalising that meta-abilities create influencing skills and sharing tacit knowledge by an individual within the organisation attitudes and. good judgement and being actions. Self-knowledge enables individuals to use out to conceptualise meta-abilities in the diffusion of their knowledge flexibly. P4. reactions. shared by individuals. After the those for the verbal form of knowledge expression are: process of documenting and coding the I-A-R-R. and . individual is the first step in highlighting the need for abilities create two humanistic elements. reactions and reflection do An individual will examine the problem situation and present forms of activities within an organisation. followed by action. Internal pressures examples are information flow. reflection and ideas are will encourage an individual to take part in sharing of the positively related to tacit knowledge diffusion. meta- P3. influencing skills and sharing attitudes becomes effective and efficient. The first is: knowledge application and may come from internal or meta-abilities create an individual’s influencing skills external pressures. Influencing skills are positively related to individual abilities build positive characteristics in using tacit actions. motivated by strong feelings. This expression is either in physical form organisational IS development. and organisational power. an understanding in the form of propositions problems. cognitive skills assist individuals. meta-abilities develop sharing attitudes. Meta-abilities are positively related to influencing An individual will externalise the rational solutions to skills. reaction (R) and reflection (R). this paper sets problems. Documenting and coding the I-A. action (A). P2. because. problems that are produced in stage 2 using two means. form better judgements for tacit knowledge and to study its impact on IS future actions and form an eagerness that will allow them development. actions. has been formed and conceptualised. Whilst that are available within one organisation. reaction and reflection. Laudon (2003) (in Figure 1). are now explained below. as argued by Butcher et al. Based on this conceptualisation. External pressures can be economic and second. one to obtain a range of behavioural options for themselves. framework will be offered.0 FROM DEFINITIONS TO A personally driven ambition enables an individual to FRAMEWORK motivate ones self and others as well. The main purpose of the (that is related to body appearance) or verbal form (that framework is to establish an effective way to store “best is related to language). Meta-abilities are positively related to sharing Namely influencing skills and sharing attitudes. reactions and reflection. resilience.

To should concentrate more on the creation of fulfil this task. that in order to maintain an effective and efficient IS based IS? This will be discussed in the following operations. The I-A-R-R continuum can be used as a authors intend to discuss its implications for the IS area. 2002. Tacit knowledge meetings or rational discourse sessions that occur within resides in an individual’s mind and it is obtained through the organisation. delivery and sharing of practices” in running daily activities or solving problems valuable knowledge that is externalised by individuals. able to make better judgements and to see Source: Laudon and Laudon (2003) more alternative actions. This process in Therefore the focus of the people implementing turn will enrich an individual’s understanding of the knowledge-based IS might be to concentrate on organisation’s activities (tacit knowledge) and eventually providing appropriate skills to enable organisational provide a continuous I-A-R-R feedback for continuous members to make explicit their tacit knowledge. the continuum”.0 IMPLICATIONS FOR THE IS AREA processes. 2000. (1997). To evade By the time the inputs are transformed into codified “reinventing the wheel” phenomena in doing that task. relationships between knowledge stewards and other Even the explicit knowledge such as instruction books. Then. Therefore a meta-abilities development programme can be used as a development strategy for knowledge-based IS in Information Information Business technology Systems Solution organisations. 2003). Technology can certainly Stage 7: information interpretations contribute in obtaining these environments by providing The organisational members can get access to the “best methods for the processing. argued that in managing organisational IS. Knowledge has been meeting with organisational members in the considered as one of the basic inputs for achieving this organisation. These internal qualities enable individuals to make explicit their tacit knowledge effectively and efficiently. This is evident from the idea. In this paper. The main goal of an IS is to provide information that is Third.. values. by using information technology (IT). Individual tacit knowledge can be in the form of skills. committee members to acquire inputs from the Srikantaiah and Koenig. it is not . domain within the systems. knowledge stewards have to attend externalisation and sharing practice. the framework implies the importance of IS useful for purposeful actions within the organisation committee members to attend the formal or informal (Laudon and Laudon. written descriptions and instructions. persuading and developing others. trust and personal continuous individual learning and practical processes. preferences and Stage 6: systems analyst criteria. dealing with conflict. It is paragraphs. Second. it contributes in important ways to individuals being more astute and Figure 1: The hierarchy of information systems insightful. knowledge-based IS development business report). Stewart. a First and foremost. 1995. What are the implications of the organisational IS accordingly. such as Organisation communication. assertiveness. Of course. Choo. According to Butcher et al. An individual will apply his/her tacit knowledge The role of a systems analyst is to study the documented when undertaking a task. The purpose of this meeting is to enable IS goal (Nonaka and Takeuchi. organisational members is the basis of achieving goods report and discussion documents can be argued to be the results at this stage. This situation illustrates above framework in the development of knowledge. view is accepted then knowledge-based IS might have a more legitimate focus within human resources departments rather than IT departments.transform them into explicit knowledge (such as. this is termed as the “I-A-R-R following discussions. organisational members and to update the content of Lee and Hong. infrastructure in which knowledge can be shared and disseminated is important. 1997a. This process will slowly inputs provided by knowledge stewards and codify them. 2002). If this IS re-examination and modification processes. The conceptual framework for the diffusion of tacit action. 2001. reaction and reflection produced when facing knowledge presented in this section is the premise to the problems. they will become the need to create the right organisational culture and information. basis of providing relevant and reliable information for continuous IS re-examination and modification 7. outcomes of tacit knowledge. initially the development of meta-abilities results in improved personal influencing skills. the externalisation practice is established Business through the individual influencing and sharing Challenges commitment and capabilities and is therefore founded on Management the growth of individual meta-abilities. Jarrar. In the following section. IS members must go beyond their office. establish “best practices” in handling that task.

A. (1998). 5 (1): 68-75. reactions and reflection. (1998). should happen if this is the case?” or “What will happen Influencing skills and sharing attitudes in turn enable if…?”. 3 (4): 252-261.P. (3) rapid changes in the business environment and organisational life. there is a need to increase self. changing reality. Issues in Course Design. unlearning past habits and improve abilities Knowledge in Strategic Deliberations and Decisions. The Importance of Tacit knowledge. In this case. (eds. Buckingham: Open University Press. their feedback on IS performance. Previous literature on KM has the contents of organisational IS are subjected to highlighted the extensive role of individuals (Sveiby. There are also factors that Cognition and Management of Tacit Knowledge. In Bines. The sharing tacit knowledge are inadequate to understand Influence of Tacit Knowledge and Collective Mind on those intangible factors. 2000. studying the role of meta-abilities in the diffusion of tacit There should also be an impetus towards creating the knowledge within the organisation. In the . (1998). D. However most of the “company way. H. Instead they have to meet and interact with the individuals to externalise their tacit knowledge in the users. The Education. 2002). and Anthony. Techniques.N. and Vendelo. Theory in Practice: tacit knowledge residing in an individual’s mind and its Increasing Professional Effectiveness. 1998. (1974). Continuously challenging the current Bhatt.0 CONCLUSION case study to examine the suitability of the aforementioned conceptual framework.practical for IS members to just simply predict the framework. developed based on meta-abilities. (2001). the framework implies the importance inputs provided by knowledge stewards and codify them. mechanistic and structural form of externalising and Brockmann.” such systems are expected to prevent literature discusses the role of human beings in a the core capabilities of yesterday from becoming core mechanistic and structural form without explaining how rigidities of tomorrow. Systems analyst will study the documented Last but not least. actions. build good relationships with them and obtain form of creative idea. W. Therefore the main focus of IS an individual can make explicit his/her knowledge. Rapid changes in the business Bhatt. The reasoning This paper has described the role of meta-abilities in the for this is that a deeper and meaningful appreciation of diffusion of tacit knowledge. The authors of this paper are going to utilise an in-depth 8. continual re-examination and modification given the 1997. Therefore the adoption of meta. tacit knowledge diffusion and professional practice literature.). E. X abilities in the diffusion of tacit knowledge and a (2): 204-222. to develop an individual’s commitment and capabilities Augier. (2) the existence of factors which prevent individuals from using the 9. there is a need Bass. prevent individuals from using the knowledge and skills Journal of Knowledge Management. Due to the Argyris. that underpin and determine how and when knowledge Management Decision.D. Developing Professional based on the situational context and orientation. a business report). R. they have. Journal of Management Issues. Strategic Planning. M. (1992). D. London: Jossey- transparent and subjective characteristics. 2001. Journal of situations and go beyond established knowledge to create Knowledge Management. All these highlight Bines. This cohesive style Knowledge stewards will document the externalised tacit will develop synergistic inputs for continuous knowledge and transform them into explicit knowledge improvement of organisational IS. M. Networks. Brooking. London: Thomson Learning The framework for the diffusion of tacit knowledge is Europe. the need to understand the diffusion of tacit knowledge and Watson. and skills will be used. (such as.T. Therefore. advantages and disadvantages of this need to adopt meta-abilities in the field of tacit conceptual framework can be obtained by examining knowledge diffusion are recognised: (1) tacit knowledge theory in a practical situation. meta. Three main reasons for the the characteristics. the development of meta-abilities results in answer for the following questions in their office: “What the individuals influencing skills and sharing attitudes. 36 (9): 589-597. and People.H. unique interpretations and outcomes. (1999). and Schön. resides in an individual’s mind. 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experimenting.APPENDIX 1: META-ABILITIES FOR TACIT KNOWLEDGE DIFFUSION Stage 1: problematic situation Stage 5: knowledge stewards .coding • Personal driven • Reaction • Reflection creates Stage 3: disseminated sharing information Expert knowledge attitudes Stage 7: information interpretation – reading the documents.documenting externalised tacit Stage 2: internal evaluation knowledge in I- creates A-R-R form provides Stage 3: inputs influencing Meta-abilities skills • Cognitive skills Stage 4: I-A-R-R Continuum • Self-knowledge • Idea Stage 6: systems • Emotional resilience • Action analyst . forming internal models internalisation process Tacit knowledge Explicit knowledge .