Unearthing Buried Treasure Through Mentoring

Michael Jemphrey, PhD, SIL Translation & Anthropology Consultant

Tacit knowledge is like buried treasure: precious, but often overlooked because it is hidden away out of sight. Tacit knowledge includes things we do without consciously paying attention to them, like driving to a familiar destination. At a recent seminar this helpful slide was presented, distinguishing between explicit and tacit knowledge.

A hidden treasure

Organizations tend to concentrate on the 15% explicit knowledge we each have because it is more obvious and easier to document and measure. So much wisdom is in danger of being lost every time someone leaves a role – wisdom that cannot be accessed through a Google search! If we learn through robust mentoring to harness such tacit knowledge and insight, we can: accelerate the growth of younger colleagues, help them to avoid making the same mistakes we did, and create richer opportunities for transformation.

A recent personal example

After 6 years in the position of Translation Coordinator for Francophone Africa, I believed I had given what I could to the role, and that the Lord was readying me for a new challenge within SIL. The Area leadership encouraged me in this and identified someone with gifts, vision and energy to take over. I am so thankful to have had 18 months to mentor my successor. It wasn’t just a simple job handover (“here are the things to do”). Rather this period allowed us to work together on certain tasks. This individual could see the challenges we were facing. He was ready to ask some awkward questions, to ponder with me over how things were done and to bring fresh perspective and ideas. He saw the gaps, which only new eyes could notice, and did not always do things exactly as I had done. 

My successor was also aware of gaps in his knowledge and asked for background information. He was keen to introduce some changes to address particular issues. However, having grown up with the system for the past decade and having seen how it evolved, I was aware there were reasons for the way things were. After sharing that (invisible) tacit knowledge, we could then work together to come up with a modified and more gradual approach to change (one that I trust will be sustainable). So, in this context, mentoring allowed for new ideas to interact with older tacit knowledge to provide momentum for improvements.

I hope this example demonstrates the difference between sharing tacit knowledge and a simple handover. Even after my colleague took over my role, he asked me to take responsibility for the first week of a translation consultant training (interpersonal skills) while he took on the administration of the course and the organization of the second week. During this training event, we were able to continue to learn together.

Passing on the treasure of tacit knowledge

The webinar suggested that there needs to be a process in place to capture and pass on tacit knowledge. A robust mentoring process can help by:

  1. inviting the newcomer to become a valued and heard member of the team (along with competency development),
  1. allowing the transfer of knowledge while building relationships and developing new skills, 
  1. reflecting: If we do a project together, what have we all learned? What will we do differently next time? 

Retirement of an experienced member can result in a huge loss of knowledge and wisdom to a group.  When an experienced person retires, some ideas are to:

  • interview them: about their perspective their suggestions and their vision for the future of the organization
  • record them telling stories to bring to the surface their tacit knowledge
  • ask how they might like to continue to contribute on a part-time or volunteer basis to mentor others.

What ways can you think of to unbury and share this tacit knowledge in your own context?

Works Cited

Banner photo: by David Bartus on Pexels.com

Fisher YU: Corporate Mentoring and Tacit Knowledge webinar, 10 Aug 2023

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One thought on “Unearthing Buried Treasure Through Mentoring

  1. a very well thought out and important piece Michael… and so crucial as we move slowly on into new horizons and new actors (to not say new blood) come on the scene … God grant us grace to give our gifts freely and leave space for those coming up to take those parts worth taking and move on with their own visions of how to meet the need we have together committed to address

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