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Using storytelling to elicit tacit knowledge from SMEs


The knowledge cell of Thomas Gilbert’s behavior engineering model (BEM) includes not only explicit information required for performance, but also tacit or procedural knowledge accrued through years of experience. Yet tacit knowledge can be difficult to express and document. Research suggests how employers can harvest and archive tacit knowledge from their most experienced workers so that it is accessible to newer, less experienced staff.


Whyte, G., & Classen, S. (2012). Using storytelling to elicit tacit knowledge from SMEs. Journal of Knowledge Management, 16(6), 950-962. doi:


A significant challenge for any organization is finding a means of documenting and preserving tacit knowledge held by its subject matter experts (SMEs). The need becomes all the greater when the organization is faced with the loss of those SMEs, either through retirement or attrition. Unlike explicit knowledge, which typically resides in documents or electronic media, tacit knowledge makes its home in “the intuitive realm” of the mind and is often difficult to articulate.

One way to access this information is through storytelling, which contextualizes the information and demonstrates its practical application for the listener. Once tacit knowledge is accessed, the problem of just how to classify and categorize that information remains. A common vernacular must be established as part of a knowledge management (KM) framework in order to make tacit knowledge accessible to all in the organization who seek to use it.


For this study, researchers worked with SMEs in a South African-based energy group focused on the refining and marketing of petroleum and petroleum-based products. The company has offices in 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and is one of the top five petroleum companies on the continent.

The primary objective of the research was to investigate storytelling as a means of eliciting tacit knowledge from retiring subject matter experts (SMEs) within a large South African organization. This objective gave rise to two key research questions:

  1.    Can storytelling be used to elicit tacit knowledge from SMEs?
  2.    Can these stories be used to create a KM taxonomy of organizational stories?

The researchers collected a total of 64 stories through a series of semi-structured interviews from individuals identified by the company’s Human Capital Division as SMEs in their respective divisions. SMEs were permitted to choose the venue for the interviews so that they would feel comfortable. Prompt cards listing different story types (i.e. Project, Personal) were used to stimulate memories of past events. All interviews were recorded digitally and then transcribed.

After each storytelling session, the stories were reviewed and classified by a panel of experts. It was often the case that stories were classified as more than one type. The researchers then reviewed the stories to identify three elements:

  1.    a common language for classifying the stories;
  2.    a taxonomy that was KM specific; and
  3.    industry agnostic.

Researchers coded the data according to knowledge management constructs described in the literature. At the conclusion of this lengthy and iterative process, the data were sorted into 21 Primary constructs.

Grounded theory methodology and Delphi analysis by a panel of external experts reduced the classifications from 21 to 14 industry agnostic classifications shown in the table below.

Knowledge sharing Knowledge retention Innovation Knowledge culture New knowledge Knowledge application + reuse Best practices
Competitive advantage Knowledge worker Knowledge integration Risk Customer knowledge Knowledge erosion Knowledge benefits

Findings and Implications

SMEs had little difficulty relaying complex details about their job in story form. Even SMEs who were reluctant to participate in project debriefing sessions embraced the opportunity to share their “tales in the field.” Many SMEs volunteered to participate in follow-up sessions. Researchers also checked the utility of the information gained from these sessions with managers in different parts of the organization and found that the data captured meaningful aspects of SME jobs. The reputation of the SME added weight to the value of the information.

There were some challenges in getting SMEs to keep their within the ten-minute allotted timeframe. Rather than risk losing tacit knowledge, researchers suggest scheduling sessions well in advance of an SME’s departure rather than try to capture 20+ years of expertise in an exit interview.

The researchers believe theirs is the first attempt to create an industry agnostic KM taxonomy for classifying tacit knowledge. They recommend that the 14 constructs in this framework be tried and tested in other industries and organizations to gauge their general application.

Questions for OPWL-N Members

What is your organization’s view of tacit knowledge? Does it see it as valuable? What strategies does your organization use to solicit and archive tacit knowledge from senior SMEs?

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Workplace Oriented Research Central (WORC)
Prepared by OPWL Graduate Assistant, Susan Virgilio
Directed by OPWL Professor, Yonnie Chyung
Posted on April 10, 2013
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