Tacit, Explicit and Cultural Knowledge in a Student-Run Bookshop

When I took a module in Management during my MLIS, we had to reflect on aspects of the subject in relation to our real lives and our own experience. I had initial trepidations about this task as much of my own experience lay in retail (a bookshop and copy-print centre) and in teaching. However after some reading on the topic, I found it easier to place myself, retrospectively, in the role of ‘manager’. This piece was originally published on The Librarian Manager, my blog for that module. However, I’ve edited down a little to replicate it here.

Reading: Managing and Organisations, by Stuart R. Clegg and Chun Wei Choo’s ‘Working with knowledge: how information professionals help organisations manage what they know’.

How to manage knowledge within an organisation

My interpretation of this topic was that knowledge within an organisation is a fluid, ever shifting concept which needs to be maintained, encouraged, and nourished. By providing members of the organisation with incentives and opportunities to build on their knowledge, codify this knowledge, and share and expand on this knowledge, organisations can facilitate exploitation and exploration of knowledge (allowing companies to be the best within their field of expertise and giving space for the company to explore alternatives to their current model, in case of a quickly evolving market or the ongoing technological revolution, to give two examples). All of this must be encouraged while making sure not to succumb to information overload – or any non-discriminating collection of knowledge.

On a micro level, companies can encourage innovation by allowing staff time to think creatively, and by allowing all members of an organisation take part in whatever process in which the company is engaged. The end result of this process cannot be controlled or managed, but managers can do everything in their power to point it in a certain direction.

Another organisational challenge is to maintain momentum, keep on top of chaos and never allow the company to stagnate within a particular rut (even if that rut is a commercially successful product – there needs to be an alternative in case that product is rendered obsolete by some technological development or environmental directive).

Choo’s article went into more detail than Clegg’s chapters with regard to Tacit Knowledge, Explicit Knowledge and Creative Knowledge. While reading her explanation of these terms, my own experience working in a very small business came to mind.

My personal experience

house6_borderWhen I was an undergraduate student, I worked part-time in the Students’ Union (SU) Bookshop on campus in Trinity. It was a second-hand bookshop, and while it was under the auspices of the SU, it was run as a co-operative. The six co-operative members jointly managed and ran the shop, dividing hours and responsibilities six ways. The co-op had run this way for over a decade, and expertise and experience had been passed down from member to member. When people left (usually when they were graduating) a new member would be found through interview, and a long training process ensued where as much knowledge as possible was passed down to the new member. Where possible, we carefully avoided losing more than two members at a time (though once, this proved unavoidable). When hiring new members, all current members had to agree, and new members were selected using several criteria, including free hours, enthusiasm, subject knowledge and willingness to work in a team. We tried to balance subject knowledge. While we could have run an exclusively English Literature-only co-op, it would not have helped our stock (we selected and bought our own stock, depending on perceived need amongst other things). With this small business model in mind, I thought of the various types of knowledge mentioned in Choo’s article.

Tacit knowledge: I interpret this as an individual person’s ability to understand his or her job from their past experience. In relation to the SU Bookshop, my tacit knowledge was my intuition about which books were likely to sell, a general idea of how much certain books should cost, and what to advice English or Philosophy students who weren’t sure which books they actually needed to buy (these were my own undergraduate subjects). Further tacit knowledge was the ability to deal with a queue of people, knowing where to go if I needed till roll or change, what detail to put into weekly minutes and how to deal with our accountant. I also knew, tacitly, how and where to shelve books, which section a historical novel went in, whether to buy Cliff Notes, when to turn down a student’s request to sell their books and what to say to the Americans who turned up looking for Kelly’s Book (it being Trinity College, this happened with alarming regularity. I kid not).

So how did the SU Bookshop ensure that my tacit knowledge wasn’t lost when I graduated? First, we often worked in pairs for certain tasks, so a relatively newer co-op member would be on the same shift as me. I would go through a particular section or task with this person if the shop was quiet, and let them emulate or copy me the next time around. I would share my experience through telling stories over coffee, through regular social outings, and in my report to our weekly meeting. As my final year was drawing close, I added to our “Co-opsters’ Notebook” any gems or important things I felt had helped me within the shop. And finally, my replacement was taken on six weeks before I left, and she shadowed me for that whole period.

Explicit knowledge: This is more of a rule-based knowledge; it is more formal and usually documented. With the SU Bookshop, this was our formal, documented policy system.

  • If X happens, do Y.
  • If a student brings a novel, and if the novel is likely to sell, give that student 30% of the original price, and mark that up to 50% on the price sticker.
  • When we have only two lab coats in a particular size left [we sold lab coats and dissection kits as well as books], and if it’s the first semester, then order 20 more coats if it’s Small, 30 more coats if it’s Medium, 20 if it’s Large, and so on. If it’s the second semester, do not order more lab coats.
  • If you are working alone, and you need to leave the shop, do not leave a customer in the shop when you leave. Double lock the door and leave a note saying when you’ll be back.

These rules could be followed by anyone, even on their first day. They didn’t require experience, but they were still vital. They were written up in a document, which was easily accessible. The rules were added to over time, and irrelevant ones were removed.

Cultural knowledge: This is the core beliefs and understandings of the organisation, based on years of experience, observation and reflections. To the SU Bookshop, we promoted the fact that we were a service rather than a commercial, profit-making entity. We resisted pressure from the SU accountant to increase the prices and to only stock expensive Business and Science textbooks. We encouraged our customers to stay as long as they wanted, and provided a window seat for those who wanted to read but not buy. We continued to include subject sections which made a loss because we believed it was important to provide these books. We displayed notices and flyers for smaller societies with tiny budgets, but didn’t display posters for the big campus societies. We made cups of tea for customers who looked like they needed them. We welcomed past co-op members, and contacted them for advice if we weren’t sure how to deal with issues. We took turns with working early shifts and quiet shifts. We gave old stock to charity shops or let customers take them for free.

Very little of this was documented, but there was an organisational memory and an understood philosophy which made it easier for us decide how to run the shop, and how to stay true to our ethos.

**The people currently working in the SU Bookshop don’t know me or my cohort in any real sense, but our contributions to the shop are still visible and policies we introduced still exist. For many years, each co-op member left a paint hand-print over

**Sadly the SU Bookshop was closed down for financial reasons since this post was first published. It has been replaced with an online, buy-and-sell listing for students. All the lovely accumulated knowledge gathered over the years lives on in the minds of the many co-opsters lucky enough to work there for a time. And the student body? They get this: http://bookshop.tcdsu.org/

The new SU "bookshop"

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