Antonio Stradivari was an Italian luthier who started to craft violins under his own brand Stradivarius at the end of the 17th century. These violins have an outstanding sound quality and are recognized as the best in human history. For that reason, over the centuries, people tried to reveal the secrets of the master craftsman through different theories about the manufacture of the violins and materials used.
Nowadays, the remaining exemplars are auctioned with prices that exceed the million dollars.
A story about tacit knowledge
The difficulty in the knowledge transfer process is not something new. As Richard Sennett points out in his book The Craftsman, in Antonio Stradivari workshop, the work was distributed as follows: Trainees perform simple tasks preparing the material, for instance, wetting the wood or shaping it lightly. Later, officers finish carving the wood and mount some pieces of the violin like the pegbox. Finally, Stradivari makes the final adjustment of the parts and takes care of the varnishing. Also, as the master craftsman, he supervises the work of the rest during all phases of the process paying attention even to the smallest detail.
The process reminds a production chain, in which each worker only knows a part of a well-defined process, without knowing what happens in the whole process and having the possibility to experiment. In this sense, the Chief Engineer is the only one who could make changes and transfer them to the rest of the team.
When Stradivari died, he leaves no written document that allows any other to reproduce what was happening in the workshop. Through centuries, people have tried to find out the secret of his exceptionally perfect violins without much success.
The hidden truth
According to Sennet, tacit knowledge reigned in the workshop and was transmitted through practice, generating habits while copying and repairing other instruments. The manuals were not affordable at that time. On the other hand, the author speaks of a possible interest of the master craftsman in maintaining his secret, since the knowledge that he does not transmit makes him inimitable, endowing him with authority and power and being recognized for his originality.
Today, technical knowledge is widely disseminated through texts and other training material, however, we should reflect on the attitude of experts within the organization. Do they tend to train those less advantaged or they give them a quick response? Do they transfer their knowledge to the organization, or their work is incomprehensible or difficult in the eyes of others? Do the generate good practice manuals, describe processes, solutions, etc. or they try to solve everything by themselves?
Recall that the challenge of knowledge to make explicit the tacit or hidden remains today, and the key is to have a good knowledge management system that makes easier the step. In your case, would you be prepared before Stradivari leaves your company?