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a means of knowledge capture whereby an expert is observed performing a task and subsequently questioned.

Purpose and benefit

The purpose of observation is to watch and understand a technique or process whilst the task is being performed to help others understand or emulate this. It is particularly useful for skill-based knowledge (e.g. calibration techniques, equipment set-up and operation, specialist welding, etc.) that is difficult to describe in words or in an interview situation. The main benefit of observation is that it can be used to capture skill-based tacit knowledge. This knowledge can then be processed and modelled using other methods – e.g. using concept maps, process maps etc.


Observational techniques are a valuable means of capturing tacit knowledge. These techniques are particularly useful when trying to capture special skills (e.g. calibration techniques, equipment set-up and operation, specialist welding etc.). Simply observing and making notes as the expert performs their daily activities can be useful, although this is a timeconsuming process. Videotaping task performance can also be helpful, especially if combined with interviewing and other techniques. In general, simple observation techniques are rarely used, as they are an inefficient means of capturing the required knowledge. The description in this section applies to the observation process to be used to capture knowledge from technical experts.

  1. Pre-requisites
    1. Confirm the expert has tacit knowledge (critical knowledge) of interest that may be captured by this technique. A knowledge-loss risk assessment should have been carried out for the department or team under review.
    2. Determine the tasks that relate to this knowledge.
    3. Ensure that the expert has access to the resources, equipment and locations necessary to demonstrate the task.
    4. Video recording equipment is available to capture the output of the session.
  2. The observation process
    1. Explain to the expert what is required and which task is to be performed. Explain that he/she will be required to perform the task and be observed and recorded. Questions will be asked during the task or on completion.
    2. Start the recording equipment
    3. Record the task being performed. Ask questions at appropriate stages of the task to understand what is happening and the reasons for certain activities.
    4. Repeat the process if this is necessary to allow for different scenarios and conditions.
    5. Invite the expert to review the recording(s) and to add further explanation if necessary.
    6. Wherever possible, validate the knowledge captured with other experts or peers.
  3. Follow-up
    1. Provide a written transcript describing the activity.
    2. Use concept/process maps to help model this knowledge if possible.
    3. Retain any recordings and transcripts for knowledge preservation. Usually a portal, wiki or equivalent is used for long term storage and search/retrieve activities.


A second expert, group or learners can be used to comment on the expert’s performance. Alternatively, an expert can observe the performance of a novice/ trainee and provide insights to improving performance or mistakes. Commentating (see wiki on this) is a very similar technique to help capture knowledge this way.

Implementation guidance

  1. There are no specific rules on how observation should be undertaken. However, it is worthwhile noting:
    • Wherever possible use the technique to acquire skill-based tacit knowledge.
    • Ensure that questions are asked throughout the entire task.
    • Often experts do things which are important, second nature and easily missed.
    • Ensure the recording equipment is fit for purpose and trial this before the session in the environment to be used.
  2. Good facilitation is essential to ensure time with the expert is not wasted.

Success factors

  • Good quality recording equipment is essential.
  • Questions should be asked and answers retained if any part of the task is unclear or not understood.
  • The ability to transcribe the knowledge, model the knowledge and retain it where it can be easily accessed.

Common pitfalls

  • Recording tasks which are already described by a written process or work instruction.
  • Recording tasks which are not critical or important to the organization’s success. Observation requires much effort and subsequent modelling so should be limited to critical or important knowledge only.
  • Sometimes too much information is recorded which is irrelevant to the main task. Ensure focus on the task identified is maintained at all times

Related articles


Tacit knowledge