Procedural knowledge, also known as imperative knowledge, is the type of knowledge exercised in the performance of a task. It’s basically “how” you know to do something.
The classic example of procedural knowledge is riding a bicycle. When someone was teaching you how to ride a bicycle, no matter what they said, you probably struggled to grasp it until you’d actually done it a few times. Once you figured it out, it quickly became implicit knowledge. That is, the type of knowledge that is hard to explain as it is subconsciously stored in your mind; (‘muscle memory’ is another phrase used to describe implicit knowledge).
Procedural knowledge differs from declarative knowledge, which is thought of as ‘knowledge about’ or the answers to the what, where, when, or who types of questions, rather than the ‘how.’ Facts, world history, or rules for mathematical equations are all examples of declarative knowledge.
Declarative knowledge is also usually explicit knowledge, meaning that you are consciously aware that you understand the information. For example, you know for a fact that 10/22/1987 is your birthday because you were born on the 22nd day of October in the year 1987.
When Is Procedural Knowledge Important?
Different types of knowledge can be more or less effective, given the scenario in which they’re used. For example, you can score 100% in your driving theory test, yet still not be able to actually drive a car. In that case, your declarative knowledge of driving is almost useless, as you can’t actually put it into practice until you have an understanding of the procedural knowledge involved in driving the car itself.
You might know what every road sign in the US means, what every button on your dashboard does, and what lies underneath the hood, but you don’t know how to parallel park or shift from 1st to 2nd gear.
Let’s take a look at how procedural knowledge can be applied across various industries and technologies.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
When AI applications leverage procedural knowledge, this opens up more opportunities than a purely declarative knowledge-based application. A Procedural Reasoning System (PRS) is a “framework for constructing real-time reasoning systems that can perform complex tasks in dynamic environments.”
An example of a PRS in practice would be an intelligent agent navigating a building or room that it has plotted, rather than simply mapping out the building and room. Rather than understanding what size the building is, for example, the agent could figure out how to navigate it.
In intellectual property (IP) terms, procedural knowledge is a component of IP rights on its own merits. That said, the procedural information will usually accompany the license to the “right-of-use” of patents or trademarks.
For example, although an IP license might contain information about what an item is, where it’s made, or when it can be used, it is potentially useless information unless the knowledge of how to actually use it is also included (think back to our car driving scenario).
How knowledge management can help organizations use procedural knowledge
It’s one thing having employees who can complete tasks using procedural knowledge, but it’s another thing altogether getting those employees to pass on that knowledge for others to use. As we’ve mentioned, procedural, or imperative, knowledge can be notoriously hard to describe and tricky to document.
So, how can an organization go about the process of recording, storing, and accessing procedural knowledge to reap the benefits of doing so? An increased competitive advantage over competitors, and a reduction in brain drain are just two examples of benefits that a company can reap by tapping into the expertise of employees with substantial procedural knowledge.
Here are a few options for organizations that want to make the most of their procedural knowledge:
Pinpoint the aspects of your business processes or project that cause confusion
Example: There could well be a particular task that your new employees struggle with, and that’s perfectly normal.
Suggestion: carry out a feedback exercise to determine what aspects of an onboarding process a new employee couldn’t grasp. If there are any ‘hands-on’ tasks or processes which are flagged it might be best to get an experienced employee to physically show others ‘how’ to do it. This tutorial could be recording and stored for future use.
Figure out where employees currently go to find out “how” to complete a task
Example: If there are commonly occurring questions over the completion of a task, where are employees going to find the answer? If they’re going directly to a colleague who knows how to do it then this is a poor form of knowledge management, as the information remains trapped with one expert.
Suggestion: Use software or new technology to store commonly required information in a central location, such as an internal wiki.
Facilitating a Bias to Action
The most productive companies often display a bias to action. This bias, of course, requires that people know how to act. Make action easier for all by documenting not just what they know in order to do their jobs well, but also how they do them well.