Onboarding, elearning and tacit knowledge

Onboarding is probably one of the best examples of how you can “pit a good performer against a bad system, and the system will win almost every time” (Rummler & Brache, 1990).

Picture this from the new hire’s point of view: They’ve just completed what was probably an exhausting interview loop, a day or series of days that can easily feel like some sort of endurance test. They have passed with flying colors, meeting or exceeding what is surely a high bar. Then, they are shown some videos (interestingly called “elearning”), given a short manual with basic resources and left at their new office. By the way, we are below in a couple of KPIs that will pop up in the next QBR, please see what you can do about those.

And it is likely that our wonderful shift to elearning is making matters worse. What used to be in-person onboarding programs that had at least the value of making new hires meet a few collegues who were going through the same transitional stage, now elearning is eliminating much of that face to face interaction and leaving new hires to fend for themselves.

The system wins

No wonder that, as Rummler and Brache suggest, the system will eat them alive. Based on my experience, I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting that onboarding alone can claim the best part of that 25% turnover figure (Employee Turnover Caused By Bad Onboarding Programs). But I do agree with the investment imbalance they describe, where hiring is put at $11k, while onboarding is described as a zero dollar effort in some companies. The assumption is that if the employee met the bar at our notoriously rigorous selection & interview process (“pride” smiley goes here) then they are perfectly capable and will learn the rest on their own. That’s where bad elearning comes in: A few resources will be thrown covering some basic skills and internal tools, that’s about it. The issue, however, is that onboarding is more than just “learning”. In fact, by passing the interview loop, most new hires have already demonstrated that their learning abilities are well above average.

But onboarding does not mean just providing some learning. Alexia Vernon covers a good list of common onboarding mistakes, and while each of the five mistakes described is great advice, I’m picking number 3 for this post, “Failing to address culture fit”.

I don’t know you that well

Is it possible to determine the probability of a good fit at interview time? How do companies claiming to have this ability avoid the building of communities that fall too often into groupthink patterns? Isn’t the ability to detect “good culture fits” synonym with poor diversity of some kind? I can’t claim that ability. I never thought I could use it at interview time. It’s simple: I don’t get to know enough of an individual through the selection process, and they don’t get to know the culture they are supposed to be part of until the contract is signed.

This, again, is the system blaming the individual. In advance. We are blaming them of being unable to cope with a situation that has not happened yet. So I’m going to move “good fit” out the of selection and place it where it belongs: onboarding.

Four tips to embed culture in onboarding

Although every onboarding process may include some knowledge transfer, in person or through elearning, understanding culture must be part of a well-balanced mix, not only in terms of content but also timing and sequence.

1. Making company values real

Sure, the onboarding program probably has a nice professional video talking about company values. But there is nothing like talking about company values and then finishing by saying: “For example, Tom in floor 4. He exemplifies what we mean by open communication in this company. Let me set up a meeting with him, you both should have a chat”. Look around your office. Can you easily find behavior that exemplifies your company values? If so, does your onboarding program connect new hires with the individuals that make those company values living values?

2. Setting a personal networking goal

That means something like “by the end of the onboarding program, you will have X new individuals as part of your personal network”. Add your details here: for example, in order to obtain a balanced network you can suggest that new contacts have to be linked to specific competencies that are applicable to the new hire’s role. Those connections could be established among employees, external individuals, or customers.

Networking is your friend. Networking will teach new hires what videos and classes can’t. It will teach them tacit knowledge. I love watching videos with John Seely Brown talking about tinkering and tacit knowledge, and I find them so relevant to onboarding. Individuals must learn to join. The most important learning happens when things (obtained by lecture, elearning, reading or otherwise) are getting integrated in my head. This is not necessarily a conscious process, and it won’t happen in the classroom or watching a video. It happens by being constantly exposed to tacit knowledge, the fabric of a culture and a way of working, things that are so hard to explain because they are in everyone’s minds and so deeply assumed that nobody knows how to articulate or even surface them. Onboarding can accelerate culture understanding by creating opportunities for tacit knowledge transfer. You can’t convey it, but you can facilitate it.

3. Assigning buddies or mentors

This point simply expands on the need for tacit knowledge. Many onboarding programs assign a “buddy” for practical purposes, but there is a hidden value in having a new hire pair up with a colleague and being able to observe how they behave in various contexts, even in a shadowing capacity. To maximize tacit knowledge, ensure your onboarding program has a number of tasks or assignments that must be completed, covering areas relevant to the role, with their buddy. This, by the way, could be partly provided through virtual communities or corporate social networking.

4. Setting a safe first job assignment

How does failure look like in this company? And success? Can we create a safe first assignment to experience them? One where it’s OK to ask questions and be tentative? One where we can experience our first real feedback loop? After all, the onboarding program is going to take about 90 days, and during that time, you are not always expecting full performance from hew hires, so a sandboxed assignment is a good compromise that still aims for productivity. Yes, I know. That requires manager support, and as Sylvestre-Williams points out (Why Your Employees Are Leaving), such support is not always out there. But that would probably take us to metrics, best left for another post.


Rummler, G., Brache A. (1990) “Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart”, John Wiley & Sons.


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