What is Tacit Knowledge?
Can you explain all of the skills necessary to be an effective leader? What about the skills needed to create an innovative design? There are aspects of these skills that are difficult to articulate or to transfer to others via language. This hidden knowledge is referred to as implicit or tacit knowledge.
Tacit knowledge is intangible knowledge acquired from experience and insight. You will recognize it in people with competence and expertise. Decades ago, Polanyi (1966) explained that people “can know more than they are able to tell.”
The opposite of tacit knowledge is explicit knowledge, or that which is codified and transferable through written or oral language. Unfortunately, the majority of formal learning experiences focus on the transfer of explicit knowledge alone, failing to pass on tacit knowledge.
Transfer of Tacit Knowledge is Essential
There is increasing evidence that tacit knowledge is “the important strategic resource that assists in accomplishing a task (Woo, 2004).” Here are some reasons why it is essential to uncover and transmit tacit knowledge to individuals, teams and organizations.
- If subject matter experts can communicate both implicit and explicit knowledge, we will be more prepared to help novices build competence. We need to understand what contributes to an expert’s intuitive ability to solve problems, innovate, and make smart decisions. Thus, it is important that we find ways to access and encourage the transfer of tacit knowledge.
- When people with expertise leave a job, the organization often loses critical tacit knowledge because the person did not pass it on to others. This knowledge gap can be costly and time-consuming or impossible to replace (Leonard, 2014). Organizations need ways to glean and disseminate the tacit knowledge of experts for their own preservation. Transmitting this hidden knowledge is essential to an organization’s future success.
- Tacit knowledge is often embedded in an organization’s processes and procedures as a result of continuous improvements. Thus, tacit knowledge can be overwritten and lost. To avoid this, it is important to raise awareness of the organization’s tacit knowledge store and make it explicit through knowledge management strategies.
How to Recognize Tacit Knowledge in Individuals
If you are looking for ways to recognize whether tacit knowledge is present in a person’s competent performance, consider these characteristics outlined by Hedlund (2003).
- An individual acquires tacit knowledge on their own, with limited resources and support.
- Tacit knowledge is a form of procedural knowledge—the knowledge of how to perform activities as opposed to factual knowledge.
- You won’t find tacit knowledge in a book. It relies on the individual’s own experience.
- You may recognize implicit knowledge as “practical intelligence” rather than “abstract, academic intelligence.”
A practical approach for recognizing tacit knowledge comes from a conversation I had with Julie Dirksen, author of Design for How People Learn. She said that when subject matter experts explain, “you know it when you see it” or “it’s a judgement call,” she knows she is likely dealing with something that is learned through tacit pattern recognition. She went on to say, “When I encounter that, I try to plan multiple case examples into the curriculum so that novice learners can start to also recognize those patterns.”
Ways to Transfer Tacit Knowledge
If it is difficult to transfer tacit knowledge through language, then how can it be passed on? Certain strategies, listed below, allow a person to infer tacit knowledge from stories, conversations and social interactions. We also acquire tacit knowledge through conscious practice, experience and mindful reflection.
1. Collaboration and Social Networks
Online collaboration provides a framework for the transfer of tacit knowledge through a process of “socially constructed learning,” according to Harris (2009). This is based on the idea that the social nature of collaborative communities offers the opportunity to learn through shared conversations and discourses among participants. Collaborative communities provide learning opportunities and exposure to new ideas.
Also, online social networks seem to be a more efficient way to transfer tacit knowledge than are individual face-to-face interactions, according to one study (Zhua et al., 2016). By using collaborative platforms, each person becomes a node in a network of spreading knowledge, increasing their capacity to transmit to others.
2. Show Your Work
Showing your work is a strategy that calls for making one’s work visible with the intention of transferring the tacit knowledge hidden in how work gets done. This strategy calls for going beyond superficial procedures into the deeper aspects of a person’s expertise.
In her book, Show Your Work, Bozarth (2014) gathers examples of how to demonstrate showing your work. The “working out loud” strategy involves narrating your work as you are doing it. One example is a surgeon using Google Glass and narrating during surgery to medical students.
Another approach is capturing your work after the fact and writing or recording how it was done. By sharing enough information about how you get work done, others can begin to sense, recognize and acquire the tacit knowledge behind the accomplishment. Listen to my conversation with Jane Bozarth about showing your work.
This must be the decade of the story. You can find an endless stream of articles, podcasts and presentations about the the value of story and how our brains are wired for story. (On this site alone, see How to Write Compelling Stories, Visual Stories for eLearning, and Why You Need to Use Storytelling for Learning.)
It shouldn’t be surprising then, that organizational stories are considered an effective way to capture and transmit tacit knowledge. Stories transform information into knowledge. Stories provide context that give facts their meaning.
Using structured interviews, you can elicit stories from employees getting ready to retire as well as from SMEs. Then use best practices to capture, store, analyze and index the stories as part of a knowledge management system (see Reamy, 2002).
One study demonstrated that participants benefited more from video recordings over written stories because the visual and tonal cues enriched the story with facial expressions, gestures and voice fluctuations (Wijetunge, 2012).
4. Tracking Lessons Learned
Some organizations have an official process for recording lessons learned so that others can benefit from experiences in which they did not participate. Lessons learned can be thought of as realistic and relevant case studies, similar to but perhaps more efficient than storytelling. This is an effective way to spread knowledge gained from experience.
Consider audio or video recording of debriefing sessions at the end of a project as a standardized protocol for capturing lessons learned. Then store in a Wiki or database, adding metadata to improve search.
5. Guided Experience
Leonard, Barton and Barton (2013) write about a deep mentoring approach they call OPPTY. It stands for observation, practice, partnering and joint problem solving, and taking responsibility. It is a strategy for acquiring tacit knowledge through guided experiences. See the components of their method below.
- During observation, the mentee shadows an expert and analyzes what he or she does.
- During practice, the mentee replicates a specific expert behavior or task on his or her own, but with some supervision and feedback.
- In the Partnering phase, mentor and mentee work together to analyze and address challenges.
- In the Taking Responsibility phase, the mentee takes over a part of the expert’s role. During this time, the individual should reflect on each experience and internalize the knowledge gained.
Winter (2016) explains a path to acquiring tacit knowledge that does not involve transfer. The path requires a devoted person who is will to reinvent the tacit knowledge. This may take a great effort of trial and error learning as the person moves toward clear goals. It also involves demonstration by an expert and a mechanism for intensive feedback, such as that provided by a coach. Reinvention is a slower but achievable path toward acquiring a satisfactory level of tacit knowledge in a chosen area.
When certain factors in a work environment are present, it is easier to share tacit knowledge and employees are more likely to do so. The factors that make it easier to transfer tacit knowledge include developing a non-competitive atmosphere, implementing a mentoring philosophy, promoting the benefits of explaining how work gets done and modeling ways to make one’s work visible, such as sharing stories.
- Bozarth, Jane (2014). Show Your Work. San Francisco: Wiley.
- Eraut, M (2000). Non-formal learning and tacit knowledge in professional work. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 70,113-136.
- Harris, R. (2009). Improving tacit knowledge transfer within SMEs through e collaboration. Journal of European Industrial Training, Vol. 33 Issue: 3, pp.215-231.
- Hedlund, J. et. al. (2003). Identifying and assessing tacit knowledge: understanding the practical intelligence of military leaders. The Leadership Quarterly 14, 117–140.
- King, W., ed. (2009). Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning. New York: Springer.
- Leonard, D. and Swap, W. (2014). Critical Knowledge Transfer. Harvard Business Review Press.
- Leonard, D., Barton, G. and Barton, M. (2013). Make Yourself an Expert. Harvard Business Review. Accessed at: https://hbr.org/2013/04/make-yourself-an-expert.
- Polanyi, M. (1966). The Tacit Dimension. New York: Doubleday & Company.
- Reamy, T (2002). Imparting Knowledge Through Storytelling.
- Wijetunge, P (2012). Organizational storytelling as a method of tacit knowledge transfer: Case study from a Sri Lankan university, International Information & Library Review, 44:4, 212-223.
- Winter, S. Tacit Knowledge in The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Strategic Management, pp 1-3, June 2016. New York: Springer.
- Woo, J., Clayton, M., Johnson, R. Flores, B. and Ellis, C. (2004). Dynamic Knowledge Map: reusing experts’ tacit knowledge in the AEC industry. Automation in Construction, 13, 203 – 207.
- Zhua, H., Zhang, S.and Jin, Z. (2016). The effects of online social networks on tacit knowledge transmission. Physica A., 441, January 2016, Pages 192-198.
Connie Malamed says
Yes, you now know that this has to be an ongoing process so you’re not stuck with only two weeks to figure it out. I think the best place to find information for developing a system would be in the area of knowledge management. On LinkedIn, Dan Asher of Tacit Dimensions added an informative reply to a post of this article. Here’s what he said and if you find it helpful, I’d contact him. “This is what knowledge management is all about – Capture lessons learned, best practices and insights, especially the tacit dimension. I may add that It is important to analyze the stories in order to reach the rules of thumb that hide inside each story ( Sternberg, et. al.,2000). There are several other methodologies that can be mentioned such as critical incident review , Using novice scenarios to stimulate the experts, Reflective interviews and lately i saw the use of live code solving by experts online demonstrations ( a version of ‘Show your work). I developed another method designed to focus on interpersonal interactions by using Symbolic interaction key concepts to evoke tacit knowledge from experts in professions based on interpersonal interactions ( Sales, negotiation etc.). We found it very usefull (You can see publication in my profile). I still wonder why there is not enough use of tacit knowledge for learning. You explained exactly the value of this knowledge for novice employee, but yet most organizations rely only on explicit knowledge for formal training.”
Kaitlyn Zimmerman says
This was very beneficial and helpful! As an instructional designer, I am always looking for ways to convey information clearly and with meaning and depth. In addition, I have been creating a lot of training modules for my job in order to get new hires up and running as quickly as possible while also helping them develop competency in our systems and software. From experience, I have found guided experience, collaboration, and sharing lessons learned to be the most beneficial ways of transferring tactic knowledge. Here are some examples from my current job experience (as hopefully, this may be helpful for others).
I have a very fast-paced, meticulous job in checking developed documents for specific alignment and formatting that the company has outlined and created itself. When I was confronted with increasing this part of the operation from one person (me!) to five individuals, I panicked – simply because all the nuances and tactic knowledge are so hard to communicate with others. When developing training, I decided to be very intentional about the new hires’ learning and training experiences. Besides going through basic training, I implemented hands-on sample modules that allowed the new hires to experience a realistic workload while asking questions that I may not have addressed in their basic training. Additionally, I intentionally included new hires in communication threads that discussed various aspects of the ongoing project, as hearing other parts of the project helped them get a holistic view of the project while building tactic knowledge about the expectations and setup of this project in general. Lastly, we have a weekly “lessons and questions learned” email that goes out to everyone, sharing excellent questions that have come up and lessons that others have learned that may benefit everyone. Reading this blog post and having evidence to support and affirm my decisions has made me revisit the drawing board on how I can continue to develop tactic knowledge in new hires.
With that said, we also have an individual who is leaving our department after many years. She played a valuable part in many systems and innovations, so her knowledge of our systems is endless. You briefly discussed this topic, but what steps should we as leadership take to collect all the tactic knowledge of the systems she ran once she handed in her two weeks’ notice? Are there steps to follow to make this possible, or are two weeks too short to even accomplish that much?
Connie Malamed says
Since it’s not about getting straightforward information and because I don’t know the situation, it’s hard for me to answer this question. I’d perhaps ask for demonstrations of a skill and watch for decision points. They made a decision for some reason and perhaps you can delve into why or how would someone know to do that. You may in fact need to get into stories. I’d also check out Jane Bozarth’s book, Show Your Work. Look through it on Amazon and see if that will help you. Good luck!
Timely post, thank you!
I’m conducting a job task analysis in the next few weeks. The goal is to extract tacit knowledge from high performers’ heads to determine what skills to train in a new program.
Any powerful questions you’d recommend asking in order to extract this knowledge? I imagine I could ask the participants to share stories, but maybe there is a better way?
Thank you in advance for your response!
Connie Malamed says
Awww thanks David. Glad you find it helpful.
David Murphy says
Brilliant as always!
Maha Khatib says
Thank you Connie for the very informative and practical article, will certainly help me in creating more effective knowledge transfer strategies and initiatives in the future.
Connie Malamed says
I think it clarifies things and helps us make comparisons.
Ayyaz Mahmood says
Very nice article and good to see the solution end of tacit knowledge sharing problem. But I am bewilder by the terms tacit and explicit knowledge. Tacit is one end of the knowledge continuum and Explicit the other. I believe the explicit knowledge falls more under the domain of Information than the knowledge domain, so why call explicit knowledge , why not call it information and get rid of this confusion.
Connie Malamed says
I’d try a form of social sharing with a platform that would work on an internal network and perhaps only include relevant people at first. You’d have to prime the pump to get people to talk about the tough problems. Then see if you get answers from the crowd. This is also another way to mentor that might not take as much time. Management would need to support this and encourage people to participate, perhaps with an incentive.
Also, someone recently mentioned that in Julie Dirksen’s book, Design for How People Learn, she discusses different types of tacit knowledge, such as knowledge versus skills. I can’t remember, but perhaps she has suggestions in there. I hope this helps.
What do you do if the company has a guided experience that works well for a highly technical subject, but they want to convert it to self-directed study because the GEs with mentors are too resource-intensive and there aren’t enough experts to go around. How to scale up tacit knowledge without enough SMEs to help learners tackle tough problems and answer questions specific to their project? I suppose the two most helpful items on your list are records of them showing their work and lesson learned seem helpful. Any other ideas or variations on these
John Anderson says
Another methodology is one I am currently embarking on. I am an industry veteran in landscape architecture who has gone back to gain the required terminal degree, a Masters in Landscape Architecture in order to transition into teaching landscape architecture at the university level. The transfer of my tacit knowledge to the next generation of our profession is at the forefront of my personal pedagogy.
Victor Arana says
I guess what makes it difficult to transfer tacit knowledge is the way that it is stored. People store tacit knowledge as pieces of information (not as answers) and the way the that is put together makes it easy for people understand the idea. You can notice that people reading a lot, easily can articulate their answers in a consistent manner (sometimes people say, this guy is very intelligent, sometimes not, however, he/she has the skill to transmit what he/she knows), as Maxine addressed above.
Connie Malamed says
Nice summary. I agree with everything you’ve said.
M. Medved says
Thanks for this valuable article Connie. It shows that learning professionals need to fine-tune their interviewer skills to elicit tacit information. These can be translated into stories as well as case studies, role-play scenarios, and best practices. A successful SME interview requires preparation, flexibility and the opportunity for the SME to “percolate” about their experiences.
Maxine McKay says
Explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge, is one better than the other?
According to http://www.businessdictionary.com explicit knowledge is “articulated knowledge, expressed and recorded as words, numbers, codes, mathematical and scientific formulae, and musical notations”.
Tacit knowledge is defined by http://www.businessdictionary.com as “unwritten, unspoken, and hidden vast storehouse of knowledge held by practically every normal human being, based on his or her emotions, experiences, insights, intuition, observations and internalized information”.
Both are important to one’s development, especially instructional designers and educators. Many persons though, place a premium on explicit knowledge as this is at times equated with academic prowess. We should not see tacit knowledge as the opposite of explicit knowledge, but as partners complementing each other. Both are need by the instructional designer.
In our formal learning experiences we would have gained explicit knowledge that is common to many other persons. For example, the steps that tell you how to use particular software to create online learning material is knowledge that all instructional designers would know. However the style with which an instructional designer creates his materials or lesson will be unique to him/her.
The difference in how two persons present the same material comes down to the tacit knowledge that each has. One presenter because of his/her disposition or personality might be able to convince his/her audience with ease, while the other would have a hard time just getting the same audience to listen to the first sentence of the presentation.
Instructional designers should place a high value on the tacit knowledge such as their experience, inborn talents, time management skills, sense of innovation and emotional intelligence. They should recognize that these skills coupled with their explicit knowledge can help them to create lessons that will make teaching and learning richer and more meaningful.
Connie Malamed says
Interesting solution at your company. Thanks for sharing, Debra.
Debra S Billingsley says
I can understand the difficulty of sharing tacit knowledge. Especially after a veteran employee retires, the company seems to suffer because that person took that unknown knowledge with them. The company that I am working with now has implemented a way to constantly share knowledge between departments in different cities. Once a month everyone in a department is required to post on a shared site about something they learned or a problem that they may have encountered at work. This gives everyone the opportunity to learn together as well as comment on some issues that another department may be having. With the recording of this information, it can always be reflected on in the future.
These method of sharing tacit knowledge is also important to instructional designers. Tacit knowledge could be included for new hires so they can pickup where the last person left off. It also has an advantage to allow students to test the knowledge in different environments and reinvent the tacit knowledge as needed under certain circumstances. Even though they wouldn’t have quite the experience as that person retiring, the company would have a bigger advantage of recovering from their lost of knowledge. Thank you for sharing these ideas.