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.