Tacit, Explicit, Implicit, Whatever. Let’s call the whole thing off.

the Wise Leader from HBR May 2011

Image* inspired by The Wise Leader from HBR May 2011

 

One of the highlights of the KM Australia congress was the debate on day 2. The topic was Making tacit knowledge explicit with collaborative technologies. Arguing for “we should and we can” was Aaron Everingham and James Dellow, and for “we shouldn’t and we can’t” was Shawn Callahan and Dr Vincent Ribiere. I thought it was an odd question in the first place, though there’s a good discussion in the KM Australia LinkedIn group. Brad Hinton also offered a response to the question on his blog. I found the meaning of should or shouldn’t in this discussion to be unclear, and indeed through the course of the debate, both sides agreed with each other at different times.
I’ve always found the conversations that nitpick over the definitions of tacit and explicit to be irritating, but just for the record, here’s what they mean:

Tacit – this is the knowledge in our heads that is made up from experience and personal contexts. It’s not written down and is hard to articulate. A great example, (and I don’t remember where I read this. If you know, please comment and I’ll link to it.), is the worker at an oil rig who knew there was a drilling failure by the feeling of the vibrations at a certain spot on the platform. The only way he could transfer that knowledge was by taking the visitor, who was documenting knowledge and procedures, out to that spot and showing them the feel of that vibration as it was happening and explaining what that meant. Apprenticeships, mentoring, and sometimes video documenting are good ways to tap into another’s tacit knowledge.

Explicit – this is the knowledge that is written down and is accessible in one way or another.

Implicit – this is knowledge that isn’t written down yet but is largely procedural and not dependent on an individual’s context.

Implicit doesn’t often come up in conversations knowledge wonks have about the types of knowledge. Usually, we just talk about tacit and explicit, and this may explain why people confuse tacit with implicit. The reason I find these conversations irritating is because the person who needs the knowledge at the time they’re doing the work, probably doesn’t know and certainly doesn’t care. No complete knowledge management program has one single approach to knowledge transfer, aiding one type of knowledge at the expense of the other, anyway. We should always take a multi-pronged approach, even though we may make one change at a time. So let’s just get the knowledge to the people, no matter what its original form.

And so, what do collaborative technologies have to do with this discussion? These social tools allow us to connect virtually, before we meet in real life. They allow a relationship to germinate so that the initial awkwardness and defensiveness that some of us might feel on first meeting, isn’t there. When those barriers aren’t there the stories and personal contexts, and the tacit knowledge, flow much more easily. So, while collaborative technology doesn’t make tacit knowledge explicit, it certainly enables that knowledge transfer.

* The image is from this fassforward Consulting Group sketchnote, inspired by this article.

  • Can’t agree more that KM needs to be multipronged, I like the oil rig analogy, it’s very hard to transfer what is essentially experience based intuition. I like to simplify it slightly and describe knowledge as static and dynamic, static being infrequently changing documentation, user guides etc and dynamic being community driven break fix knowledge, probably closer to what the guy on the oil rig was using.

    Now if I could find a way to harness both these types of knowledge……

    Collaboration and social practices help find static and create dynamic by connecting with like minded people or people looking for the same outcome but to ‘train’ people to do this is very difficult, the skills are deep within a persons personality…

    • At the KM Congress, one speaker explained the Message In a Bottle activity. You give a piece of paper in the shape of a bottle to people who then fill in a space that says “I need help with _______”, along with name and contact. Then paper lifebuoys are provided with a space for the rescuers to fill in their name, contact info, and a quick summary of the problem they have an answer for. This activity gets people the help they need, but can also help you map connections that will solve real issues and knowledge gaps on an ongoing basis.

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