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.