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Types of knowledge

Types of knowledge

I’ve always found the academic discussions that nitpick over the definitions of tacit and implicit knowledge 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. Here are some other ideas.

Explicit – this is the knowledge that is written down and is accessible in one way or another. Ideally, it’s generalised for reuse.

Implicit – this is knowledge that isn’t written down, is procedural or part of the practice, and not dependent on an individual’s context. Often, it’s inarticulable—it cannot be explained.

Implicit doesn’t often come up in conversations knowledge wonks have with clients about making knowledge more easily discoverable and reusable. 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 another, anyway. As knowledge managers, 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 how much value there may be in the academic debate.

While I may shirk the debate, the type of knowledge—whether knowledge is tacit, implicit or explicit—does influence how you might choose to try and mobilise it.

Anecdotes are where tacit knowledge comes out of hiding, and there are practices, methods, and tools specifically designed to surface it. Conversational methods like knowledge cafes; interviewing techniques; the KCS practice of capturing customer context at the time of the conversation; and enterprise social networks enable conversations across distributed teams.

For knowledge that is implied in undocumented processes, it’s your new hires that will find those icebergs. Give them the tools they need to add the ones they find to the map.