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.


  • August 6, 2012

    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…

    • August 7, 2012

      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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