Tacit Knowledge

Michael Polanyi

Tacit knowledge (as opposed to formal or explicit knowledge) is the kind of knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it. For example, stating to someone that London is in the United Kingdom is a piece of explicit knowledge that can be written down, transmitted, and understood by a recipient.

However, the ability to speak a language, use algebra, or design and use complex equipment requires all sorts of knowledge that is not always known explicitly, even by expert practitioners, and which is difficult to explicitly transfer to users. While tacit knowledge appears to be simple, it has far reaching consequences and is not widely understood.

The term ‘tacit knowledge’ was first introduced into philosophy by Hungarian polymath Michael Polanyi in 1958 in his magnum opus ‘Personal Knowledge.’ He famously introduces the idea in his later work ‘The Tacit Dimension’ with the assertion that ‘we can know more than we can tell.’ According to him, not only is there knowledge that cannot be adequately articulated by verbal means, but also all knowledge is rooted in tacit knowledge in the strong sense of that term. With tacit knowledge, people are not often aware of the knowledge they possess or how it can be valuable to others. Effective transfer of tacit knowledge generally requires extensive personal contact, regular interaction and trust. This kind of knowledge can only be revealed through practice in a particular context and transmitted through social networks. To some extent it is ‘captured’ when the knowledge holder joins a network or a community of practice.

Some examples of daily activities and tacit knowledge are: riding a bike, playing the piano, driving a car, or hitting a nail with a hammer. The formal knowledge of how to ride a bicycle is that in order to balance, if the bike falls to the left, one steers to the left. To turn right the rider first steers to the left, and then when the bike falls right, the rider steers to the right. You may know explicitly how turning of the handlebars or steering wheel change the direction of a bike or car, but you cannot simultaneously focus on this and at the same time orientate yourself in traffic. Similarly, you may know explicitly how to hold the handle of a hammer, but you cannot simultaneously focus on the handle and hit the nail correctly with the hammer. The master pianist can perform brilliantly, but if he begins to concentrate on the movements of his fingers instead of the music, he will not be able to play as a master. Knowing the explicit knowledge, however, is no help in riding a bicycle, doesn’t help in performing well in the tasks since few people are aware of it when performing and few riders are in fact aware of this.

Tacit knowledge is not easily shared. Although it is that which is used by all people, it is not necessarily able to be easily articulated. It consists of beliefs, ideals, values, schemata and mental models which are deeply ingrained in us and which we often take for granted. While difficult to articulate, this cognitive dimension of tacit knowledge shapes the way we perceive the world. In the field of knowledge management, the concept of tacit knowledge refers to a knowledge possessed only by an individual and difficult to communicate to others via words and symbols. Therefore, an individual can acquire tacit knowledge without language. Apprentices, for example, work with their mentors and learn craftsmanship not through language but by observation, imitation, and practice. The key to acquiring tacit knowledge is experience. Without some form of shared experience, it is extremely difficult for people to share each other’s thinking processes.

Tacit knowledge has been described as ‘know-how’ – as opposed to ‘know-what’ (facts), ‘know-why’ (science), or ‘know-who’ (networking). It involves learning and skill but not in a way that can be written down. On this account knowing-how or embodied knowledge is characteristic of the expert, who acts, makes judgments, and so forth without explicitly reflecting on the principles or rules involved. The expert works without having a theory of his or her work; he or she just performs skillfully without deliberation or focused attention. Although it is possible to distinguish conceptually between explicit and tacit knowledge, they are not separate and discrete in practice. The interaction between these two modes of knowing is vital for the creation of new knowledge.

Tacit knowledge can be distinguished from explicit knowledge in three major areas: codifiability, method of acquisition, and  mode of appropriation. Codifiability refers to the mechanism of transferring knowledge; while explicit knowledge can be codified, and easily transferred without the knowing subject, tacit knowledge is intuitive and unarticulated knowledge that cannot be communicated, understood or used without the ‘knowing subject.’ Unlike the transfer of explicit knowledge, the transfer of tacit knowledge requires close interaction and the buildup of shared understanding and trust among them. Method of acquisition  is relevant because explicit knowledge can be generated through logical deduction and acquired through practical experience in the relevant context. In contrast, tacit knowledge can only be acquired through practical experience in the relevant context. Mode of appropriation refers to the fact that explicit knowledge can be aggregated at a single location, stored in objective forms and appropriated without the participation of the knowing subject. Tacit knowledge in contrast, is personal contextual. It is distributive, and cannot easily be aggregated. The realization of its full potential requires the close involvement and cooperation of the knowing subject.

The process of transforming tacit knowledge into explicit or specifiable knowledge is known as codification, articulation, or specification. The tacit aspects of knowledge are those that cannot be codified, but can only be transmitted via training or gained through personal experience. A chief practice of technological development is the codification of tacit knowledge into explicit programmed operations so that processes previously requiring skilled employees can be automated for greater efficiency and consistency at lower cost. Such codification involves mechanically replicating the performance of persons who possess relevant tacit knowledge; in doing so, however, the ability of the skilled practitioner to innovate and adapt to unforeseen circumstances based on the tacit ‘feel’ of the situation is often lost. The technical remedy is to attempt to substitute brute-force methods capitalizing on the computing power of a system, such as those that enable a supercomputer programmed to ‘play’ chess against a grandmaster whose tacit knowledge of the game is broad and deep.

These conflicts are reflected in management guru Ikujiro Nonaka’s model of organizational knowledge creation, in which he proposes that tacit knowledge can be converted to explicit knowledge. Nonaka’s view may be contrasted with Polanyi’s original view of ‘tacit knowing,’ Polanyi believed that while such declarative knowledge may be needed for the acquisition of skills, the argument goes, it no longer becomes necessary for the practice of those skills once the novice becomes an expert in exercising them, and indeed it does seem to be the case that, as Polanyi argued, when we acquire a skill, we acquire a corresponding understanding that defies articulation. One of the most convincing examples of tacit knowledge is facial recognition. ‘We know a person’s face, and can recognize it among a thousand, indeed a million. Yet we usually cannot tell how we recognize a face we know, so most of this cannot be put into words.’ When you see a face you are not conscious about your knowledge of the individual features (eye, nose, mouth), but you see and recognize the face as a whole.

Another example of tacit knowledge is the notion of language itself—it is not possible to learn a language just by being taught the rules of grammar—a native speaker picks it up at a young age almost entirely unaware of the formal grammar which they may be taught later. Other examples are how tight to make a bandage, or knowing whether a senior surgeon feels an intern may be ready to learn the intricacies of surgery; this can only be learned through personal experimentation. Another example was a research laser designed in America which propagated to various other universities world-wide. In the early days, even when specific instructions were sent, other labs failed to replicate the laser, it only being made to work in each case following a visit to or from the originating lab or very close contact and dialogue. It became clear that while the originators could clearly make the laser work, they did not know exactly what it was that they were doing to make it work, and so could not articulate or specify it by means of monologue articles and specifications. But a cooperative process of dialogue enabled the tacit knowledge to be transferred. Another example is the Bessemer steel process — Bessemer sold a patent for his advanced steel making process and was sued by the purchasers who couldn’t get it to work. In the end Bessemer set up his own steel company because he knew how to do it, even though he could not convey it to his patent users. Bessemer’s company became one of the largest in the world and changed the face of steel making.

As apprentices learn the craft of their masters through observation, imitation, and practice, so do employees of a firm learn new skills through on-the-job training. When Matsushita (Panasonic) started developing its automatic home bread-making machine in 1985, an early problem was how to mechanize the dough-kneading process, a process that takes a master baker years of practice to perfect. To learn this tacit knowledge, a member of the software development team, Ikuko Tanaka, decided to volunteer herself as an apprentice to the head baker of the Osaka International Hotel, who was reputed to produce the area’s best bread. After a period of imitation and practice, one day she observed that the baker was not only stretching but also twisting the dough in a particular fashion (‘twisting stretch’), which turned out to be the secret for making tasty bread. The Matsushita home bakery team drew together eleven members from completely different specializations and cultures: product planning, mechanical engineering, control systems, and software development. The ‘twisting stretch’ motion was finally materialized in a prototype after a year of iterative experimentation by the engineers and team members working closely together, combining their explicit knowledge. For example, the engineers added ribs to the inside of the dough case in order to hold the dough better as it is being churned. Another team member suggested a method (later patented) to add yeast at a later stage in the process, thereby preventing the yeast from over-fermenting in high temperatures.

According to Parsaye, there are three major approaches to the capture of tacit knowledge from groups and individuals. They are: Interviewing experts; Learning by being told; ad Learning by observation. Interviewing experts can be done in the form of structured interviewing or by recording organizational stories. Structured interviewing of experts in a particular subject is the most commonly used technique to capture pertinent, tacit knowledge. An example of a structured interview would be an exit interview. Learning by being told can be done by interviewing or by task analysis. Either way, an expert teaches the novice the processes of a task. Task analysis is the process of determining the actual task or policy by breaking it down and analyzing what needs to be done to complete the task. Learning by observation can be done by presenting the expert with a sample problem, scenario, or case study and then observing the process used to solve the problem.

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