Language and Social Knowledge


I’m one of those people who like to write in books as I read them. What I write isn’t exactly notes; instead I underline lines I find important or star things I want to come back to. Occasionally I’ll even add big question marks or references to other authors. So today I’m going to share some of my marginalia.

Language has a direct and important function in social relations, for it is the means by which people discuss and exchange information, ask questions, and conduct business in society. -Nahapiet and Ghoshal, p. 253

This quote had a big star next to it. Language is, after all, very important. Without a shared language I couldn’t be reading this article, and without a shared language you wouldn’t understand a word of this post. This seems like a far leap from last week’s post, where RachelAudrey, and I talked about Polanyi and tacit knowledge, but it doesn’t take long for Nahapiet and Ghoshal to say what I think links us back to that very topic:

…language filters out of awareness those events for which terms do not exist in the language and filters in those activities for which terms do exist. -Nahapiet and Ghoshal, p. 253-4

If we do not have the words to speak of events – that is, if we cannot articulate them properly – then language filters out our awareness of them. Doesn’t this mean they become tacit? Knowledge we have, but cannot say? Something we can do like muscle memory, but don’t know how to explain? Which leads me to believe the second half of the statement concerns explicit knowledge. We have a word for it, we can explain it, we can write it down on a piece of paper and say “do that” and have someone else know exactly what we mean.

Nahapiet and Ghoshal are attempting to discuss the creation of social and intellectual capital in organizations, so it’s not a far leap to start talking about knowledge management here. In fact, reading through their discussions on types of knowledge I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s exactly what they were talking about themselves. My mind went back to Hansen, Nohria, and Tierney‘s terms of “People-to-People” and “People-to-Documents”, but Alavi and Leidner have a better way of saying it:

The socialization mode refers to conversion of tacit knowledge to new tacit knowledge through social interactions and shared experience among organizational members (e.g. apprenticeship). -p. 116

By working together we can share that knowledge for which we have no words. It’s how we can learn from those with more experience even when they cannot articulate exactly what it is they do. And it all comes back to that starred line about language. Both sets of authors are concerned about knowledge creation, and both sets are also concerned about language – how we express what it is we know, and how we become aware of it.

…tacit knowledge is converted to explicit knowledge and shared among individuals through the process of dialogue and collaboration. -Alavi and Leidner, p. 116

This statement tells us, flat out, that tacit knowledge can become explicit knowledge once we find the words to talk about it. That’s what a “dialogue” is: a conversation between two or more people.

After these readings, it seemed only natural to move on to an article with the title “Why Should I Share? Examining Social Capital and Knowledge Contributions in Electronic Networks of Practice”, but I must say I found myself disappointed with this study. Aside from the large amount of information it contains (and the numbers), Wasko and Faraj seem more concerned with the motivational aspect than the benefits. Which, in hindsight, can be one interpretation of the title. The main concern I had with the article was that it concerned electronic networks being used to share knowledge, but didn’t seem to address the underlying issue that electronic networks can only share knowledge which can be expressed. That is: if we do not have the words to articulate the knowledge, we are hardly able to answer the question despite our knowledge. They state that

Individuals contribute knowledge to electronic networks of practice when they perceive that it enhances their professional reputations, and to some extent because it is enjoyable to help others. -p. 53

This, however, seems incomplete to me. It doesn’t seem to capture the nature of dialogue and conversation where one person has a problem and another has an answer, but the one with the answer doesn’t know how to express that answer to the one with the problem. It opens a dialogue where I want to help you, and we muddle through together until we find the right words for the right situation and my tacit knowledge becomes at least a little more explicit.



Alavi, M., & Leidner, D. E. (2001). Knowledge management and knowledge management systems: Conceptual foundations and research issues. MIS Quarterly, 25(1), 107136.

Nahapiet, J., & Ghoshal, S. (1998). Social capital, intellectual capital, and the organizational advantage. The Academy of Management Review, 23(2), 242266.

Wasko, M. M., & Faraj, S. (2005). Why should I share? Examining social capital and knowledge contribution in electronic networks of practice. MIS quarterly, 29(1), 3557.




The Tacit Dimension – What We Know


Polanyi is one of those authors who makes my head spin. The Tacit Dimension is not a text I can read lightly in a few hours. Curl up with a cup of tea and a blanket? Not exactly. This is the kind of text I needed to take in small portions so I could process each piece, and even then I’m not sure I really took in all of it. Early on in the text he starts with the heavy statements. “We know more than we can tell” (p. 4)? Really? Well, yes. Ask me where a specific key is on the keyboard and I have to hunt-and-peck. Ask me to type my thoughts and I don’t even have to look at the keyboard to do 70 WPM or more. My fingers know where the keys are so I don’t need to think about it. That’s an easy example; I’m sure we all have things we know, but when asked to explain how we know we’re left floundering.

I don’t think I really understood all of what Polanyi was saying until Kimble helped me through it. While I was able to take in the words and some of the theory, it was still something of a question. Kimble tells us that, for Polanyi:

Although it is possible to make certain aspects of knowledge explicit and encode it; something can only be known when this explicit component is combined with the tacit in the mind of the receiver.

Using Kimble to navigate Polanyi, I came to the idea that it’s like giving driving directions. You can tell someone to turn right on B Street and then turn left on C Street, but you automatically assume they have some knowledge of driving. You’ve only codified part of the directions. You don’t tell them “buckle up, turn on the car, check to make sure you have enough gas, check your mirrors, back out of the driveway…”. Even assuming your directions don’t start at the beginning, they don’t include directions to stop at every stop sign, to turn on turn signals, or to watch out for that school zone. There is the explicit knowledge that we codify and share (the directions we give) and the tacit knowledge we learn by doing (the directions we forget to give because we forget we even take those actions).

Getting all that tacit knowledge codified is extremely difficult not only because tacit knowledge is difficult (sometimes impossible) to completely articulate, but because all the small little details that go with tacit knowledge are also extremely difficult to take in as someone trying to learn. Hansen, Nohria, and Tierney discuss choosing a Knowledge Management Strategy, and mention two strategies in connection to consulting firms: People-To-Documents and People-To-People. People-to-Documents they describe as a codified system of instructions I couldn’t help but think of as a software “help” index. People-to-People they describe as a way to share tacit knowledge. They point out:

Managers sometimes try to turn inherently tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. That can lead to serious problems. […] they discovered that technicians learned from one another by sharing stories about how they had fixed the machines. The expert system could not replicate the nuance and detail that were exchanged in face-to-face conversations.

So does that mean all our knowledge should be tacit? Well, no, I don’t think so. Some knowledge can be codified – like those driving directions – and that codified knowledge gets us most of the way to where we need to be. The rest we can only learn by doing. While I retain some knowledge of what I hear and retain more of what I write, the things I do stay with me longer. In some cases I may not remember the name of the street I need to travel, but if I’m in the driver’s seat I know exactly where to turn. In yet other situations I may not have the tacit knowledge and once again be a new driver testing out my temps for the first time.


Hansen, M. T., Nohria, N., & Tierney, T. (1999). What’s your strategy for managing knowledge. Harvard Business Review. URL:

Kimble, C. (2013). Knowledge management, codification and tacit knowledge. Information Research, 18(2). URL:

Polanyi, Michael. (2009). The tacit dimension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1966) URL: