Tacplicit Knowledge – When is knowing both tacit and explicit?

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I’m going to start with the last article I’ve recently read, as it left me with a gut feeling of “WTF?”. Scott Cook and John Brown are talking about explicit and tacit knowledge, just like so many others, and all of the sudden I’m not sure I know what it means anymore. According to these two authors,

Each of the four categories that come from the explicit/tacit and individual/group distinctions identifies a unique and irreducible form of knowledge. We see each of the four as on equal footing with the other three, and hold that no one of them can be derived from or changed into one of the others. (p. 383)

I was good with each form of knowledge being unique; I was even okay with them being irreducible (no one form of knowledge is more valuable than another, after all); but to say that one can’t come from or change into another? That threw me for a good loop or three.

Explicit knowledge is knowledge which can be articulated. Tacit knowledge is knowledge which is known but we don’t have the words to say. We learned this from Polanyi. So when we gain the ability to speak about our tacit knowledge in words and express this knowledge in a way others can understand, aren’t we changing the knowledge from our own tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge? Isn’t this explicit knowledge derived from our own tacit knowledge? Cook and Brown helped me a little more with their idea with the example of riding a bicycle. The explain that explicit information isn’t always effective without experience:

In order to acquire the tacit knowledge, a novice has to spend a certain amount of time on a bicycle. Indeed, it would even be possible for someone to be able to say in great technical detail what must be done to keep a bicycle upright, yet still be unable to ride one. No amount of explicit knowledge alone can enable someone to ride; it simply cannot enable all the necessary epistemic work. (p. 385)

But what really struck me with this example was the idea that a person does not lose the tacit knowledge when that knowledge becomes explicit. They started this seedling of an idea in me that you can know something that is both explicit and tacit at the same time. Both a describable fact and instinct. A way you act without thinking, but can also explain in words why and how.

So while I’ve got this hamster in my head spinning away at this new concept, the other readings I’ve taken in since my last post seem much easier to take in. Nory Jones and John Mahon had a good deal to say about knowledge in what they call “high velocity/turbulent environments”. These environments, if I understand their argument correctly, are places where knowledge is constantly changing and where inaction (perhaps due to lack of knowledge or waiting for knowledge) can be as detrimental as the wrong action. In my head, these are the places where “I need to know, and I need to know now, because if I don’t make a decision in the next 30 seconds someone else is going to make that decision for me and that may be very, very bad.” Not many of us experience situations like these. Jones and Mahon use examples of the military, but these could also be environments such as Emergency Rooms, fires, natural disasters, crimes, or accidents.

Despite my lack of knowledge on military knowledge management, there were several things that stood out to me. One is that they do the complete opposite of what Cook and Brown say most do: they put tacit knowledge above explicit (not the other way around).

Although explicit knowledge is important to the operation of any organization – it is tacit knowledge that is crucial to survival and long-term success. Tacit knowledge is far more difficult to describe and explain – it is reflected in the procedures, rooted in action and is acquired by the sharing of experiences, by observation, and by imitation. (Jones and Mahon, p. 777)

Oh my, what strong words you have! Explicit knowledge is merely important while tacit knowledge is “crucial to survival”. There is a definite ranking of knowledge here, and it states that our skills – things we know by experience and by doing – are more important than our ability to describe them. In essence, they place practice over theory. But they don’t discount explicit knowledge. It is still important to operations within in organization. In short, we need both. (That hamster is still running on that wheel, contemplating the impact of Cook and Brown.)

After reading several of my classmates mentioning the case of Starbucks, I couldn’t help but want to read it myself. Admittedly, it doesn’t quite fit in a discussion on the tacit and explicit qualities of knowledge very well. But then again, maybe it does. Alton Chua and Snehasish Banerjee study Customer Knowledge Management (CKM) and using social media as access to that knowledge. The information found  on social media forums is almost entirely explicit. The customer has put his or her feelings into words and presented them to the organization. The organization also uses words to interact and respond to the customer. It seems there is no room for that tacit knowledge we just had described as “crucial”. And yet, there is.

While the social media interactions are explicit, analyzing tweets, comments, reviews, suggestions, and other posts has an element of tacit skill. Chua and Banerjee mention

Twitter helps Starbucks quickly manage rumors and misconceptions among customers. (p. 243)

They then give the example of Starbucks correcting a rumor that they were able to end a rumor that they were helping to fund Isreal’s army. But how did they know that rumor was important? How did they know that rumor was more important than an older complaint or a more recent question? This was more likely the application of tacit knowledge (knowledge of the current situation, current political trends, etc) than of an explicit “if this then this” guide.

And even after all of this that hamster is still in my head trying to decide if tacit and explicit knowing can happen simultaneously, what that means, and if it would be appropriate to ask for “tacit understanding” of a task in job posting.

References:

Chua, A. Y. K., & Banerjee, S. (2013). Customer knowledge management via social media: The case of Starbucks. Journal of Knowledge Management, 17(2), 237249.
doi:10.1108/13673271311315196

Cook, S. D. N., & Brown, J. S. (1999). Bridging epistemologies: The generative dance between organizational knowledge and organizational knowing. Organization science, 10(4), 381400. doi:10.1287/orsc.10.4.381

Jones, N. B. & Mahon, J. F. (2012) Nimble knowledge transfer in high velocity/turbulent environments. Journal of Knowledge Management, 16(5), 774788.
doi:10.1108/13673271211262808

Polanyi, Michael. (2009). The tacit dimension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1966) URL: http://www.worldcat.org/isbn/0226672980

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Social Interaction, Wikis, and Knowledge Management

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Though we don’t always realize it, knowledge creation and knowledge management can be a very social activity. Sure, it’s not the same as going out and having drinks with your friends, but it still revolves around communication and effective open dialogue to promote efficiency and reduce errors. Rachel’s post on Social Mores of Knowledge Management mentions how corporate entities become individuals, even though those entities are in fact large groups of people. And the people who work inside those corporate “individuals” sometimes have different views, as Kamrynwies mentions. She discusses knowledge hoarding and knowledge hiding in her post about knowledge transfer, two concepts which seem to have motivations based on social relationships (she specifically mentions that of an associate and his or her “boss”).

This idea of knowledge management (or non-management) as social interactions immediately brings to my mind social media. Of course, when we think of “social media” we think of FaceBook, chat rooms, Twitter, MMORPGs, Instagram, and other similar web features. Tay Pei Lyn Grace‘s article, however, is a reminder that not all social media is public. Grace is focused on the use of Wikis as knowledge management tools, and mentions three cases where wikis were implemented for corporate purposes. (I was also surprised to see the idea of a “personal wiki” in her article – sounds like something interesting to try!) Grace states wikis can potentially fulfill the hope for:

a democratic, accessible community of users responsible for its own content, supported by an open model of knowledge creation and communication (p. 64).

But that did not strike a cord with me as much as what she said on the next page:

It is a collaborative space due to its total freedom, ease of use and access, simple and uniform navigational conventions and is also a way to organize and cross-linked knowledge. It is a webpage created using wiki engine allowing a process of bottom up editing, where users can delete, edit and add content. Users may read the contents using a web browser. The expertise is not in the hands of the few, but rather emerges from the combined efforts of many. (p. 65)

The users control the content, adding their expertise and experiences easily, and serves the purpose of collecting, linking, and communicating knowledge. In my head, this moves knowledge management up from simple documentation to something like a knowledge management 2.0. Similar to Web 2.0, this moves knowledge management from a flat document (like a manual) to a dynamic document they can interact with (add, change, or remove content).

One of the key principles of Web 2.0 Moria Levy mentions is that “The service improves automatically the more it is used (by the people)” (p. 122). While wikis may not improve automatically, they definitely improve as users interact with the system and tailor content to suit the needs of the organization. Wikis can only improve if they are used. It is a step towards an improvement of knowledge management tools, making them more interactive and user-friendly.

Not everyone knows how to effectively maintain these wiki databases, however, which brings me to Lam and Chua’s strategy of knowledge outsourcing. Don’t worry – it’s not as large a leap as it seems. Lam and Chua discuss different aspects of knowledge outsourcing, but what struck me the most was the following quote on outsourced knowledge:

Such knowledge tends to be less contextual and proprietary in nature and can be produced without significant prior knowledge about the organisation’s setting or its internal workings. However, such knowledge also tends to be more narrowly focused and specific to a problem area. (p. 40)

They mention strategies such as outsourcing only a portion of the IT team (p. 31) which, in my mind, frees up resources to work on crucial business processes. Going from the idea of a wiki, a corporation could outsource maintenance of the wiki code and technical issues, while internal SMEs (subject matter experts) still manage the content of the pages.

Effective knowledge management has a cornerstone of shared language and shared goals. In the case of a corporate “individual”, the shared goal is to help the company do well. In order to do so, those who work for that corporation must find an effective means of creating, communicating, and sharing knowledge (without hoarding or hiding knowledge). Whether this is through wikis or other means is best determined by each organization, but the idea of an interactive form of knowledge management which can be constantly updated with new information is appealing. If necessary, some knowledge can be outsourced to experts outside the company who have specialized knowledge about systems, system management, or specific areas of knowledge. Bottom line, though, we cannot be completely successful without social interaction – without communication and knowledge from others.

 

Resources:

Grace, T. P. L. (2009). Wikis as a knowledge management tool. Journal of Knowledge Management, 13(4), 64-74. doi:10.1108/13673270910971833

Lam, W., & Chua, A. Y. (2009). Knowledge outsourcing: An alternative strategy for knowledge management. Journal of Knowledge Management, 13(3), 28-43. doi:10.1108/13673270910962851

Levy, M. (2009). Web 2.0 implications on knowledge management. Journal of Knowledge Management, 13(1), 120-134. doi:10.1108/13673270910931215