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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6 thoughts on “Tacplicit Knowledge – When is knowing both tacit and explicit?

  1. Tacit and explicit knowledge get more and more entwined to me the more I read. I like that you say “a person does not lose the tacit knowledge when that knowledge becomes explicit”. Tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge can exist side by side. The more I read though the more I realize I don’t really grasp it as much as I thought it did even though I see more components to tacit and explicit knowledge (if that made sense).

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    • It makes perfect sense! I thought I had it all figured out after the first few readings, but there are more components to these two types of knowledge than I could have ever imagined after reading Polanyi.

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    • The more we read, the less we know. But remember, this is a discussion and a debate. They are making an argument and their claims may not be true. One may counter: if I can teach a machine how to ride a bike, then I must have been able to make instructions for riding a bike pretty darn explicit. Machines can ride bikes. Ergo …

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      • I think part of my “spinning hamster wheel” is because I understand what they are trying to say, so I have to try and make that fit in with what I already know. And if it doesn’t fit then I have to try to decide if they are wrong, if what I already know is wrong, or if it’s possible to hold two opposing viewpoints at the same time.

        So, to the counter: yes, I can teach a machine to ride a bike, so I must have made the instructions explicit. But I still hold the tacit knowledge of how to balance myself on a bike. Giving the machine explicit knowledge didn’t erase the tacit knowledge I have, did it? I don’t consciously think “I’m falling left, I have to lean right!”, I just do it. I have that explicit knowledge, yes, but in the moment by body reacts because years of practice have taught me how to keep my balance.

        I’m not sure if that’s right or wrong, but I think I like the concept. I think it starts down the road of building and developing instincts which can be logically explained (fight or flight, balancing on a bike, social interaction, etc), but are still used as in-the-moment instincts.

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