Tacit Knowledge – the Real Challenge for Knowledge Management

The concept of tacit knowledge is as slippery as it is critical to the success of knowledge management. Omnipresent yet unacknowledged, tacit knowledge is most easily grasped by opposing it to the more familiar kind of knowledge we codify in documents, diagrams and procedures – explicit knowledge. By contrast, tacit knowledge is hidden, yet at the same time present in everything we do and everything we talk about. What I am talking about is what is often called “savvy” – savoire faire (know how) and savoire vivre (life knowledge).

Tacit v. Explicit Knowledge

According to the philosopher of science and social relations, Michael Polanyi, tacit knowledge is always employed to “attend to” the realisation of some more explicit, it can never, by it’s very nature, be the focus of our attention. Think of it as being like a pair of glasses – we can see through them only for as long as we don’t look at them. As soon as we scrutinise our tacit knowledge and make it explicit, it is transformed, it ceases to be of use. We might implicitly know how to ride a bicycle, but as soon as we try to explain it in detail, as soon as we consider it as an explicit object of interest, we start to fall off.

Given that knowledge management aims to promote the sharing of knowledge in order to facilitate organisational learning, it cannot afford to ignore tacit knowledge. However, trying to make the tacit explicit is like trying to focus on your peripheral vision whilst keeping it peripheral. Tacit knowledge is non verbal – as soon as one starts to classify or systematise it, it becomes quite another kind of knowledge, it transforms from “knowing how” to do something to “knowing that” something is done.

Recognition of Context

The late great theorist of mind and learning Gregory Bateson cautioned against confusing different logical types of knowledge and learning. We need to recognise the limitations of analytic language, that taxonomic schema that simply cannot address or invoke the kind of understanding of the world that is wrapped up in our physical habit in our style and manner of getting things done. Above all else our capacity to behave appropriately relies on our ability to recognise the different contexts in which we act – the same behaviour might be expected in one case and entirely inappropriate in another: in a job interview, chatting with a friend, playing, fighting, on a date and so on. As the easy transition between playing and fighting shows, discerning context is no easy matter if an tacit understanding of context is not shared by those involved – if there emerges a feeling of tension and indecipherable “bad vibes”.

Why not Just Stick to the Sharing of Explicit Knowledge?

So, if it is so difficult to deal with, why not just accept the limitation and forget about it? For Bateson, as for the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and current experts in the field of cognitive linguistics, such as George Lakoff, language acquires meaning only in the context of physical practice. The way that language manages to mean so much with such a parsimonious use of words relies on it’s ability to invoke the much bigger horizon of knowledge wrapped up in our bodies and their habits.

You can categorise language and schematise process as much as you like, but such strategies can only be effective when the various parties using explicit knowledge – information – already have, or manage to achieve, an implicit agreement about the behaviours that go with the language. For example, when the dry language of scientific proceedings include mention of using a mass spectrometer or a titration, the meaning thereby shared with a scientific reader relies on author and reader having a shared bodily experience of the procedure, or something like it. If a non-scientist reads such a report, the meaning shared is of a more limited kind, the reader remaining firmly on the outside.

The Role of Narrative and Creativity

How then do we pass on that which cannot be directly named or indicated? In a word, creativity! Here Bateson suggests we recognise the vital importance of art and narrative: parables, metaphors, similes, allegories, dialogues and reenactments that may be used to bring one another to the moment of learning and transformation, that may be used to hint beyond the words.

Stories are, of course, one of the oldest ways of passing on understanding, or perhaps one should say wisdom. At the same time they are noticeably absent from our age of factoids and real time “knowledge transfer”. So, the key challenge here for knowledge management is how to occasion such passing of wisdom, how to promote the diffusion of tacit knowledge whilst continuing to capture, categorise and disseminate the kind of explicit knowledge that is built upon it.


About jonallenby
I'm the co-founder and Technical Director of a new media agency - Lime Media. I would describe myself as having a healthy scepticism about technology - new ways of doing things are always new, but they are not necessarily better. Best to cut through the hype and think about how technology will physically change people's lives, for better or worse. I am also struggling to finish a part-time PhD in language, metaphor and philosophy at Goldsmith's College, University of London. Apart from thinking and reading, I like playing with my children, cross-country running and White Crane Kung-Fu - though usually not all at once.

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