Tacit Knowledge

We can know more than we can tell.”
—Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension

Do you remember learning how to ride a bicycle? It was tough. You may have earned a few bumps and bruises on the way to mastering that skill. Now think about how much easier it would have been if you had had a detailed instruction manual outlining all the necessary procedures to operate the vehicle. Probably not at all. Riding a bike is an example of tacit knowledge, the sort of knowledge that cannot be adequately conveyed in writing.

What else is as easy as riding a bike?Explicit Knowledge and Tacit Knowledge

The first step that many knowledge management specialists take is to make a distinction between explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge, a term popularized by the above-quoted Michael Polyani in 1958 in his highly influential book, Personal Knowledge. Explicit knowledge can be written down. And if it can be, it should be. Clearly written instructions that spell out exactly how to perform a task, company policies and procedures that affect decision-making and useful factual information that employees need in order to fulfill their duties should always be written down as lucidly as possible, and updated in a timely manner so that everyone in the company is on the same page. Failure to do so can result in myriad problems and miscommunications, with different cohorts of employees working with different facts and conceptions of policies. But not all knowledge can be so easily contained and conveyed. Managing tacit knowledge requires different approaches than managing explicit knowledge does.


Someone who has been doing the same job for years has probably amassed a significant pool of tacit knowledge of which he or she is not even consciously aware. If asked to create a training manual for a successor, that employee might be as lost as you would be writing up instructions to your child on how to ride a bike. The best way for that successor to master the skills possessed by the veteran may be to work directly alongside him and observe firsthand how he does what he does so well.

Medical students read an awful lot of books on their way to becoming cardiac surgeons. But nobody in his right mind is going to be comfortable with a doctor poking around his chest, based solely on her impressive academic credentials. Knowing that your surgeon has read all the books and passed all the tests is simply not enough. Surgeons master the finer points of their life-saving craft by working directly with experienced surgeons as they perform surgery on real patients. First, simply observing, then assisting, then operating under the close supervision of their more experienced colleagues, until they are finally prepared with both the tacit and explicit knowledge needed to operate on their own.

Joint Problem Solving

Similar to shadowing, joint problem solving puts the learned master and eager apprentice together to work toward a clearly-defined objective. The novice is not merely observing. He’s assisting with the process, providing input and suggestions. This type of approach can benefit the more experienced participant as well as the newcomer. That newcomer might have some new ideas and a fresh perspective that the veteran can recognize and effectively harness. And that expert, though she might be able to solve the problem unassisted without much difficulty, might find it impossible to explain the process she uses to approach problems. Working together, each participant gets insight into the process, gleans that tacit knowledge that is so intangible and hard to grasp.

Organizational Knowledge

Knowledge management experts use the term “organizational knowledge” to refer to the entire collection of knowledge within an organization. It’s essential to the long-term prosperity of the organization that this organizational knowledge base is preserved, even if individual members depart. Some of this knowledge is explicit knowledge, easily codified and recorded. Companies with explicit organizational knowledge that exists nowhere but inside a few select employees’ heads are asking for trouble. When those employees leave, that knowledge is gone, and it would have been a relatively simple matter to preserve it. Many companies offering knowledge management solutions can assist with the process of preserving this explicit organizational knowledge by getting it all down in writing.

Tacit knowledge is not only far more difficult to preserve, it’s often difficult to identify. Ensuring that the tacit knowledge possessed by individual employees is integrated as organizational knowledge is largely determined by the climate within that organization. When the organizational climate is highly competitive, individuals have little incentive to share tacit knowledge. They may hold on to it as much as possible to gain an edge over their colleagues, whom they see as competitors. And even if a spirit of unbridled competition does not reign, individual tacit knowledge may never be fully integrated if the goals and direction of the organization are not clearly communicated. Individuals may know certain things, but without a clear vision of the big picture, they may not recognize the value of their tacit knowledge.

If collaboration and teamwork is encouraged, and lines of communication are open, tacit knowledge can most smoothly be integrated into organizational knowledge. Once the right environment is established, it might just be time to remove the training wheels.

Andrew Breslin is the author of two novels, Mother’s Milk, published in 2005 by ENC Press, and Practical Applications of Game Theory, currently being published in serial form at Imaginaire, the Journal of Mathematical Fiction. He blogs and reviews books at Goodreads. Some of his short fiction can be found on his website. When he isn’t writing he enjoys playing the banjo, chess, idolizing his cat, and thinking about math.

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