Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Tacit versus Explicit Knowledge

Many knowledge management texts draw a distinction between explicit and tacit knowledge. With one being knowledge in someone’s head and the other being knowledge that is written down somewhere. Frankly, I find these terms so abstract that I have forgotten which term is which.

And, I think this is the wrong distinction to make. The knowledge is either findable by your computer or it is not findable by your computer.

By finding the knowledge I mean finding the knowledge itself or finding the person who has the knowledge. Certainly all knowledge within a firm is not going to be transferred into a form that is findable by a computer. That is why it is important to identify subject matter experts and make them findable by a computer search.

Knowledge written down on a piece of paper and thrown in a file does not do anyone any good. I have first-hand experience at this. (I think everyone has first-hand experience at this). Last week, I was cleaning up a stack on my desk and found some hand-written notes from a conference I went to last year. It was good stuff, but it had been lost. (One of the reasons I now blog conferences.) I had some vague recollections of the conference, but the written notes brought back a whole waterfall of recollections, action items and information. The notes were written but had not done me any good until I accidentally stumbled on them. They certainly were not doing any good for the rest of my firm.

A file saved on your local computer does not make the knowledge in that file findable by anyone but you.

Sending out an email makes the knowledge potentially more findable. But, you as the sender and all of recipients are going to end up keeping that email in different places, in different folders with different meta-data. As the sender, the email ends up in your list of sent items. As the recipient, the email lands in my inbox. Then it may stay there, or I may transfer it to a different location. Or I may delete it. Most likely any two recipients are going to treat the email in completely different ways. Email makes it more findable, but the parties to the email end up having to find it in different ways.

If the knowledge is not findable by my computer, then I have to know it myself or have to send out a blast email asking if anyone knows about it. Of course the responses end-up in my email or voice mail, being findable only by me.


  1. Hi,

    I think this is a common missunderstanding in KM. As far as I understand it explicit/tacit does not mean "in a document"/"in a brain" but "conscious"/"unconscious". That is how I interpret polanyi and also the knowledge spiral by nonaka.

  2. Arguing about the tacit/explicit distinction is not very helpful and I like the user-centred approach.

    But "findability" itself raises all kinds of practical questions:
    - I may want my stuff findable by Billy down the hall but not by you.
    - I may not actually be able to write down my most critical expertise and you may have to talk to me to get it.
    - Subject matter expert systems work well in very limited situations.
    - Email blasts can work very well provided someone has the job of collecting all the outputs (bulletin boards and wikis are useful replacements here).

    And of course, once I've found what I think I want, can I actually use it to achieve my goals - but that's a whole other can of worms...

  3. Right on - we can exchange information in person, not just by computers (good way to find that person)...and usually by person is better as you get body language as well, and some things are hard to write down.

    Really who writes a daily word document as a blog post type process, and files it in the document management system (DMS), where it stays static.
    The only simple publishing system we have is email, but then it's only for a limited eyes, and is not in a public archive.

    What I believe we will see are social networks where knowledge flows between people...where you read daily information from your social filter. That is, we will be each others "daily news", we will grow to know who the experts are as we read the daily content. I like this education idea using the social capital, as we don't have a specific knowledge need, rather we are just reading stuff daily.

    When we do have a specific need, e know the streets well, and who to go to, or ask our friends if they know someone.

    Or search the expert tags, or internal blogosphere, which will have pointers to stuff in the DMS (blogs are the interface to the cream of the DMS). Plus you get info around the need you are after, stuff that may not be in a report.

    I just wrote a post on this:

    Oh yeah, so the ease of blogging will allow those tacit nuggets and knowhow to come through.
    Sharing knowledge is no longer a task, it's just how you get things done (a way of working-knowledge worker).

  4. Matt -

    I agree that all knowledge need not be written down. (And can't be.)

    They key is to have an indicator or some artifact as to who has the knowledge you are looking for.

    In saying "findable by my computer" I was not implying that the interaction and transfer of knowledge would happen solely by the computer. I expect the opposite to be true. I would expect interaction with the subject matter expert.

  5. Simon -

    I am not sure that I find the conscious/unconscious distinction any more useful.

    I can either find or I can't find it. I do most of my searching through the computer. So if it not findable by my computer, I can't find and can't use it.

    Sure I have a memory collection of subject matter experts in the firm. But that does not good for the new person coming into the firm.

    The knowledge (whether the document or an indicator of the knowledge) needs to be made findable.

  6. John -

    I am totally on board.

    I gave the example of my paper notes sitting in a file and not doing anyone any good (including me).

    People think that since they get some much email that everyone is getting that same flow of knowledge. Since it has been reduced to an "explicit" form and it is searchable by me in my email silo, that everyone can find it.

    The proliferation of email has increased the sharing of knowledge, but not the finding of knowledge.


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