Tacit Knowledge & Knowledge overflow

Dr Karen Stephenson has been capturing my reading attention for the last 2days. Her anthropology back ground tints her understanding of human networks and render her work very interesting. She suggests ways of using human networks to increase our power of leadership and to leverage our man management skills. You can understand how excited I could be, as these are precisely themes of my prime interests.

Knowledge and understanding it from her point of view is the starting point. From the documents, I have come across the term “tacit Knowledge” which she defines very explicitly, also rank very highly in my need to understand and to master. I shall summarize daily, my understanding for her papers as I note them for my memory’s sake.

In a nutshell, this is what I have retained today from her:

Knowledge economy, knowledge organization, knowledge networks, knowledge by any other name I call a fad. After listening to knowledge gurus spout less and less about knowledge, I have come to the conclusion, that we are going ‘knowhere’ with knowledge. Too much knowledge without integration tears us apart. The wisdom to integrate knowledge by assembling key people and skills remains the ancient art.

Experience has long been considered the best teacher of knowledge. Since we cannot experience everything, other people’s experiences, and hence other people, become the surrogate for knowledge. ‘I store my knowledge in my friends’ is an axiom for collecting knowledge through collecting people. ‘A friend of a friend is a friend’ or ‘an enemy of a friend is an enemy’ are two more axioms for knowledge transfer through people via their entrusted relationships.

We can summon knowledge from ourselves, but how do we elicit knowledge on demand or ‘just in time’ from others? This becomes salient in knowledge driven organizations where critical knowledge is not only stored in computers, database, facilities, files, etc. but in people. A major obstacle for organizations is that of linking the knowledge stored in people to that in organizational processes. Why? Process knowledge can be transferred on demand and does not necessarily depend on the presence or absence of people. Thus the employee is free to take that needed vacation and the organization is able to go about its business. This knowledge transfer is not well understood for tacit knowledge, the subject of our discussion here.

Tacit Knowledge

When you teach a child to ride a bicycle, there are certain inexorable truths that you convey about the skill, such as where to put your feet (on the pedals, not the handlebars), where to put your hands (on the handlebars, not the pedals) and where to sit. There is much more to riding a bicycle that cannot be adequately articulated – balance, control, the sensation of riding, etc.

The same could be said of alpine skiing. The basic premise of putting your feet in your boots, your boots on skis and pointing downhill is a fearsome scenario that would hardly suffice as advice for anyone learning how to ski. When you can’t define what you know, how do you teach it? I watched on a DVD with awe, the lessons given by Erik Decamp, on the transfer of knowledge in an alpinist context.

Not being able to define what you know usually comes from embodied experience – ‘felt knowledge’ – and is often called tacit knowledge. The adjectives ‘felt’ and ‘tacit’ are meant to convey the ineffable and unarticulated forms of knowledge which come from experience, such as learning to ski or cycle. As we experience life, we store our learning as tacit knowledge in memories and intuitions. What we don’t experience or learn, we can glean from others. Thus, people become knowledge storehouses from whom we can ‘indirectly’ learn, making them our surrogates for direct experience.

In rapid, radical change, this form of knowledge becomes a critical resource for innovation. We don’t realize what we know until the immediacy of the moment forces to the foreground knowledge we weren’t aware we had. If business could methodically and efficiently mine this type of knowledge from its people, then managers and executives could more strategically steer the evolution of innovation. Since business is only as good as its next new idea or suite of ideas, this know-how is essential in a knowledge economy.


#1 joseph on 08.31.07 at 4:25 pm

Tacit knowledge

Central to Michael Polanyi’s thinking was the belief that creative acts (especially acts of discovery) are shot-through or charged with strong personal feelings and commitments (hence the title of his most famous work Personal Knowledge). Arguing against the then dominant position that science was somehow value-free, Michael Polanyi sought to bring into creative tension a concern with reasoned and critical interrogation with other, more ‘tacit’, forms of knowing.

Polanyi’s argument was that the informed guesses, hunches and imaginings that are part of exploratory acts are motivated by what he describes as ‘passions’. They might well be aimed at discovering ‘truth’, but they are not necessarily in a form that can be stated in propositional or formal terms. As Michael Polanyi (1967: 4) wrote in The Tacit Dimension, we should start from the fact that ‘we can know more than we can tell’. He termed this pre-logical phase of knowing as ‘tacit knowledge’. Tacit knowledge comprises a range of conceptual and sensory information and images that can be brought to bear in an attempt to make sense of something (see Hodgkin 1991). Many bits of tacit knowledge can be brought together to help form a new model or theory. This inevitably led him to explore connoisseurship and the process of discovery (rather than with the validation or refutation of theories and models – in contrast with Popper, for example).

We must conclude that the paradigmatic case of scientific knowledge, in which all faculties that are necessary for finding and holding scientific knowledge are fully developed, is the knowledge of approaching discovery.

To hold such knowledge is an act deeply committed to the conviction that there is something there to be discovered. It is personal, in the sense of involving the personality of him who holds it, and also in the sense of being, as a rule, solitary; but there is no trace in it of self-indulgence. The discoverer is filled with a compelling sense of responsibility for the pursuit of a hidden truth, which demands his services for revealing it. His act of knowing exercises a personal judgement in relating evidence to an external reality, an aspect of which he is seeking to apprehend. (Polanyi 1967: 24-5)

Michael Polanyi placed a strong emphasis on dialogue within an open community (a theme taken up later strongly by the physicist David Bohm). He recognized the strength by which we hold opinions and understandings and our resistance to changing them. Unlike many of his contemporaries he placed his thinking within an appreciation of God and of the power of worship – especially in his later writing (see, for example, Meaning). In his earlier work (especially in Personal Knowledge) Polanyi seems to be preoccupied with ‘setting forth ways to think about religious meaning as an articulate system or framework related to other articulate systems’ (Mullins undated). Later Michael Polanyi attempted to extend his model to describe the nature of human knowledge found in art, myth and religion.

#2 Trust in Transferring Knowledge at Joseph’s blog on 09.04.07 at 1:44 pm

[…] Trust me. Dr. Karen Stephenson, who I am still reading, like most business Gurus insist that human interactions flourish only when the trust level is high. Here again a short extract from her on “The Role of Trust in Transferring Tacit Knowledge”. I am fond of her story of a cocktail party to illustrate the social human behavior. […]

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