Tacit Knowledge Not Included

It’s rather interesting to hear from the same company that 1) their situation is unique, and 2) they are looking for examples of best practices in their industry. If they are so darned unique, why aren’t they developing their own emergent practices?

When working with large organizations I frequently hear that their main business strategy is to be fast followers. This means looking for examples of best practices and applying them after they have been proven. You might even think this practice makes sense in industries like banking, where change could be rather risky.

The big problem with trying to be a fast follower is this: tacit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge is stuff that we know, but we can’t explain how to do it.  Think of it this way: have someone throw something at you, and try to catch it.  Now, describe exactly how you figured out where to put your hand to catch the flying car keys (or whatever).  You can’t.  There are calculations of speed, and trajectories, and muscle movements, and all of that goes on inside your brain and you can’t explain any of it.  That’s tacit knowledge. – Tim Kastelle

The major problem with any best practice is that it was proven to work for someone else. All best practice case studies should have a warning label attached: Tacit Knowledge Not Included. Tacit knowledge is one of the few things that cannot be copied, and what makes creative, non-standardized work so valuable. Tacit knowledge cannot be automated or outsourced. There are no best practices for tacit knowledge because it cannot be codified. Best practices can only help with lower value, routine work. They can help refine your existing business processes, but they are not a source of innovation.

tacit knowledge business valueAs Tim Kastelle says, “You build up tacit knowledge when you learn by doing.” That is why I keep saying that work is learning and learning is the work. Tacit knowledge is a source of core business value. It can only be developed through experience. Companies need to focus on learning from the work experiences throughout the enterprise, find ways to share tacit knowledge, and then make some of that knowledge explicit. But the real value is the stuff that cannot be measured, which requires a much different way of thinking about business value.

All human systems are complex and today most economic value is intangible, so that the most important knowledge for any organization is tacit.

In this world, workplace learning should be guided by a 70:20:10 approach, all workers should be empowered to actively practice PKM, and companies should promote knowledge-sharing & collaboration.

7 Responses to “Tacit Knowledge Not Included”

  1. Richard Martin

    Great post, Harold – and, by extension, Tim too. Given ideas relating to continuous improvement, learning and application of new knowledge, the notion of ‘best practice’ has always truck me as an odd one. It’s like the Holy Grail, forever out of reach. I think most, in the spirit of learning by doing, should start with ‘practice’ or, at most, ‘good practice’. By adapting such practices to their own environments and work context they will evolve it into something slightly different, picking up the tacit knowledge along the way.

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  2. Thomas Polfliet

    If you understand explicitly the determining elements of a problem and of its solution, you can resuse your ‘best practise’-solution when you encounter the same determining elements in a (‘new’) problem.

    Because problems often ask for a quick respons and society is getting so complex, ad hoc solutions tend to be vast majority of all solutions because they don’t demand for the time needed to fully understand what you are doing. In present society and business life, everything changes so quickly that abstrahising an ad-hoc solution in order to understand (in an almost scientificly way) when to reuse it, is something which you simply don’t always have the time for.

    Therefor for me, the difference between tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge, is the time you have at your disposal to study and learn those constitutional elements from the ad hoc solution.

    To determine whether the knowledge is tacit or explicit, you have to judge whether making the tacit knowledge more explixit knowledge, is worth the effort yes or no. It could be worth the effort because of re-usability. The answer depends on the context.

    SInce the full abstract understanding of a problem has an economic value (you save thime when the problem is encoutered for a second time) and this value is determined by how many times the solution can be reused, companies could have an advantage by working together.

    So should we abandon Newton and Descartes and do everything ad-hoc? I don’t think so. It’s what made brought us so far. I think we just need to think carefully whether it’s worth making it explicit knowledge yes or no.

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