to know is to do

Do we really understand tacit knowledge?, asks Haridimos Tsoukas in a 2002 paper. He bases his position on the work of Michael Polanyi in that all knowledge is personal and all knowing is through action. Tacit knowledge [I use the term implicit knowledge as it is easier to understand for non-native English speakers] is not merely explicit knowledge that has yet to be codified. Knowledge is personal.

Tsoukas states that:

“we do not so much need to operationalise tacit knowledge (as explained earlier, we could not do this, even if we wanted) as to find new ways of talking, fresh forms of interacting, and novel ways of distinguishing and connecting. Tacit knowledge cannot be ‘captured’, ‘translated’, or ‘converted’ but only displayed, manifested, in what we do. New knowledge comes about not when the tacit becomes explicit, but when our skilled performance – our praxis – is punctuated in new ways through social interaction.”

This is important for anyone working in training, education, knowledge management, and the various growing fields of ‘artificial intelligence’. Knowledge cannot be transferred. We can observe how people use their knowledge but even they cannot explain all of it.

“Although the expert diagnostician, taxonomist and cotton-classer can indicate their clues and formulate their maxims, they know many more things than they can tell, knowing them only in practice, as instrumental particulars, and not explicitly, as objects.”

It is only when we no longer think about something, like hammering a nail, that we can concentrate on the next level, like fixing the roof. We are constantly creating mental black boxes to lessen our cognitive load.

“Knowledge has, therefore, a recursive form: given a certain context, we blackbox – assimilate, interiorise, instrumentalise – certain things in order to concentrate – focus – on others.”

This is the objective of PKM. The idea is to use a framework to help make sense of how we find information, develop knowledge, and use it socially. When some habits become routine we can then concentrate on higher levels of thinking. But we can also go back and look inside our black boxes to see if they are still valid and reliable. I often call this object-oriented-playing-around. Einstein said that, “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought”.

With PKM we encourage people to try new tools and see what works for them. Starting by playing around is often helpful. As Tsoukas writes, “the cognitive tools we use do not apply themselves; we apply them and, thus, we need to assess the extent to which our tools match aspects of the world”. We have to start by being conscious of our tools, then mastering them to the point where we forget them. But then we have to periodically review our tools and ensure they are still the right ones for our current complex contexts.

People are the prime drivers, creators, and users of knowledge. Explicit knowledge in code bases, databases, and knowledge bases is a mere shadow of what people actually know implicitly. To know is to do.


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