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Monday, October 30, 2006

Tacit vs. Explicit Knowledge - Decisions Learning Professionals Make Everyday

A post by Jack Vinson pointed me to What's so great about tacit knowledge? and What's So Great About Tacit Knowledge? - Cont'd. Basically, a lot of what we do in Workplace Learning is trying to extract tacit knowledge (in people's heads), make it explicit (write it down) and then we even turn it into something that can be learned so it will become tacit knowledge in our learners heads.

Much of the focus of Knowledge Management has been finding ways to support capture of tacit knowledge. As stated by one article:

The knowledge management and capabilities literatures are in love in love with tacit knowledge. Managing tacit knowledge, leveraging tacit knowledge, growing tacit knowledge these are seen as the keys to achieving sustained competitive advantage.


But they also know that tacit knowledge and human judgment based on it is often flawed:
He correctly points out that tacit knowledge may well be erroneous, to which it may be added that erroneous tacit knowledge is usually more of a problem than erroneous explicit knowledge, since the latter is presumably easier to correct.

A couple of things that this sparked for me as it relates to Workplace Learning. First, one of the things that has been argued against providing tools to end-users to create their own content is that they will create information that is not all that great or is wrong. I've always said that I'd rather have them putting the information down somewhere (in a Wiki for example) and making it explicit so that we can find it and hopefully correct it. The alternative is that they will hand it out below the radar, and we won't know that they are spreading it around.

Second, since much of the choice between eLearning 1.0 and eLearning 2.0 comes down to the cost of us directly working to make information explicit as compared to providing tools that allow the learners to make it explicit (or to create their own tacit knowledge). Thus, the authors suggestion that knowledge runs from:

knowledge-that-is-extremely-costly-to-articulate and knowledge-that-isn't-at-all as defining the two ends of a continuum.

This is where we live all the time. Deciding whether its worth the cost of extracting the tacit knowledge and making it explicit or not.

Finally, the author points out something that is quite controversial. He essentially argues that its only a matter of cost of extracting tacit knowledge. He states:
the literature on tacit knowledge sometimes reads as if there is tacit knowledge that is inherently impossible to articulate; no matter the costs If you go and look on Wikipedia's definition:
The tacit aspects of knowledge are those that cannot be codified..

So which is it? Can it be extracted or not? Well it really is about the cost of extracting it AND the cost of providing it in a form that can be learned so that it can be used or learned. So, my feeling is that it all can become explicit - and that's our job in a lot of cases - but we are constantly being forced to consider the cost.

1 comment:

Karyn Romeis said...

The tacit/explicit knowledge dilemma puts me in mind of a (allegedly true) story I read some years ago. A woman who hosted a TV baking show on national television in the USA was desperate for her grandmother's incomparable fruit cake recipe, brought from the "old country" (which I seem to remember was Poland). The grandmother was still alive and baking this cake regularly, but would not even allow her granddaughter into the kitchen when she baked it.

A journalist friend intervened. Using her interviewing skills, she identified the problem. The grandmother didn't know what the recipe was - she was almost illiterate and measured ingredients with her hands and eyes, and the oven temperature by gut instinct. She had never intended for the recipe to be a secret, but she was ashamed to reveal her unprofessional methods to her oh-so-professional granddaughter, fearing that the TV chef would lose respect for her. The journalist friend came to the rescue. They baked the cake together, and as the grandmother measured out each ingredient, using her time-honoured method, the friend remeasured the quantities using scales and measuring spoons. Together, they gave the recipe to the granddaughter as a Christmas gift.

Sometimes valuable tacit knowledge gets lost because there isn't anyone to play the part of the journalist. Sometimes, the "owner" of the tacit knowledge feels like a fraud: if only they knew how easy/low tech it was, they wouldn't value this knowledge (or me) any more.

I am saddened that it is often the hard-won wisdom of older folks that gets lost in this way, because we seem to have lost appreciation for anything that isn't presented within the idiom of our generation.