The Semantic Advantage

February 5, 2009

Reducing dependence on tacit knowledge

Filed under: knowledge management,semantic technology — Phil Murray @ 7:33 pm

Much is made of the importance of tacit knowledge — which might be loosely understood as “things you do on autopilot” or highly internalized experience that can be applied in work situations. Examples of the value of tacit knowledge might include the stock trader with 10 clients on the line or a nurse practitioner making rapid decisions about the status and treatment of a distressed infant.

You’ll see references to the importance of tacit knowledge everywhere you turn. (In my experience, nearly everyone without a background in “knowledge management” who becomes interested in KM latches on to this idea uncritically.) One rationale for this mindset is the generalization that you can’t really capture knowledge in an explicit or formal way. That is usually combined with the assertion that these skills are the most important skills in an organization — not all that trivial explicit knowledge (articulated knowledge) stuff (which anyone get his or her hands on).

(BTW, everyone seems to claim that everyone else is misinterpreting Michael Polanyi’s tacit vs. explicit distinction. [See, for example, the Wikipedia entry on Tacit knowledge] I simply don’t care. Argue among yourselves and don’t send me any nasty pedantic emails on the topic. I use the distinction in the way described above. And please don’t send me your favorite definition of knowledge.)

Sure, we depend on tacit knowledge in many cases where we are applying knowledge to work. But overemphasis on tacit knowledge as a business strategy or vital business practice is fundamentally wrongheaded and counterproductive.

  • What is tacit for one person may be very explicit for another. Part of the problem today is that, as individuals, we are forced to deal with a much wider range of situations and conditions than in the past. There are so many more things that touch our jobs and so much more information about those things is readily available to us. But someone, somewhere has in fact explicitly represented much of what we as individuals deem “tacit.”
  • A corollary: Examined closely, any particular skill that depends on highly internalized information may turn out, in fact, to be easily represented not only explicitly, but also very formally. Knowledge engineers — in the traditional sense, creators of expert systems — have demonstrated this to be true in many cases.
  • The dividing line between internalized “knowledge” and information is very fuzzy. These days, nearly every application of knowledge to work is deeply dependent on explicit knowledge and information.
  • The emphasis on tacit knowledge is fundamentally elitist … and shortsighted. The working assumption is that those who already demonstrate or are capable of demonstrating superior skills in an activity deserve more attention. This attention and investment in time and money may actually be counterproductive, because when the expert walks out the door, so does his knowledge. People who are deeply committed to improving their knowledge and skills will do so anyway, assuming you let them. Those who do not have that drive for excellence and improvement aren’t going to be prodded like cattle into improved learning and better behaviors.
  • The “tacit agenda” heavily emphasizes the role of learning in an organization. But I agree with my friend Jim Giombetti that focusing on learning — enhancing the knowledge of individuals — is fundamentally a bad investment for enterprises, especially if it comes at the expense of more thoughtful approaches to making knowledge work more effective. In general, you simply don’t get a good, predicatable return on that investment.
  • Tacit knowledge simply doesn’t apply in some situations. Lately I’ve been listening in on the NASA/Ontolog conversation about Ontology in Knowledge Management & Decision Support (OKMDS). The diverse and distributed community in this discussion can’t depend in any significant way on tacit knowledge. That is probably true of many enterprises and communities of practices as well. (The large pool of experts in IBM comes to mind.)

Don’t get me wrong. The last thing I want organizations to do is to chain experts to desks and make them write down their “knowledge” in formal ways. By the time they finish doing so, the world has changed. And it’s simply impossible to treat this kind of knowledge capture as a manageable top-down enterprise activity.

But it is vital, IMHO, to pursue ways of converting what we know as individuals into what is useful for others in the organization to know. Technology and new thinking about knowledge work will help us do so.


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