Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

What is the make of that car? A tale about tacit knowledge

with 10 comments

My son’s fascination with cars started early: the first word he uttered wasn’t “Mama” or “Dada”, it was “Brrrm.”

His interest grew with him; one of the first games we played together as a family was “What’s the make of that car?” – where his mum or I would challenge him to identify the make of a car that had just overtaken us when we were out driving.  The first few times we’d have to tell him what a particular car was (he couldn’t read yet), but soon enough he had a pretty good database in his little head.  Exchanges like the following became pretty common:

“So what’s that one Rohan?”

“Mitsubishi Magna, Dad”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, it is Mitsubishi,” he’d assert, affronted that I would dare question his ability to identify cars.

He was sometimes wrong about the model (and his mum would order me not to make an issue of it). More often than not, though, he’d be right. Neither his mum nor I are car enthusiasts, so we just assumed he figured it out from the logo and / or the letters inscribing the make on the boot.

Then one day we asked him to identify a car that was much too far away for him to be able to see letters or logos. Needless to say, he got it right…

Astounded, I asked, “Did you see the logo when the car passed us?”

“No Dad”

“How did you know then?”

“From the shapes, of course?”  As though it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“What shapes?” I was truly flummoxed.

“All cars have different shaped lights and bumpers and stuff.” To his credit, he refrained from saying, didn’t you know that.

“Ah, I see…”

But I didn’t really. Somehow Rohan had intuitively figured out that specific makes and models have unique tail-light, boot and bumper designs. He understood, or knew, car makes and models in a completely different way than we did – his knowledge of cars was qualitatively different from ours.

(I should make it clear that he picked up this particular skill because he enjoys learning about cars; he is, therefore, intrinsically motivated to learn about them. In most other areas his abilities are pretty much in line with kids his age)

Of course, the cognoscenti are well aware that cars can be identified by their appearance. I wasn’t, and neither was my dear wife. Those who know cars can identify the make (and even the model) from a mere glance.  Moreover, they can’t tell you exactly how they know, they just know – and more often than not they’re right.

This incident came back to me recently, as I was reading Michael Polanyi’s book, The Tacit Dimension, wherein  he explains his concept of tacit knowledge (which differs considerably from what it has come to mean in mainstream knowledge management).   The basic idea is that we know more than we can tell;  that  a significant part of our knowledge cannot be conveyed to others via speech or writing.  At times we  may catch a glimpse of it when the right questions are asked in the right context, but this almost always happens by accident rather than plan. We have to live with the fact that it is impossible for me to understand something you know in the same way that you do. You could explain it to me, I could even practice it under your guidance, but my understanding of it will never be the same as yours.

My point is this:  we do not and cannot fully comprehend how others understand and know things, except through fortuitous occurrences.  If this is true for a relatively simple matter like car makes and models, what implications does it have for more complex issues that organisations deal with everyday?  For example: can we really understand a best practice in the way that folks in the originating organisation do? More generally, are our present methods of capturing and sharing insights (aka Knowledge Management) effective?

Written by K

April 7, 2011 at 4:26 am

10 Responses

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  1. Great post, Kailash! It reminds me of a metaphor I used in a paper years go (arguing for a different approach to knowledge management … http://www.cognexus.org/dom.pdf). I like to relate the formal/tacit knowledge dichotomy to the particle/wave dichotomy in physics. Mainstream KM is fine for dealing with knowledge in its particle form where it can be easily named and located in our object-oriented linguistic framework (usually as a document). But what about knowledge in the wave form? What do our knowledge management systems have to say about capturing and retrieving waves?

    Given my focus on IBIS and Dialogue/Issue Mapping it leads me to wonder what the whole argumentation approach might contribute to facilitating two experts who are debating a proposal, each insisting that he/she can’t articulate the reasons for their point of view, and each supporting their case with the argument “I just know it, based on my experience”. What are the skills of sharing and conveying tacit knowledge? How is tacit knowledge made persuasive? What kind of tools might help a distributed team, for example, more effectively include tacit knowledge in the team’s shared knowledge and shared understanding about an issue?



    April 7, 2011 at 7:37 am

    • My two cents…

      Tacit knowledge is a component of knowledge that can relate to the way we appreciate our appreciation of reality. This, however, does not take away from our responsibility, when communicating this tacit knowledgeto others, to ground that tacit knowledge on logical, rational or factual foundations.


      Shim Marom

      April 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm

      • Shim,

        Thanks for your comment. You are quite right that tacit knowledge relates to our appreciation (or understanding) of reality. In this regard, Polanyi’s book was a real eye-opener for me. Among other things, he discusses how tacit knowledge guides scientists in making hunches that lead to discoveries or inventions. As he writes, so eloquently:

        “Looking forward before the event, the act of discovery appears personal and indeterminate. It starts with solitary intimations of a problem, of bits and pieces here and there which seem to offer clues to something hidden. They look like fragments of a yet unknown coherent whole. This tentative vision must turn into a personal obsession… This obsession which guides us is something no one can tell: its content is undefinable, indeterminate, strictly personal…”

        Needless to say, tacit knowledge has a role to play in more mundane settings too – like the organisations we work for. Although it is assumed that it can be surfaced by plan (via, say, discussion or by practice) my experience is that it often reveals itself in unplanned and unexpected ways.





        April 12, 2011 at 10:42 pm

        • This is not unsimilar to the way police investigators conduct their jobs. Investigating a crime demands, besides sound technical knowledge and analytical skills, also the realisation of tacit knowledge and the subsequent follow ups based on a hunch and gut-feel.

          At the end of the day, both the scientists and police detectives need to train younger professionals in that art, and this is where their tacit knowledge needs to be translated to tangible clues, ideas, and steps.

          Not a simple challenge.


          Shim Marom

          April 14, 2011 at 11:17 am

          • Shim,

            Thanks for the reply. Agreed – many professions rely on practitioners developing this kind of knowledge. The usual way to do this is through apprenticeship. The challenge arises because developing tacit skills is a highly personal process that is impossible to formalise in a textbook or course.





            April 15, 2011 at 6:30 am

  2. Jeff,

    That’s a great metaphor: wave/particle duality is a nice way to express the difference between knowledge that can be captured symbolically and that which cannot.

    As you have discussed in the organisational memory paper notations such as IBIS take us further along the road to surfacing implicit assumptions and capturing them for future reference. This is more than most other commonly used tools do. Surfacing tacit knowledge, though, is more problematic: how do we ask people to tell us how they know what they know? More often than not, such insights occur fortuitously. That said, those aha moments, in which one suddenly gets what someone else is trying to explain, are not uncommon in dialogue mapping sessions. These tend to occur when there is some breakdown in the dialogue and the facilitator steps in to make a “sensemaking” move in the sense described by Al Selvin and co-workers in this paper (reviewed here).

    I think this is a fruitful area to ponder over. The key, IMO, is to formulate the problem in a way that can yield practical answers.

    Many thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Much appreciated!





    April 7, 2011 at 8:37 am

  3. Ahhh, a young car enthusiast in the making; definitely good to hear! I’d bet good money that he’d be able to spot an Alfa Romeo a mile away. Also, I bet that without even knowing it, he’s taking the speed at which the car overtakes your car into consideration. You could test this by asking him what car manufacturer makes fast cars and if he can tell you, but not know why, then I’m onto something😉



    April 11, 2011 at 9:54 am

  4. […] What is the make of that car? A tale about tacit knowledge […]


  5. […] For example Nonaka and Takeuchi’s model of knowledge conversion acknowledges the importance of tacit knowledge held by employees. Although there is still much debate about tacit/explicit knowledge divide, […]


  6. […] versus explicit knowledge problem that I have written about at length elsewhere (see this post and this one, for example).  Although a recent development in knowledge management technology goes some way […]


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