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