Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

On the ineffable tacitness of knowledge

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Knowledge management (KM) is essentially about capturing and disseminating the know-how,  insights and experiences  that exist within an organisation.  Although much is expected of KM initiatives, most end up delivering document repositories that are of as much help in managing knowledge as a bus is in getting to the moon. In this post I look into the question of why KM initiatives fail, drawing on a couple of sources that explore the personal nature of knowledge.

Explicit and tacit knowledge in KM

Most KM  professionals are familiar with terms explicit and tacit knowledge.  The first term refers to knowledge that can be expressed in writing or speech whereas the second refers to that which cannot.  Examples of the former include driving directions (how to get from A to B) or a musical score; examples of the latter include the ability to drive or to play a musical instrument.  This seems reasonable enough: a musician can learn how to play a piece by studying a score however a non-musician cannot learn to play an instrument by reading a book.

In their influential book, The Knowledge-Creating Company, Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi proposed a model of knowledge creation1  based on their claim that:  “human knowledge is created and expanded through social interaction between tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge.” It would take me too far afield to discuss their knowledge creation model in full here – see this article for a quick summary.  However, the following aspects of it are relevant to the present discussion:

  1. The two forms of knowledge (tacit and explicit) can be converted from one to the other. In particular, it is possible to convert tacit knowledge to an explicit form.
  2. Knowledge can be transferred (from person to person).

In the remainder of this article I’ll discuss why these claims aren’t entirely valid.

All knowledge has tacit and explicit elements

In a paper entitled, Do we really understand tacit knowledge, Haridimos Tsoukas discusses why Nonaka and Takeuchi’s view of knowledge is incomplete, if not incorrect. To do so, he draws upon writings of the philosopher Michael Polanyi.

According to Polanyi, all knowledge has tacit and explicit elements. This is true even of theoretical knowledge that can be codified in symbols (mathematical knowledge, for example). Quoting from Tsoukas’ paper:

…if one takes a closer look at how theoretical (or codified) knowledge is actually used in practice, one will see the extent to which theoretical knowledge itself, far from being as objective, self-sustaining, and explicit as it is often taken to be, it is actually grounded on personal judgements and tacit commitments. Even the most theoretical form of knowledge, such as pure mathematics, cannot be a completely formalised system, since it is based for its application and development on the skills of mathematicians and how such skills are used in practice.

Mathematical proofs are written in a notation that is (supposed to be) completely unambiguous.  Yet every   mathematician will understand a proof  (in the sense of its implications rather than its veracity) in his or her own way.  Moreover, based on their personal understandings, some mathematicians will be able to derive insights that others won’t. Indeed this is how we distinguish between skilled and less skilled mathematicians.

Polanyi claimed that all knowing consists at least in part of skillful action because the knower participates in the act of understanding and assimilating what is known.

Lest this example seem too academic, let’s consider a more commonplace one taken from Tsoukas’ paper: that of a person reading a map.

Although a map is an explicit representation of location, in order to actually use a map to get from A to B a person needs to:

  1. Locate A on the map.
  2. Plot out a route from A to B.
  3. Traverse the plotted route by identifying landmarks, street names etc. in the real world and interpreting them in terms of the plotted route.

In other words, the person has to make use of his or her senses and cognitive abilities in order to use the (explicit) knowledge captured in the map. The point is that the person will do this in a way that he or she cannot fully explain to anyone else. In this sense, the person’s understanding (or knowledge) of what’s in the map manifests itself in how he or she actually goes about getting from A to B.

The nub of the matter: focal and subsidiary awareness

Let me get to the heart of the matter through another example that is especially relevant as I sit at my desk writing these words.

I ask the following question:

What is it that enables me to write these lines using my knowledge of the English language, papers on knowledge management and a host of other things that I’m not even aware of?

I’ll begin my answer by quoting yet again from Tsoukas’ paper,

 For Polanyi the starting point towards answering this question is to acknowledge that “the aim of a skilful performance is achieved by the observance of a set of rules which are not known as such to the person following them.” …Interestingly, such ignorance is hardly detrimental to [the] effective carrying out of [the]  task…

Any particular elements of the situation which may help the purpose of a mental effort are selected insofar as they contribute to the performance at hand, without the performer knowing them as they would appear in themselves. The particulars are subsidiarily known insofar as they contribute to the action performed. As Polanyi remarks, ‘this is the usual process of unconscious trial and error by which we feel our way to success and may continue to improve on our success without specifiably knowing how we do it.’

Polanyi noted that there are two distinct kinds of awareness that play a role in any (knowledge-based) action. The first one is conscious awareness of what one is doing (Polanyi called this focal awareness). The second is subsidiary awareness: the things that one is not consciously aware of but nevertheless have a bearing on the action.

Back to my example, as I write these words I’m consciously aware of the words appearing on my screen as I type whereas I’m subsidarily aware of a host of other things I cannot fully enumerate:  my thoughts, composition skills, vocabulary and all the other things that have a bearing on my writing (my typing skills, for example).

The two kinds of awareness, focal and subsidiary, are mutually exclusive: the instant I shift my awareness from the words appearing on my screen, I lose flow and the act of writing is interrupted.  Yet, both kinds of awareness are necessary for the act of writing. Moreover, since my awareness of the subsidiary elements of writing is not conscious, I cannot describe them. The minute I shift attention to them, the nature of my awareness of them changes – they become things in their own right instead of elements that have a bearing on my writing.

In brief, the knowledge-based act of writing is composed of both conscious and subsidiary elements in an inseparable way. I can no more describe all the knowledge involved in the act than I can the full glory of a  beautiful sunset.

Wrapping up

From the above it appears that the central objective of knowledge management is essentially unattainable because all knowledge has tacit elements that cannot be “converted” or codified explicitly. We can no more capture or convert knowledge than we can “know how others know.”  Sure, one can get people to document what they do, or even capture their words and actions on media. However this does not amount to knowing what they know. In his paper, Tsoukas writes about the ineffability of tacit knowledge.  However, as I have argued,  all knowledge is ineffably tacit. I hazard that this may, at least in part, be the reason why KM initiatives fall short of their objectives.

Acknowledgement and further reading

Thanks to Paul Culmsee for getting me reading and thinking about this stuff again!  Some of the issues that I have discussed above are touched upon in the book I have written with Paul.

Finally, for those who are interested, here are some of my earlier pieces on tacit knowledge:

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

Why best practices are hard to practice (and what can be done about it)


1 As far as I’m aware, Nonaka and Takeuchi’s model mentioned in this article is still the gold standard in KM. In recent years, there have been a number of criticisms of the model (see this paper by Gourlay, or especially this one by Powell). Nonaka and von Krogh attempt to rebut some of the criticisms in this paper. I will leave it to interested readers to make up their own minds as to how convincing their rebuttal is.

Written by K

February 9, 2012 at 10:30 pm

7 Responses

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  1. So, if all “knowledge” is ineffably tacit, what is the utility of such a concept? It is a concept that is completely ineffable, or at least it is ineffable to a large but unknown portion. It reminds me to dark matter, dark energy, and not to forget: to Manitou.
    The problem with all this is the totally unsuitable starting point. It is impossible to claim that “knowledge is p”, “p” standing for “something identifiable”. It is neither about beliefs (see the Gettier problems), it is not about truth, it is not about correctness, and it is of course NOT about any kind of “content”. Of course, all these entities (concepts?) are playing some role for what we call knowledge, but they are not sufficient. Gettier proofed that it can not be justified belief. Truth can not be claimed without further reference to other normative rules outside of the given context. And databases surely do not know anything.
    So we can hold: It is inappropriate (=deeply misleading) to apply existential terms to knowledge. We have to distinguish the speaking about the concept from living it.
    Some say, knowledge is process that involves at least two people, if not many. That is, knowledge is an emergent effect. Others say, it is a language game. Yet, both description do not help much, albeit they are pointing to a promising direction. The language game perspective is particular interesting, as we will see in a moment

    From an epistemological point of view we have to ask “what happens if we say “I know”. Surely, we refer (often fuzzily) to a capability. Now, what is this capability about? It is NOT just about the motoric aspects of using a hammer to smack a nail, or to organize a company, or to set the break in a car. There is much more about it. The fact that we can organize actions motorically should not taken as the totality of the references f that action.

    The language game of “knowledge” is a claim that one is able to make sense of a whole network of references for a given purpose. Note that I refer to the existence of the language game, not to the existence of knowledge here. This purpose can have motoric/factual precipitations and consequences, but it need not. The main purpose is a social one.
    Saying “I know” indicates that a person (or even establishes a person first place) is able to provide a sufficient set of informational pieces to other people such that those other people can interpret and infer s closely related structure about the empiric observations. Such, facts are established, that also provide some objectivity. We can agree uon sth because we “share knowledge”, meaning we could give sufficient reason to each other
    It is purest nonsense to call any part of knowledge “tacit”. Such knowledge I could not talk about. I could not demonstrate it to any other. I would not have any access to it. Remember, it is tacit. Heidegger often made a joke about theological philosophers, a thing that is not possible. We also could cite “liquid stones”, or “glibberish stone”. Such concepts have metaphorical and poetic value, precisely because they are self-referential contradictions (though they are NOT paradoxons). Yet, for doing management, for organizing sth by means of knowledge, tacitness is deep nonsense of mythologically affected people..
    The whole story about tacitness of knowledge becomes very clear if you visit Japan, or just Tokyo. Tacit knowledge is a religious concept borne in Japanese mythology.
    From what I said it is clear that knowledge can not be stored. Knowledge is NOT in the books. Knowledge is established by the constructive interpretation and doing inferences from what one can read in book, which in turn has been written by an author precisely for this purpose.

    It is thus not very surprising that authors like von Krogh identify family-like structures as the best (and probably only) thing one can do for establishing KM. For establishing knowledge processes one needs a flow of information yes of course, but you need confidence, belief, faith, credit, etc… among people FIRST.
    We all know from experience (it did not work), that the duty to “share information” is a blinded command.
    Obviously it is taken from the wrong end.

    Conceiving knowledge as a language game has serious consequences. One is, that knowledge can not be tacit, and for the same reason it can not be explicit. Any of our social companions has to interpret first, there is no direct way from one brain into another. Another consequence is, that we can not store it. Again, nothing new, but compatible with the perspective promoted here. A further consequence is that a well-developed language culture supports knowledge management much more than computers and organizational structure can do per se. ANd the most important consequence is that we can not say any more “This is knowledge”, i.e. we can not positively determine what should be counted as knowledge. It emerges from moment to moment, there is NOTHING hidden or tacit. Knowledge is always relative to a context established by people talking and thinking together. It is the privately experienced consequence of a shared “Lebensform”, with all its rules, norms, and data (as acknowledged and constructed facts)

    Presumably, what Polanyi, Nonaka and many others did not understand (but not Peter Drucker, for instance) was simply complexity, or more precisely, the generative power of complex systems. (see http://theputnamprogram.wordpress.com/2012/01/15/complexity/)

    So, please:) stop talking about soft stones… It does not lead to anywhere, except back to the dark medieval ages…



    February 10, 2012 at 5:53 am

    • Thanks so much reading and responding with a comment that has given me much to think about. My apologies for the delay in responding (work often gets in the way of timely responses…)

      You have summarised the problem of describing the nature of knowledge very nicely in your line, “It is inappropriate (=deeply misleading) to apply existential terms to knowledge. We have to distinguish the speaking about the concept from living it.”

      As you have suggested, our attempts to speak of knowledge are indeed language games. Yet we have to indulge in language games if we want to talk about it at all. To that extent, our concept of knowledge has a social function – to convey our thoughts to others. As you have mentioned, “Saying “I know” indicates that a person is able to provide a sufficient set of informational pieces to other people such that those other people can interpret and infer closely related structure about [related] empiric observations. Such, facts are established, [and so] also provide some objectivity. We can agree upon this because we “share knowledge”, meaning we could give sufficient reason [to believe something is true] to each other” (my paraphrases are enclosed in square brackets)

      I fully take your point about the social and interpretive aspects of knowledge. That said, knowledge has a personal dimension as it is an individual (rather than a group) that “does the knowing”. Our concepts of knowledge enable us to talk about we know and how we know it. However, how we
      actually know something is only known to us and is impossible to explain to others through language alone. I think this is where the explicit/ tacit distinction is useful: it makes clear what can be codified and what can’t. Nevertheless, as you so rightly point out, any codification is not knowledge, it is merely an impoverished representation of it. So, is it helpful to objectify knowledge in such a manner? I think it is, because it provides a means for people to draw attention to what they know even though they cannot fully explain what it is they know (in its entirety). This is where the distinction is useful – it gives us a
      means to talk about the aspects of knowing that cannot be described because we are only subsidiarily aware of them. The point I attempt to make (within the constraints of my admittedly naive understanding) is that everything we know has this sort of a tacit aspect.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comment. You’ve clearly read and thought about this subject a great deal. I would greatly appreciate your recommendations for further reading.





      February 16, 2012 at 11:23 pm

      • Hi Kailash

        thanks for taking up my comment seriously!
        From your reply I have to make some points more clear.

        I do not want to dispute that the person and her experience is somethin individual. The experience is
        private, of course, no other person made the same experiences.

        I also do not want to challenge that there is something in human persons that we could call the “subconscious”. Yes, we have a brain, which is a necessary component of the mind. The other necessary component to develop a mind from the brain, and to run a mind on the brain substrate, is the environment, in case of humans the social environment, and most saliently language.

        And third, I certainly agree to any statement that would claim that the action (reaction, interaction) is something that is deeply influenced by the person, i.e. the unique composition of private experiences, a private “digestion” of these experiences, and a largely unique way to express herself, either by
        language or by actions.

        Yet, I do not agree to call these private aspects “knowledge”. Knowledge only makes sense as something you also coud lack, i.e. knowledge can be only there where you could not know sth.
        The private aspects, however, are just as they are (at a given “point” in life history), there is nothing that could be different in your experiences, your body, the particular capabilities of your brain. Of course, all of these change all the time. But in a given moment they are as they are.

        You say “how we actually know something is only known to us and is impossible to explain to others through language alone.”

        I would say, as soon as you know that know you can explain or express it, either by language or by demonstrating the issue at hand. The case is not whether we can speak about it or not. The issue is whether we can choose a particular expression (action, wording) as an act of volition.
        If you can’t engage in such a choice, you do not know. You even can’t take action, you simply perform or engage/move.

        It is clear that we tend to rationalize our actions aposteriori, after we did it, or after we said something. We even can not speak about sth and deliver the rationalization at the same time. This by the way, is an
        empiric precipitation of Wittgensteins insight (PI 329):
        “When I think in language, there aren’t ”meanings” going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is itself the vehicle of thought.”

        Again, my point is not that knowledge concerns only those things which we can express in language. Yet, we easily can extend Wttgensteins proposal from language to knowledge. It would probably look like this:

        “When I know something about subject A, there is no further knowledge a(A) inside that knowledge going through my mind in addition to the knowledge about A that (= a(A)) could lead me to take a deliberate choice. Knowledge about A is “itself” the vehicle of that choice.”

        There is nothing hidden. There is nothing we could “unhide”, or release.
        Another question is, but that’s psychology and has nothing to do with the problem of “tacitness” in knowledge, whether a particular person withholds a possible expression, or whether she does not remember in a particular moment, albeit she would have been able in more favorable settings (think about stress, mobbing, daytime, etc.)

        Instead I would propose to change the perspective to the dynamics of the persons as “unique compounds”. This dynamics is of course heavily dependent on the social relations, the web woven by language, common story telling (see the role of “CI”!) bodily interactions, and all the traces we leave behind us that makes up an organization.

        I indeed think that precisely this is the initial fault of the “tacit knowledge” idea:
        The attempt to expell unforeseeable change, to expell the role of time, to deny the generative power of social groups. If something is “tacit”, it is like mineral resource. It sits there you have to discover it, and then you could exploit it. This is a typical modernist attitude, as well as it is typical for Japanese thinking.
        And Polanyi came up with this concept in midst of the 60ies, ages before the much more realistic insights about self-organization, complexity, etc.

        From this perspective, the claim that there is something “tacit” in knowledge has serious problems:
        – it creates either the problem of infinite regress, or alternatively the problem of the homunculus;
        yet, there is not “theater in the mind”.
        – implicitly, it takes the human mind as something static, as a storage
        – such, it first singularizes the human mind, only for claiming afterwards that humans
        should be connected. This leads to a logical self-contrasdiction.
        However, in fact human minds are never separated from each other.
        – as a consequence it leads to the wrong questions, i.e. it “hides” the relevant ones.

        Actually there is nothing mysterious with knowledge. As soon as you know something, you can express it, if you do not know, you can’t express it, Yet, at any point of time you may learn and invent new knowledge, often with surprising effects.

        You see the picture of “tacitness” does not match. We should turn our attention to more appropriate perspective, such as the inventiveness, the establishing of inventions (And again: to invent does NOT mean to unhide!), the conditions for spreading information in order to create novelty by “folding” things and ideas together (the DNA principle, or better the Diploidy-principle, which the antique greeks called the “eros” principle, and which also was the main attitude in mind in the age of baroque), etc.

        All this goes completely unnoticed under the nonsensical umbrella of “hidden” knowledge.

        Above all my objections should be misunderstood towards a positivist direction, beware!
        I certainly agree to any proposal stating that there is something in the world (especially the world of human beings), that is somehow “there” but not accessible yet. However, it does not make sense to call these aspect “hidden.” This insight has been precisely labeled and throughly discussed for centuries in philosophy: immanence and virtuality. In philosophy, the “natural” step to take then is to ask about the conditions for the actualization of the virtual. Note, that the virtual is completely real, yet it is not there “physically”. The virtual is pure potentiality. The potential/potentiality has to be distinguished from mere possibility, which is both real and actual.

        What Polanyi coined “tacit” is not only a serious misunderstanding, but also just a caricature of these concepts. It conflates everything, immanence, virtuality, potentiality and possibility, (a friend of mine would add: the every with the any), resulting in a mess, that leads to inappropriate attitudes and wrong conclusions. So to speak, it flattens the world by removing the dimensions that provide richness
        and intellectual wealth…

        Yet… to discuss the role of the concepts of immanence and virtuality would be subject for a book, or two 🙂 For a start I just would recommend Deleuze/Guattari “What is Philosophy?”, but reading and adopting that into the domain of organizational issues still requires a bunch of efforts…

        Somehow, the subject is touching an important issue, hence the word count of my contributions are considerable… sorry for that 😉



        February 17, 2012 at 2:00 am

  2. […] background-position: 50% 0px; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } eight2late.wordpress.com – Today, 6:08 […]


  3. […] On the ineffable tacitness of knowledge (eight2late.wordpress.com) […]


  4. […] Theory cannot teach you what experience does. You see, many project management skills are tacit, they can only be learned by doing. Would you pick up a book about guitar and music theory and […]


  5. […] tacit 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 […]


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