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The elusive notion of context

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It would have been my second or third day in this country. There was a lot going in my head at the time: the worry of a small bank balance, the tension of finding a job, the assorted insecurities of finding one’s way in a strange land. I was walking back to my motel in the evening, lost in thought  when, quite unexpectedly, I caught the unmistakable aroma of eucalyptus and wattle, a scent I had grown up with in my childhood years in the Nilgiri Hills.

A view of the Niligiri Hills (Wikimedia)

It was strangely comforting. A place that felt unfamiliar moments earlier seemed much less so, a small step towards a sense of belonging…


A few years later, I was working on a research problem relating to a phenomenon that is easily demonstrated in a kitchen sink. If you are interested, make your way to the nearest sink and do the following:

Turn the tap on slowly until water starts to flow out as a cylindrical jet. You will notice that the jet breaks up into near spherical droplets a short distance from the mouth of the tap.

This phenomenon is called jet breakup. Instead of describing it further, I will follow the advice that a picture is worth several words.

Jet breakup


The problem of jet breakup was first studied by Lord Rayleigh in 1878 but had enjoyed a renaissance in the 1970s and 80s due to applications such as inkjet printing. My project was to apply the principle to the production of shot from jets of molten metal. I was not too enthused by the problem as it was, at best, a minor variation of a theme that had already been done to death. However, I was being paid to do research so I worked on it as diligently as I could, making desultory progress.

One October evening, about two years into my project, I was washing up after dinner when I noticed a curious wave-like structure on the thin jet that emerged from the kitchen sink tap and fell onto a plate an inch or two below the tap (the dishes had piled up that day). The wave pattern was stationary and rather striking.

Stationary waves on a water jet

The phenomenon is one that countless folks have seen. Indeed, I had noticed it before but never paid it much attention until that October evening when I saw the phenomenon with new eyes.  Being familiar with the work of Rayleigh and others, I realised, at once, that the pattern had the same underlying cause as jet breakup. Wondering if anyone had published papers on it, I dashed off to the library to do a literature search (Google Scholar and decent search engines were still a few years away). Within a few hours I realised I’d stumbled on a new context that would change the direction of my research.


Years and a couple of career changes later, I was working in a large multinational. Through sheer luck of being at the right place at the right time, I got to do some well-regarded work in business intelligence and analytics.  One of the things I realized during these projects is that the technical aspects of the work are the easiest. The hardest part is figuring out what to do…and this is hard because of people, not technology.

It was my first encounter with problem wickedness, the notion that problems involving diverse groups of individuals are socially complex. I started reading and thinking about practical ways to deal with social complexity in organizations, an effort that led to my collaborative work with Paul Culmsee. The key point, elaborated at length in our work, is that progress on tackling such problems depends critically on building a common context, one that all stakeholder groups can relate to.


There is a lot of published nonsense about building productive teams, much of it circulating on the internet. I will refrain from singling out specific articles because there are so many, but you can find them for yourself using search phrases such as “building teams”.   The fact of the matter is that there are no special levers one can pull to make good teams. As JR Hackman, a well-known researcher on team behaviour stated in a review article entitled, From causes to conditions in group research:

Influences on group behavior and performance do not come in separate, distinguishable packages. They come, instead, in complex tangles of redundant features and forces. To try to partial out and assess the causal effects of each component can be an exercise in frustration because each ingredient of what may be a spicy stew loses its zest when studied separately from the others.

Hackman urges researchers (and by implication, practitioners) to forget about causes and focus on creating the right conditions for a team to do good work. The real work of a leader is to set the right context and get out of the way. As David Snowden tells us in this talk, “Leadership is a property of the way you interact with people, not a property of status or training…[it] is about creating the right context for good things to happen.”

 If you are interested in finding out more about building context, check out David Snowden’s writings on the Cognitive Edge blog or the books I have linked to above. For a much longer and very enlightening series of discourses on the importance of context, I highly recommend Gregory Bateson’s magnum opus, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. The work is a collection of writings that deal with things far removed from management and organisations, but you will slowly start to see its relevance as you digest his many-splendoured essays on anthropology, evolution, animal behaviour, art, psychology, information, communication and more.


David Snowden’s Cynefin Framework offers a useful way to think about organizational problems. As an example, I have found the complicated / complex distinction useful in triaging problems frequently encountered in organizational settings.  In brief, complex problems tend to have a much higher degree of social complexity compared to complicated problems. They are, in other words, wicked problems. Most organizational problems that matter are complex, not complicated. 

Quite apart from the utility of the framework, I find the origin of the name Cynefin enlightening. The term is commonly (and poorly) translated as habitat. A better translation is the phrase, a place of belonging.  This resonates with the following passage excerpted from a paper Snowden wrote about the origins of the term:

For Christmas 1998 my parents followed a long tradition of giving me a book related to Welsh culture. That year it was The Land and the Sea, a collection of the works of Kyffin Williams, published to celebrate his eightieth year. I have admired his work from when I first saw a portrait painted by him, of a much-loved headmaster a quarter of a century earlier. He is an artist who has a profound understanding of place, both in his landscape work and his formal and informal portraits of the people of his native land, the Brythonic Kingdom of Gwynedd which dominated what is now Wales from the fifth to the thirteenth centuries. The Romans knew it as Venedotia, or the land of Venus, and I had the privilege of growing up there, walking its hills and sailing its coast. To sit on the summit of Tryfan as the sun descends over the Glyder ridge and Y Garn, casting shadows on to the precipitous slopes of Pen yr Ole Wen is a profound experience, not just of the aesthetic beauty of the landscape, but of one’s place, one’s identity, one’s place of belonging. There is a welsh word, Cynefin, which means all of that and more and has no equivalent in the English language, where it is crudely translated as habitat or place. In his preface to Kyffin Williams’book, Nicholas Sinclair connects the word Cynefin to the interaction between human beings and their environment that is the essence of the author’s work. I took that word as the name for this model created to understand the different types of system within which we operate: ordered, complex and chaotic.

Williams, Kyffin; Deserted Farm, Llanrhuddlad; Southend Museums Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/deserted-farm-llanrhuddlad-2750

Snowden’s words resonate with my professional experiences in a wide variety of organisations as well as my personal experiences of dealing with the unfamiliar.  Until I feel I belong and can relate to others in that environment, I cannot make any meaningful progress.  This is a prerequisite to initiating and achieving successful change of any kind, be it an organizational restructure, a large-scale IT project or even settling into a new country.

The sense of belonging is particularly important for work that involves different groups of stakeholders, particularly those that have conflicting interests and values. In such cases it is critical to achieve a shared understanding of the problem one is trying to solve before attempting to solve it. Such an understanding is often assumed at the start but is then found to be illusory when the “solution” is implemented which, of course, is much too late. The work of building a shared understanding is essentially an act of collaborative problem formulation or sensemaking. It is, in other words, the creation of a common context.


Years later still, I was asked to move to a regional role in the same multinational. My role there was to look after IT development activities in the region. Since much of this was driven from the corporate head office, much of my work was about resolving the gaps between what various offices scattered across the region needed and what the corporate-mandated solution offered. My experiences in sensemaking helped, but the official aspects of the role were – not to put too fine a point on it – excruciatingly boring. 

There was, however, a saving grace. When I was hired, my boss told me that he wanted me to explore the possibility of setting up a regional development centre for analytics that could serve the entire organization. There was a clear cost argument in favour of such centre. However, given the sharply divided opinions around offshoring, the public airing of such a proposal would cause all kinds of reactions, many of which would be negative. The first problem was to address those upfront.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, my boss told me I had zero budget to do this.

I talked to the usual suspects, a few big outsourcers and consultancies, but soon realized that their aims were not congruent with mine. Everything they told me pointed to high costs and potential conflicts down the line, not the least being vendor lock in and expensive contract variations. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the hidden costs of outsourcing are much too high.

Around that time, I came across the notion of emergent design. The essential idea is to start from where people are and take small steps, each of which lead to demonstrable improvement. This generally requires some trial and error, but since the investment at each step is small and the benefit demonstrable, it is not hard to convince the folks who sign cheques. Moreover, this enables one to continually adjust one’s approach based on feedback from the previous step, much like nature does in the process of evolution.  Actions are based on a given context, but the context itself changes because of the action and thus necessitates recalibrating subsequent actions.

To begin with, I needed to develop a small use case that would clearly demonstrate the benefit of hiring developers in my region to do work for people located in the head office, but in a way that alleviated concerns about job losses. As it happened, I had a colleague in head office who led a database team that was struggling to keep up with their workload. They simply did not have enough people and lacked the budget to hire contractors locally. I had a phone conversation with my colleague and suggested hiring someone who would sit in my office and work for him remotely. He was enthusiastic once he heard the costs (much lower than local consultants!) and committed funding for year.

The fledgling centre thus made its first hire.  A few months forward, my colleague was happy with the result. Consequently, he did a lot of evangelizing on my behalf about how this arrangement did not take away jobs, but augmented capacity.

Requests started trickling in; a few short months later they were pouring in. Three years later, there were over fifty developers in the centre. It had become a thing.


In recent years, advances in computing have made it possible to process vast volumes of data.  It is now possible for data scientists to apply machine learning techniques to large datasets containing detailed information about individuals.  There seems to be a widespread belief that, given the right kind of data, it is possible to abdicate decision-making on social matters to machine learning models. Of course, there are the warnings of data ethicists and others about the dark side of data science, but these tend to be swamped by the voices of data optimists. Data is so revered that large datasets tend to take on a life of their own, stripped of the context in which they were originally gathered.  There are enough examples that illustrate why this is problematic. If one could save not just a dataset but also details on how it was collected and why, the limitations of the data would be more apparent thus making it is less likely that it would be used in inappropriate ways.  The proposal on datasheets for datasets by Timnit Gebru and collaborators is a good start towards addressing the issue of context in data science.

One must keep in mind that cause-effect relationships are not obvious in large social systems. There are myriad plausible mechanisms of change and, more often than not, several of them will interact and operate in tandem. Given this, any decision based on data alone is likely to be misleading. Instead, success is more likely to come from an emergent approach based on developing multiple perspectives on the data – i.e. by building context around it.


Building context in social systems is hard because cause-effect relationships are hard to disambiguate and pin down. Consequently, it is impossible to know, with certainty, what is relevant and what is not. Indeed, if it were possible at all, one would include all details, leaving nothing out. The model of the world would then be the world itself; the map would be the entire territory.  But as Borges so eloquently noted:

… In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless…

Building context is a never-ending quest to understand the territory.


…and so I have been here for many years now. The smell of eucalyptus and wattle still evokes memories of home, but I do not know which one. What I do know now, but did not know then, is that being at home in a place or a set of ideas is the work of a lifetime.

Written by K

March 2, 2021 at 9:57 pm

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

Inexplicit knowledge: what people know, but won’t tell

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Much of the knowledge that exists in organisations remains unarticulated, in the heads of those who work at the coalface of business activities. Knowledge management professionals know this well, and use the terms explicit and tacit knowledge to distinguish between knowledge that can and can’t be communicated via language.  Incidentally, the term tacit knowledge was coined by Michael Polanyi  – and it is important to note that he used it in a sense that is very different from what it has come to mean in knowledge management. However, that’s a topic for another post.  In the present post I look at a related issue that is common in organisations: the fact that much of what people know can be made explicit, but isn’t.  Since the  discipline of knowledge management is in dire need of more jargon, I call this inexplicit knowledge. To borrow a phrase from Polanyi, inexplicit knowledge is what people know, but won’t tell.   Below, I discuss reasons why potentially explicit knowledge remains inexplicit and what can be done about it.

Why inexplicit knowledge is common

Most people would have encountered work situations in which they chose “not to tell” – remaining silent instead of sharing knowledge  that would have been helpful. Common reasons for such behaviour include:

  1. Fear of loss of ownership of the idea: People are attached to their ideas. One reason for not volunteering their ideas is the worry that someone else in the organisation (a peer or manager) might “steal” the idea. Sometimes such behaviour is institutionalised in the form of an “innovation committee” that solicits ideas, offering monetary incentives for those that are deemed the best (more on incentives below). Like most committee-based solutions, this one is a dud. A better option may be to put in place mechanisms to ensure that those who conceive and volunteer ideas are encouraged to see them through to fruition.
  2. Fear of loss of face and/or fear of reprisals: In organisational cultures that are competitive, people may fear that their ideas will be ridiculed or put down by others. Closely related to this is the fear of reprisals from management. This happens often enough, particularly when the idea challenges the status quo or those in positions of authority. One of the key responsibilities of management is to foster an environment in which people feel psychologically safe to volunteer ideas, however controversial or threatening the ideas may be.
  3. Lack of incentives:  Some people may be willing to part with their ideas, but only at a price. To address this, organisations may offer extrinsic rewards (i.e. material items such as money, gift vouchers etc) for worthwhile ideas.  Interestingly, research has shown that non-monetary extrinsic rewards (meals, gifts etc.) are more effective than monetary ones. This makes sense – financial rewards are more easily forgotten; people are more likely to remember a meal at a top-flight restaurant than a 500$ cheque. That said, it is important to note that extrinsic rewards can also lead to unintended side effects. For example, financial incentives based on quantity of contributions might lead to a glut of low-quality contributions. See the next point for a discussion of another side effect of extrinsic rewards.
  4. Wrong incentives: As I have discussed at length in my post on motivation in knowledge management projects, people will contribute their hard earned knowledge only if they are truly engaged in their work.  Such people are intrinsically motivated (i.e. internally motivated, independent of material rewards); their satisfaction comes from their work (yes, such people do exist!).  Consequently they need little or no supervision. Intrinsic rewards are invariably non-material and they cannot be controlled by management. A surprising fact is that, intrinsically motivated people can actually be turned off – even offended – by material rewards.

Psychological safety and incentives are important factors, but there is an even more important issue: the relationships between people who make up the workgroup.

Knowledge sharing and the theory of cooperative action

The work of Elinor Ostrom on collective (or cooperative) action is relevant here because knowledge sharing is a form of cooperation. According to the theory of cooperative action, there are three core relationships that promote cooperation in groups: trust, reciprocity and reputation.  Below I take a look at each of these in the context of knowledge sharing:

Trust: In the end, whether we choose to share what we know is largely a matter of trust: if we believe that others will respond positively – be it through acknowledgement or encouragement via tangible or intangible rewards –  then the chances are that we will tell what we know.  On the other hand, if the response is likely to be negative, we may prefer to remain silent.

Reciprocity: This refers to strategies that are based on treating people in the way we believe they would treat us. We are more likely to share what we know with others if we have reason to believe that they would be just as open with us.

Reputation: This refers to the views we have about the individuals we work with.  Although such views may be developed by direct observation of peoples’ behaviours, they are also greatly influenced by opinions of others. The relevance of reputation is that we are more likely to be open with people who have a good reputation.

According to Ostrom, these core relationships can be enhanced by face-to-face communication and organisational rules/ norms that promote openness. See my post on Ostrom’s work and its relevance to project management for more on this.

Summing up

One of the key challenges that organisations face is to get people working together in a cooperative manner.  Among other things this includes getting people to share their knowledge; to “tell what they know.” Unfortunately, much of this potentially explicit knowledge remains inexplicit, locked away in peoples’ heads, because there is no incentive to share or, even worse, there are factors that actively discourage people from sharing what they know. These issues can be tackled by offering employees the right incentives and creating the right environment. As important as incentives are, the latter is the more important factor:   the key to unlocking inexplicit knowledge lies in creating an environment of trust and openness.

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