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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.

Planning, improvisation and the passage of time

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In an earlier post inspired by this paper, I discussed how planning and improvisation are contrasting yet complementary aspects of organizational work.  One of the key differences  between the two activities lies in how time is perceived by those involved in performing them: in the planning world  time is considered to be a resource that can be measured and apportioned out to achieve desired aims whereas improvisation takes place “outside of time”; it occurs instantaneously and (often) without any prior intimation. In this post I discuss these two contrasting views of time in greater detail and then look into some of their implications, both from the perspective of organizations and individuals who work in them.

The “planning view” of time

Organisational activities and events (like all human endeavours) are marked and measured by the flow of time. It is fair to say that concern for time – specifically, the way it is used – is one of the main preoccupations of those who run organisations. As Ciborra puts it:

Concern for time in any business organization is not new, nor rare. Think of concepts such as just in time or time based competition. In modern management, time is looked at as a fundamental business performance variable, even more important than money. Concepts such as lead time or time to market portray time as the cutting edge of competitive advantage.

In other words, time is viewed as a quantity that can be apportioned and allocated – budgeted – much like money.   This obsession with planning and controlling time is what leads businesses to implement procedures and processes intended to reduce unpredictability and improve business efficiency.   Improvisation is seen as undesirable because of its inherently unpredictable nature.

Planning anticipates future events and moves that will be made in response to them. However,  they can only be based on what is known and foreseen at the time of formulation. Plans are thus based on a mix of past experience and anticipation of what the future might look like.  Moreover, because an action cannot occur until all dependent prior actions are completed successfully, they implicitly assume that all planned actions will be completed. As Ciborra puts it:

Procedural planning anticipates moves and events as if already occurred and just translated on the other side of the “now”. That is, procedural planning arranges in front of the actor the past (actions thought of as accomplished and embedded into plans), so that in performing an action he/she can encounter “in the now” mileposts which prompt the actor to do the next move…

So, as paradoxical as it sounds, in the planning view, planned actions are seen as already accomplished in the future. In other words, plans assume that events and actions will evolve in an entirely predictable manner.  Note that although uncertainties may be factored in through risk analysis and the development of alternate scenarios, even these are treated as alternate branches of known futures.

The “improvisation view” of time

Improvisation is generally preceded by an “instantaneous” flash of insight in which apparently unconnected experiences and knowledge are brought to bear on the situation at hand. The process is inherently unpredictable: one does not know when a flash of insight that precipitates an improvised action will occur.  Since improvisation occurs on the spur of the moment, what is important is the cutting edge of time, the instant of action. In this sense, improvisation lies “outside of time.”  However, this does not mean that the past does not matter. On the contrary, improvisers draw upon past experiences, possibly even more than planners do.  However, they do so in ways that they are not consciously aware of before the moment of action.  As Ciborra tells us:

Improvisation is extemporaneous because it does not belong to an orderly distillation, formalization and transfer of past experience into future mileposts. Indeed, when encountering the future improvisation relies on the past, but it deploys it by retrieving (quickly according to ordinary time) domains of experience in a moment of vision during which vast regions of experience are brought to bear on the situation at hand, as interpreted at that very moment

Instead of attempting to envision what a future situation might look like and plan responses to it, improvisation interprets and reacts to “future” situations as they occur.  So, although the improviser draws upon the past, he or she is firmly focused on the present in which actions are formulated and carried out.  In such situations,  the improviser (who works outside of the plan) perceives time differently from others (who work by a plan)  – more on this in a moment.

Implications for organisations

Let’s take a brief look at a couple of implications of the different conceptions of time outlined above.

First, because improvisation cannot be foreseen, it cannot be placed on an objective timeline prior to the event. Those who make elaborate, detailed plans aimed at encouraging creativity (which generally involves improvisation) in their organisations will, more often than not, be disappointed. Any creative activity that occurs will be despite the plan, not because of it.

Second, since it is impossible to know how the future will unfold, planners should accept (and welcome!) that there will always be an element of improvisation to even the most carefully planned activity.  As a result of this, there will always be an irreducible element of uncertainty associated with any planned activity.

Third, it is important to keep in mind that although both planning and improvisation depend on the past, there is an important difference in the way the past is viewed in the two cases. As Ciborra states:

The two temporalities of routine (planned activity) and improvisation are characterized by the fact that in both the unfolding of the future “sucks in” the past, but they do so in distinct ways. In procedural planning, one meets the future by relying on “frozen”,  predigested bits of the past, lumps of experience that have been made explicit. During improvisation it is our being in the situation that comes to the fore. The past, in terms of who we are and how we read the world is recollected on the fly, in response to the situation at hand.

The implication here is that plans are (largely) based on, explicit knowledge whereas improvisation draws on both explicit and tacit knowledge. This is another reason why improvised solutions cannot be (explicitly) articulated before the fact.

The passage of time

The two conceptions of time are subjective in the sense that they describe how the flow of time is perceived by the person carrying out the planned or improvised act. In his book, The Labyrinth of Time, the philosopher Michael Lockwood mentions the example of the basketball player Michael Jordan, who once said that when maneuvering through a bunch of defenders (an improvised act), time seemed to slow down for him (though clearly not for the spectators and bemused defenders). Based on this, Lockwood suggests that:

…our impression of the flow of time, as it elapses, reflects the rate at which consciousness is being stimulated. It is counted out in a cerebral counterpart of the “baud rate”, instead of units of (objective) time, per se.

Based Lockwood’s idea, I suggest that since improvisers are more engaged with what they are doing (than those who perform planned acts) they operate at a higher mental “baud rate” than normal. Hence their actions and perceptions will seem quick – even instantaneous – to others who operate at a normal mental “baud rate.”  When people are truly engaged in an activity, time thus appears to slow down. However, clock time (or objective time) ticks on at its usual rate. So, when the improviser is done, he or she is often surprised at how much clock time has elapsed.  In contrast, a person not fully engaged in an activity has an “eye on the clock”, so to speak. Such a person’s perception of the passage of time would be pretty much in synch with objective time.

Summary and wrap-up

Improvisation and planning are based on two very different conceptions of time. Planning views the future in terms of a sequence of activities that have a clear relationship to each other. Specifically, any point in the future is seen as a milestone that serves to flag what comes next. Further, despite all contingency plans, the assumption is that the future will indeed unfold in one of the ways envisioned. Improvisation, on the other hand, views the future as open and “up for grabs”.  There is no conscious sequencing of activities; improvisers just do what feels right at the time. Although improvisers may anticipate events as consequences of their actions, there are no predefined milestones that mark out the flow of time.  Since organisational work consists of  a mix of planned and improvised activities, the upshot of the above is that time cannot be entirely planned out.

To end on a metaphorical note:  if one compares the flow of time to that of a river or stream, then  “planning time” is  a river flowing through a well defined  channel whereas  “improvisation time”  is more like a rain-fed  freshet gushing down any which way it can,  carving out new channels in the bargain.

Written by K

May 26, 2011 at 10:03 pm

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