Eight to Late

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Archive for the ‘Tacit Knowledge’ Category

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

Planning and improvisation – complementary facets of organizational work

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Cause-effect relationships in the business world are never clear cut. Yet, those who run business organisations hanker after predictability. Consequently, a great deal of effort is expended on planning – thinking out and organizing actions aimed at directing the course of the future.  In this “planning view”, time is seen as a commodity that can be divided, allocated and used to achieve organizational aims.  In this scheme of things, the future is seen as unfolding linearly, traversing the axis of time according to plan. Although (good) plans factor in uncertainties and unforeseen events, the emphasis is on predictability and it is generally assumed that things will go as foreseen.

In reality things rarely go according to plan. Stuff happens, things that aren’t foreseen – and what’s not foreseen cannot be planned for. People deal with this by improvising, taking extemporaneous actions that feel right at the time. In retrospect such actions often turn out to be right.  However, such actions are essentially unplanned; one cannot predict or allocate a particular time at which they will occur. In this sense they lie outside of normal (or planned) organizational time.

In a paper entitled Notes on improvisation and time in organisation (abstract only), Claudio Ciborra considered the nature of improvisation in organisations. Although the paper was written a while ago, primarily as a critique of Business Process Reengineering (BPR) and its negative side effects, many of the points he made are of wider relevance.  This post, inspired by Ciborra’s paper, is the first of a two-part series of posts in which I discuss the nature of improvisation and planning in organisations. In the present post I discuss the differences between the two and how they complement each other in practice. In a subsequent post I will talk about how the two lead to different notions of time in organisations.

Contrasting planning and improvisation

The table below summarises some of the key contrasting characteristics between planning and improvisation:



Follows procedures and processes; operates within clearly defined boundaries Idiosyncratic; boundaries are not well defined, or sometimes not defined at all.
Operates within organizational rules and decrees Often operates outside of organizational rules and norms.
Method of solution is assumed to be known. Method emerges via sensemaking and exploration.
Slow, deliberate decision-making Quick – almost instantaneous decision making
Planning attempts to predict and control (how events unfold in) time. Improvisation is extemporaneous – operates “outside of time”

In essence improvisation cannot be planned;  it is always surprising, even to improvisers.

Planning and improvisation coexist

Following Alfred Schutz, Ciborra notes that in planned work (such as projects) every action is carried out according to a view of a future in which it is already accomplished.  In other words, in projects we do things according to a plan because we expect those actions to lead to certain consequences – that is we expect our actions to achieve certain goals.  Schutz referred to such motives as in-order-to motives. These motives are embedded in the project and its rationale, and are often documented for all to see. However, in-order-to motives are only part of the story, and a small one at that. More important are the reasons for which the goals are thought to be worthwhile. Among other things, these involve factors relating history, environment and past experiences of the people who make up the organisation or project. Schutz referred to such motivations as because-of motives. These motives are usually tacit and remain so unless a conscious effort is made to surface them.

As Ciborra puts it:

The in-order-to project deals with the actor’s explicit and conscious meaning in solving a problematic situation while the because-of motives can explain why and how a situation has been perceived as problematic in the first place.

The because-of motives are tacit and lie in the background of the explicit project at hand. They fall outside the glance of rational, awake attention during the performance of the action. They could be inferred by an outsider, or made explicit by the actor, but only as a result of reflection after the fact.

(Note that although Ciborra uses the word project as referring to any future-directed action, it could just as well be applied to the kinds of projects you and I work on.)

Ciborra uses the metaphor of an iceberg to illustrate the coexistence of the two types of motives. The in-order-to motives are the tip of the iceberg, there for all to see. On the other hand, because-of motives, though more numerous, are hidden below the surface and can’t be seen unless one makes the effort to see them. Improvisation generally draws upon these tacit, because-of motives that are not visible.  Moreover, the very interpretation of formalized procedures and best practices involves these motives. Actions performed as a consequence of such interpretations are what bring procedures and practices to life in specific situations. As Ciborra puts it:

A formalized procedure embeds a set of explicit in-order-to’s, but the way these are actually interpreted and put to work strictly depends upon the actor’s in-order-to and because-of motives, his/her way of being in the world “next” to the procedure, the rule or the plan. In more radical terms what is at stake here is not “objects” or “artifacts” but human existence and experience. Procedure and method are just “dead objects”: they get situated in the flow of organizational life only thanks to a mélange of human motives and actions. One cannot cleanse human existence and experience from the ways of operating and use of artifacts.

In short, planning and improvisation are both necessary for a proper functioning of organizations.

Opposite, but complementary

Planning and improvisation are very different activities – the former is aimed at influencing the future through activities that are pre-organized whereas the latter involves actions that occur just-in-time.   Moreover, planning is a result of conscious thought and deliberation whereas improvisation is a result of tacit knowledge being brought to bear, in an instant, on  specific situations encountered in project (or other organizational) work. Nevertheless, despite their differences, both activities are important in organizations. Efforts aimed at planning the future down to the last detail are misguided and bound to fail. Contraria sunt complementa: planning and improvisation are opposites, but they are complementary.1


1 The phrase contraria sunt complementa means opposites are complementary. It appears on the physicist Niels Bohr’s coat of arms (he was knighted after he won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1922). Bohr formulated the complementarity principle, the best known manifestation of which is wave-particle duality – i.e. that in the atomic world, particles can display either wave or particle like characteristics,  depending on the experimental set up.

Written by K

May 5, 2011 at 10:12 pm

A thin veneer of process

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Some time back I published a post arguing that much of the knowledge relating to organizational practices is tacit – i.e. it is impossible to capture in writing or speech. Consequently, best practices and standards that purportedly codify “best of breed” organizational practices are necessarily incomplete:  they do not (and cannot) detail how a practice should be internalised  and implemented in specific situations.

For a best practice to be successful, it has to be understood and moulded in a way that makes sense in the working culture and environment of the implementing organisation.  One might refer to this process   as “adaptation” or “customization”, but it is much more than   minor tweaking of a standard process or practice.  Tacit knowledge relates to the process of learning, or getting to know.  This necessarily differs from individual to individual, and can’t be picked up by reading best practice manuals.  Building tacit knowledge takes time and, therefore, so does the establishment of new organizational processes. Consequently, there is a lot of  individual on-the-job learning and tinkering  before a newly instituted procedure becomes an organizational practice.

This highlights a gap between how practices are implemented and how they actually work. All too often, an organisation will institute a project to implement a best practice – say a quality management methodology – and declare success as soon as the project is completed. Such a declaration is premature because the new practice is yet to take root in the organisation.   This common approach to best practice implementation does not allow enough time for the learning and dialogue that is so necessary for the establishment of an organizational practice. The practice  remains “a thin veneer of process” that peels off all too easily.

Yet,  despite the fact that it does not work,  the project-oriented approach remains popular. Why is this so? I believe this happens because decision-makers view the implementation of best practices as a purely technical problem –  practices are seen as procedures that can be grafted upon the organization without due regard to culture or context and environment or ethics.   When culture,  context and people  are considered as incidental,   practices are reduced to their mechanical (or bureaucratic) elements –  those that can be captured in documents, workflow diagrams and forms.  These elements are tangible so implementers can point to these as “proof” that the processes have been implemented.

Hence the manager who says:  “We have rolled out our new project management system and all users have undergone training.  The implementation of the new methodology has been completed. ”

Sorry, but it has just begun. Success – if it comes at all – will take a lot more time and effort.

So how should best practice implementations be approached?

It should be clear that a successful implementation cannot come from a cookbook approach that follows textbook or consultant “recipes.”  Rather, it involves the following:

  1. Extensive adaptation of techniques to suit the context and environment of the organisation.
  2. Involvement of the people who will work with and be affected the processes. This often goes under the banner of “buy-in”, but it is more than that: these people must have a say in what adaptations are made and how they are made. But even before they do that, they must be allowed to play with the process – to tinker – so that they can improve their understanding of its intent and working.
  3. An understanding that the process  is not cast in stone – that it must be modified as employees gain insights into how the process can be improved.

All these elements tie into the idea that practices and procedures involve tacit knowledge that sits in people’s heads.  The visible, or explicit, aspects – which are often mistaken for the practice – are but a thin veneer of process.

So, in conclusion, the technical implementation of a best practice is only the beginning – it is the start of the real work of internalizing the practice through learning required to sustain and support it.

Written by K

April 15, 2011 at 5:51 am

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

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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

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

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In a recent post entitled, Why Best Practices Are Hard to Practice, Ron Ashkenas mentions two common pitfalls that organisations encounter when implementing best practices. These are:

  1. Lack of adaptation:  this refers to a situation in which best practices  are applied without customizing them to an organisation’s specific needs.
  2. Lack or adoption: this to the tendency of best practice initiatives to fizzle out due to lack of adoption in the day-to-day work of an organisation.

Neither point is new:  several practitioners and academics have commented on the importance adaptation and adoption in best practice implementations (see this article from 1997, for example).  Despite this, organisations continue to struggle when implementing best practices, which suggests a deeper problem. In this post, I explore the possibility that problems of adaptation and adoption arise because much of the  knowledge relevant to best practices is tacit –  it cannot be codified or captured via symbolic systems (such as writing) or speech.  This “missing” tacit knowledge makes it difficult to adapt and adopt practices in a meaningful way.  All is not lost, though:  best practices can be useful as long as they are viewed as templates or starting points for discussion, rather than detailed prescriptions that are to be imitated uncritically.

The importance of tacit knowledge

Michael Polanyi’s aphorism – “We can know more than we can tell’ – summarises the difference between explicit and tacit knowledge : the former refers to what we can “tell” (write down, or capture in some symbolic form) whereas the latter are the things we know but cannot explain to others via writing or speech alone.

The key point is: tacit knowledge is more relevant to best practices than its explicit counterpart.

“Why?” I hear you ask.

Short Answer:  Explicit knowledge is a commodity that can be bought and sold, tacit knowledge isn’t. Hence it is the latter that gives  organisations their  unique characteristics and competencies.

For a longer answer, I’ll quote  from a highly-cited paper by Maskell and Malmberg entitled,  Localised Learning and Industrial Competitiveness:

It is a logical and interesting – though sometimes overlooked – consequence of the present development towards a knowledge-based economy, that the easier codified (tradeable) knowledge is accessed, the more significant becomes tacit knowledge for sustaining the heterogeneity of the firm’s resources.  If all factors of production, all organisational blue-prints, all market-information and all production technologies were readily available in all parts of the world at (more or less) the same price, economic progress would dwindle. Resource heterogeneity is the very foundation for building firm specific competencies and thus for variations between firms in their competitiveness. Resource heterogeneity fuels the market process of selection between competing firms

Tacit knowledge thus confers a critical advantage on firms.  It is precisely this knowledge that distinguishes firms from each other and sets the “best” (however one might choose to define that)  apart from the rest. It is the knowledge that best practices purport to capture, but can’t.

Transferring tacit knowledge

The transfer of tacit knowledge is an iterative and incremental process:  apprentices learn by practice, by refining their skills over time. Such learning requires close interaction between the teacher and the taught. Communication technology can obviate the need for some face-to-face interaction but he fact remains that proximity is important for effective transfer of tacit knowledge. In the words of  Maskell and Malmberg:

The interactive character of learning processes will in itself introduce geographical space as a necessary dimension to take into account. Modern communications technology will admittedly allow more of long distance interaction than was previously possible. Still, certain types of information and knowledge exchange continue to require regular and direct face-to-face contact. Put simply, the more tacit the knowledge involved, the more important is spatial proximity between the actors taking part in the exchange. The proximity argument is twofold. First, it is related to the time geography of individuals. Everything else being equal, interactive collaboration will be less costly and more smooth, the shorter the distance between the participants. The second dimension is related to proximity in a social and cultural sense. To communicate tacit knowledge will normally require a high degree of mutual trust and understanding, which in turn is related not only to language but also to shared values and ‘culture’.

The main point to take away from their argument is that proximity is important for effective transfer of tacit knowledge.  The individuals involved need to be near each other geographically (shared space, face-to-face) and culturally (shared values and norms).  By implication, this is  also the only way to transfer best practice knowledge.


Best practices, by definition, aim to capture knowledge that enables successful organizations be what they are. As we have seen above, much of this knowledge is tacit:  it  is context and history dependent, and requires physical/cultural proximity for effective transfer. Further, it is hard to extract, codify and transfer such knowledge in a way that makes sense outside its original setting.  In light of this, it is easy to understand why adapting and adopting best practices is hard: it is hard because best practices are incomplete –  they omit important elements (the tacit bits that can’t be written down). Organisations have to  (re)discover these in their own way. The explicit and (re-discovered) tacit elements then need to be  integrated into new workplace practices that are necessarily  different from standardised best practices.  This makes the  new practices unique to the implementing organisation.

The above suggests that best practices should be seen as starting points – or “bare bones” templates – for transforming an organisation’s work practices.  I have made this point in an earlier post in which I reviewed this paper by Jonathan Wareham and Hans Cerrits.  Quoting from that post:

[Wareham and Cerrits] suggest an expanded view of best practices which includes things such as:

  1. Using best practices as guides for learning new technologies or new ways of working.
  2. Using best practices to generate creative insight into how business processes work in practice.
  3. Using best practices as a guide for change – that is, following the high-level steps, but not necessarily the detailed prescriptions.

These are indeed sensible and reasonable statements. However, they  are much weaker than the usual hyperbole-laden claims that accompany best practices.

The other important implication of the above  is that successful adoption of organisational practices is possible only with the active involvement of front-line employees. “Active” is the operative word here, signifying involvement and participation. One of the best ways to get involvement is to seek and act on employee opinions about their day-to-day work practices.  Best practices can serve as templates for these discussions. Participation can be facilitated through the use of collective deliberation techniques such as dialogue mapping.


Best practices have long been plagued by problems of adaptation and adoption. The basic reason for this is that much of the knowledge pertaining to practices is tacit and cannot be transferred easily. Successful implementation requires that organisations use best practices as templates to build on rather than prescriptions to be followed to the letter.  A good way to start this process is through participatory design discussions aimed at filling in the (tacit) gaps.  These discussions should  be conducted in a way that invites involvement of all relevant stakeholders, especially those who will  work with and be responsible for the practices.   Such an inclusive approach ensures that the practices will be adapted to suit the organisation’s needs. Further, it improves the odds of adoption because it incorporates the viewpoints of the most important stakeholders at the outset.

Paul Culmsee and  I are currently working on a book that describes such an approach that goes “beyond best practices”.  See this post for an excerpt from the book (and this one for a rather nice mock-up cover!)

Written by K

November 18, 2010 at 11:45 pm

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