I have been looking at the program for the upcoming KM Australia Congress in Sydney on 24-25 July with a strong degree of longing. At this stage, my employer doesn’t look like sending me to this conference so I am very disappointed in not being able to attend.
However, I was particularly taken with the proposed debate on Day 2 – making tacit knowledge explicit with collaborative technologies. There are two debaters on both sides. I personally know one from each side – James Dellow (on the yes team) and Shawn Callahan (on the no team). The debate is worthy of some pre-congress discussion because it is a key knowledge management problem – can tacit knowledge ever become explicit?
I always remember Dave Snowden saying that we always know more than what we can write, we know even more than that when we speak, but we know even more than all of that inside our own heads – tacit knowledge. It is an interesting point to make in the context of how we might look at the tacit knowledge-explicit knowledge conundrum within knowledge management.
Is it therefore impossible to directly transfer tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge because tacit knowledge is full of personal experiences, nuances, and particular contexts than cannot be replicated or converted into a codified (explicit) format?
I recognise that the earliest expositions on tacit knowledge pretty much said that you cannot make tacit knowledge explicit. And I can certainly sympathise with the position (I am assuming) to be taken by Shawn in the upcoming debate since Shawn is the man behind Anecdote, a company that is in the business of storytelling and narrative. The focus here is on the speaking and personally shared experiences which cannot be communicated with the same contextual references and meaning if it was to me made explicit, say, by writing it up in a Minute for capture in an electronic database.
On the other hand, certainly within the realm of knowledge management, there has been much to say about tacit and explicit knowledge. In my readings over the years, I am inclined to think that in the field of knowledge management there is a belief in tacit knowledge – explicit knowledge transfer in what Nonaka first espoused as the knowledge management spiral. I can see James Dellow (from Headshift) making the point that collaborative technologies facilitate tacit-explicit knowledge transfer.
In my opinion, it may be true that a person’s complete tacit knowledge is unable to be codified and captured in an explicit form. I can see the purist belief in this. However, I do happen to believe that one can make some tacit knowledge explicit.
Collaborative tools such as wikis and blogs, and even listservs and email groups, can assist in having some tacit knowledge becoming explicit knowledge. We can see how this might happen when a person with particular knowledge and experiences shares them by writing it down (thereby becoming codified and explicit) for others to read and discuss. The codified knowledge is distributed and shared via collaborative tools to enhance reach and scale. A conversation may ensue using these collaborative tools, which may even foster face-to-face communication as well. The point is that now we have knowledge and experiences surfacing for other people to benefit from and/or participate in. What becomes explicit may only be a fraction of the tacit knowledge this person posesses, but this fraction may indeed be a gold mine of value to someone else.
This was certainly my experience when I established and facilitated communities of practices at Rabobank in Sydney. The communities of practice surfaced tacit knowledge (became explicit) from a host of knowledgeable and experienced people that could have remained underutilised without a mechanism to bring this knowledge to light.
I think it is more important to recognise the degree to which tacit knowledge can become explicit and thereby move the debate into the issue of quantity and quality of that knowledge, and how that knowledge can be communicated and re-articulated to generate thinking, discussion and new knowledge.
Unfortunately, while I am not likely to be able to attend KM Australia, I will be there in spirit hoping that the discussion enables some solid thinking about how we might try to use tacit knowledge more effectively and with greater scale.
I wish the debaters all the best for an interesting and intellectually challenging discussion.