The great debate – tacit knowledge and collaborative technologies

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.


10 responses to “The great debate – tacit knowledge and collaborative technologies

  1. Its worth thinking about the problem differently. Tacit knowledge transfer in general takes place through doing – apprentice models come to mind. Now used properly technology can create augmented memories, but the secret is to keep it all fragmented so that the brain can assemble and blend those memories with its current situation in order to “know to act”.

    That is technology as cognitive augmentation, something we are finally moving towards rather than failed and doomed to fail attempts at cognitive replacement.

  2. Thanks for this post, Brad. Without giving my argument away completely, building on Dave’s point about augmentation versus replacement I do think the KM debate gets a bit polarised between either the perfect “capture of knowledge” or doing nothing at all. I think part of the issue is reframing the question and thinking about what we are trying to achieve and how KM can help. The mistake of early KM was that they though they were capturing knowledge, but at best it was just good information management (and nothing wrong with that).

  3. I am looking at implementing a blog to facilitate sharing tacit knowledge within my agency. I agree that there is an issue with turning tacit into explicit in most cases. For us, the types of experience and knowledge we need to share internally would date quickly and in a government agency context such information may be viewed as ‘official’ if stored in a more formal format and location (risk management). In this situation, I think a blog is the best way to surface the tacit knowledge we need access to.

    We did the same thing with a wiki in my last job but that caused confusion around who was an expert and whether wiki content was authorative and approved (staff didn’t ‘get’ the wiki concept).

    Interested in learning more about CoPs in this context.

    • Jo,
      You can speak to Richard McDermott at the KM Australia conference about communities of practice – he knows a thing or two about them! My experience at Rabobank suggests that communities of practice work where there is a sharing culture within the organisation and where the system/tool for using the CoP is not too difficult to use or time consuming. Speak to you some more next week!

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  6. Brad this is an excellent post, and James also elaborates on your point about polarisation. And jack is spot on

    I too agree that a tacit to explicit transfer factory line approach is not good…but like you, I do agree that there’s lots of informal and local information that helps others. Eg a new person in the office doesn’t know all the tips, shortcuts and ways things are best done around here….but if they visit an online group space they may get up to speed very quickly by reading the previous job owners posts…and they now also can use this same space to ask questions. All in all there’s a good chance they become a very competent person very quickly, due to the former person sharing online, and now being able to ask questions and share themselves. What is this called, is this called km?

    But this is more “know-what”…both formal procedures and informal/local tips

    In contrast to “know-how”…sure you can follow the recipe in that blog post on how to troubleshoot a particular problem if it arises…but would you have the skill to troubleshoot a similar problem that deviates from this one just a little bit…I think “skill” is the key word here

    But “over time”, there will be lots of blog posts, and slowly the learner may see a pattern or methodology and may perhaps be able to troubleshoot a new problem from scratch one day.

    Sure blog posts or group spaces are not exactly an apprenticeship of doing and observation, but in aggregate over a long period of time (and being able to probe using comments) I think it’s a valuable process for people to get work done and hopefully learn (ie. not just following recipe, but actually learning)

    Tend to agree with Snowden (or what I think he means) in that what we know is made up of fragments, and when faced with a situation, certain fragments assemble to deal with the situation. ie. knowledge is not a ready-made object. Well it can be for certain simple and repeatable scenario’s, but then this would be called information. The real power is being able to use skills to solve problems, or act in situations…and how can more people in the organisation learn from each other so we can also increase the breadth of our skills…but I’m not talking about a university at work, I’m talking about this happening as a product of work.

    This Venn diagram does a good job

    Also like Weinberger’s counter to knowledge being actionable information

    BTW – I like Nancy Dixon’s use of the term “sensemaking” rather than “capture”; and “moving” rather than “transfer”

    John Bordeaux also has a knack for explaining this esoteric stuff

    Anyway, more of my thinking on this whole thing is here

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