Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Tacit knowledge - an unhelpful term for knowledge management?

Philosophically, tacit knowledge is a complex area. Widely taken to be a classic theory of tacit knowledge, Nonaka and Takeuchi's defininition tacit knowledge is that it is part of a dynamic process, part of a spiral of knowledge creation whereby knowledge moves through the following "states".
  • socialisation - sharing through face to face interaction
  • externalisation - developing concepts which incorporate tacit knowledge, making it communicable
  • combination - combining elements of explicit knowledge
  • internalisation - explicit knowledge is "internalised" and practicable
Nonaka and Takeuchi state that tacit knowledge is somehow externalised, stating that it somehow changes states from tacit to explict knowledge, a theory which is based on that of Michael Polanyi However, their theory moves away from Polanyi's, where tacit knowledge is subsidiary, present in the mind, but not directly attended to.

Where focal knowledge is knowledge that one refers to directly when making a knowledgable statement, tacit or subisiary knowledge is
  • Active in the mind, but not consciously accessed
  • Enables or causes the focal knowing
According to Polanyi, one cannot KNOW tacit knowledge, tacit knowledge supports explicit knowledge. It can't be changed into another TYPE of knowledge.

What Nonaka and Takeuchi are saying then, is like saying bricks can become a house, when in actual fact, a house is the sum of it's parts, bricks. The bricks are still bricks.

Another analogy that springs to mind is that of the psychoanalytic descriptors, the unconscious and the conscious.

Freud understood the unconcious as that part of mental functioning of which subjects make themselves unaware. It affects behaviour, but acts at a level beyond normal comprehension. Freuds somewhat negative interprettation of the unconscious, that it is a repository for socially unacceptable ideas, wishes or desires, traumatic memories, and painful emotions put out of mind by the mechanism of psychological repression. (see Wikipedia entry) means a direct comparison with tacit knowledge is problematic, but Carl Jungs idea of the unconscious, what he termed the collective unconscious, better relates to the concept of tacit knowledge as Polanyi describes it.

The collective unconscious directs the self, via amongst other things, intuition, toward self actualisation. In Humanist terms, tacit knowledge directs knowledge to enable a person to self-actualise.

To return to the philosophical notion of tacit knowledge, a fascinating article by Stefan Gueldenberg and Holger Helting, "Bridging the Great Divide - Nonaka's Synthesis of Western and Eastern knowledge concepts reassessed" considers the influence of Heidegger on Polanyi's thinking.

Heidegger proposed a philosophical notion of tacit knowledge whereby he describes it in terms of examining foreign cultures, where interaction with foreign cultures can shed light on what is tacitly understood. He noted that such interactions help identify things that appear to be self-explanatory and familiar, so no conscious note is taken of it.

Heidegger says we should seek out "foreign" experiences to more fully understand our own culture and experience. Something like "walk a mile in another mans shoes" to understand your own journey.
"Sojourn in foreign realms and the process of alienation within those realms must take place in order for that which is one's own to being glowing in light of that which is foreign." (Heidegger 1992, 175)

So to understand what we know tacitly, we need to look differently at the experiences of others to see what it is we know ourselves.

How does this help us to share tacit knowledge? Well, the above highlights the difficulty with the concept of tacit knowledge itself, that by Polanyi's definition it is unknowable. It's the personal, experiential building blocks of that build our explicit knowledge.

What does this mean for knowledge management? I feel that unless we develop a system of interprettation of tacit knowledge akin to the way the psychoanalytic movement strove to interpret the unconscious, we're going to be none the wiser. And we don't really understand the unconscious, or even agree what it is.

Maybe the best we can do is develop Heidegger's idea, that in considering how others do things, we gain some insight into how WE know. Sounds strangely like reflection to me...

In conclusion then...

Practically speaking, to understand good practice in terms of what we do that works, and sharing that knowledge with others, a move away from the philosophically challenging area of the nature of knowledge, particularly the notion of tacit knowledge, and a return to the notion of reflection and reflective practice, may yield far greater returns for knowledge management.


Leonardo said...

Great post. I could not agree more. Here is a link to my page.



Helen Nicol said...

Thanks Leonardo - will check out your page when Lulu is back up (down for maintenance)


Helen Nicol said...

Leonardo, your book looks really interesting, will have to download it - you're right, looks like we're on the same page re: knowledge management...

Anonymous said...

Il semble que vous soyez un expert dans ce domaine, vos remarques sont tres interessantes, merci.

- Daniel