Where is Tacit Knowledge?

I’m interested in what teams know – as being more than the aggregate of what individuals in the team know. I discussed aspects of this in a comments discussion with Nancy White some time back. Some of what teams know is documented and routinised, but a lot of it remains just as tacit as individual knowledge. Here’s a very clear description of exactly what I mean from Victoria Ward (thanks to Anecdote for alerting me to her blog):

“There’s a health centre in East London which has a bunch of rules, protocols, guidance, around diversity, inclusion, whatever. Not a single one of these is displayed, or even taught. These lists are filed somewhere and come out when they need to be attached to a bid for money. The rest of the time, those who work or have been around the centre a long time walk newcomers over an invisible boundary into the space where certain behaviour is OK and other behaviour is not. This is a part of East London rife with racism, confrontation, social tension. But the rules are not ever articulated as explicit constraints. Rather, when someone steps over in a line in their behaviour, somebody who understands what does and does not go will gently, in companionship, prompt an interruption, a reflection, and indication of what will and won’t wash. It comes from within, a tacitly shared understanding of what this place means. It’s a place made over 15 or 20 years of repetition, reincorporation, embodiment of what the health centre stands for.”

So my next question is (mainly for the mentalist knowledge-is-an-object-located-someplace- school of thought), if individual tacit knowledge sits in an individual’s head, where does social tacit knowledge like this reside? Does the question “where” make any sense at all, and should we not rather be asking “how”?


6 Comments so far

Nancy White

I love these questions! I’m going to think and chew a bit, and if time allows, blog in response. Delicious! (And not in the tagging sense!)

Posted on July 14, 2007 at 04:34 AM | Comment permalink

yes lovely questions - my immediate sense is that they sit in the patterns of relating. Theses are the patterns that are integral to the authenticity and integrity of the people who are doing their work. The work they do together with the patients, parents, people, citizens, families, outsiders, foreigners, old and young that are the community.

The individual is the singular of identity and the group is the plural.

More chewing and tasting and will think some more…

Posted on July 14, 2007 at 05:15 AM | Comment permalink

Shawn Callahan

Hi Patrick, the questions anyone asks impacts how you will act. You infer that in your last line. If you ask where does it reside you will go looking for a thing. As ‘how’ and you look for a process. Both are useful but as you know we have been stuck on knowledge as a thing for some time. We need some balance.

Of course the ‘how’ question is enourmous. It might encompass questions like, “How does social tacit knowledge emerge?”

Your socractic approach however might yield an answer. It is through questions that social tacit knowledge is formed. These question might not be overt and explicitly stated either but I suspect the groups with strong social glue spend time together and ask each other questions. Like you have Patrick.

Posted on July 14, 2007 at 12:39 PM | Comment permalink

Matt Moore

Hmmm - Can shared knowledge vary in diffuseness & permanence?

Some knowledge is available to everyone who is in the know - “Don’t ask Derek to work Thursday nights because he plays footie” - and it may be in their heads but never written down.

In that case, the “where is it?” is less important than “where is it not?” - which comes back to ignorance eh?

Other kinds of knowing seem to be created on the fly as different team members bring their own personal knowledges together into something new. E.g. on a project you might put people from different workstreams together and get them to nut out dependencies. Or even something like brainstorming.

BTW where can I get a pink shirt like that one?

Posted on July 16, 2007 at 10:35 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Yes, what groups know is dependent on the mechanisms it uses to keep key knowledge in play, including questions, rituals, routines… I like the connection with ignorance Matt, and the links to patterns of relating, question-asking.

A shop.

Posted on July 16, 2007 at 01:41 PM | Comment permalink

Hi Patrick,

Looking forward to saying hello next Tuesday at the NSW KM Forum.

I think of tacit knowledge as invisible, 100% unrecoverable knowledge, as Polanyi originally wrote about it. A passion or feeling may be described like the shadow on Plato’s cave, but it can’t be fully understood or encapsulated because it may not reside just in the ‘head’.

Nonaka and Takeuchi maybe guilty of subverting our semotic understanding of the term Implicit through their SECI model, but I think their description of information redundancy comes closest to describing that other invisible, yet real driving force - culture (the shared assumptions and beliefs of the social-constructivist epistemology, thanks Michael Olsson).

So maybe rather than tacit, in this sense we should use the term implicit. We won’t ask Derek to join because we all ‘know’ he plays footy on Thursday.

Our sociability instinct groups us, and psychology tells us that we feel most comfortable to those we feel most similar to, share attributes with. So the where is distributed, and it takes an outsider (boundary spanner - SNA weak link or power hole?) to question the groups inter-subjective and redundant knowledge before we can ‘discover’ our ignorance to the fact that this week is a bye for Derek.

So is it the how of double-loop (deutero) learning, or critical thinking that builds a shared culture that we should be concentrating on?

Does the continuum from Implicit/Explicit curve back on itself to form an unbroken circle of inner and outer worlds travelling between degrees of knowingness? - tacit knowledge at the the opposite half circle of the implicit inner world, joining the unstated half circle of the outer world of working culture, as opposed to the explicit mission statement?

Posted on July 20, 2007 at 01:53 PM | Comment permalink

Page 1 of 1 pages

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.

Comment Guidelines: Basic XHTML is allowed (<strong>, <em>, <a>) Line breaks and paragraphs are automatically generated. URLs are automatically converted into links.