Monday 18 July 2016

A great story of tacit knowledge, and how to make it explicit

I came across this story twice recently, and it is a graphic example of the tacit nature of knowledge, with some pointers about how this may be made explicit. 

Image from wikimedia commons
One instance of the story was in Nancy Dixon's blog, and the other was a blog post by the psychologist Gary Klein. The story is of a firefighter who made a "gut judgement" based on unconscious (tacit) knowledge. As Gary explains:

"One of my first interviews with firefighters, described in my book Sources of Power, covered an incident in which a young lieutenant was called out on a simple house fire. At least it seemed simple. The flames were coming from the rear of the single family, one-story home. Almost certainly the kitchen. 
Kitchen fires are pretty common, and there is a straightforward script for handling them: send the hose crew into the house and attack the fire from the inside. That’s what the lieutenant did. Then he ordered the water to be turned off, to see the effect. But there was no effect — the fire came roaring back with as much intensity as before. They tried again, with the same result. When they stopped spraying water on what they thought was the seat of the fire, the fire showed no reduction. 
"This was bizarre. The lieutenant gathered his crew back into the living room to plan his next move. And then he became tremendously uneasy — so uneasy that he ordered his entire crew to vacate the building. Just as they were leaving, the living room floor collapsed. If they had stood there another minute, they would have dropped into the fire below. Unbeknownst to the firefighters, the house had a basement and that’s where the fire was burning, right under the living room. 
"I had a chance to interview the lieutenant about this incident, and asked him why he gave the order to evacuate. The only reason he could think of was that he had extrasensory perception. He firmly believed he had ESP".

This is an example of knowledge so deep, the person holding the knowledge doesn't realise what he knows.  He does not know the grounds on which he made the decision to evacuate the building, and so can only explain it as Extra Sensory Perception.

Can such knowledge ever be made conscious (explicit) in such a way that it can be shared with others?  Well, yes, it can, because Gary Klein helped the firefighter become aware of what he knew, and so made the knowledge explicit. Here is how he did it.

  • Gary interviewed the firefighter
  • He got him to recall the events of the fire - what he saw, what he heard, what he felt
  • He got him to reflect on those impressions, and analyse what was unusual; what was different. Indeed the firefighter had noticed two anomalies - the fire was much hotter than expected for a kitchen fire, and also much quieter than expected. These anomalies had alerted him that something was different - something was wrong.
  • By the end of the interview he understood why it was so quiet: because the fire was in the basement, and the floor was muffling the sounds.
As Gary says in the blog post - 

A critical cue was what wasn’t happening: The noise he expected was absent. And that, as much as anything else, made him nervous and led him to order the evacuation. As a result of the interview, he could see that it wasn’t ESP that saved him, it was his experience. His experience enabled him to notice a cue — noisiness — that was missing.

Before the interview, this knowledge was so tacit the firefighter thought it was ESP. After the interview, he not only realised what he knew, he would be in a position to teach others and to pass that knowledge on.

It is through knowledge harvesting interviews such as this, and other question-based processes such as Peer Assist, After Action Review and Retrospect, that tacit knowledge becomes explicit. Nancy Dixon calls these processes "collective sense making", and often these processes require skilled facilitation. The task of making unconscious (tacit) knowledge conscious (explicit) is not an easy one, as shown above.

Without such questioning, the firefighter's knowledge would have remained tacit and, if he had been asked to advise others, he could have said little more than "try to develop ESP". After the interview, his advice would have been far more helpful.

Making tacit knowledge explicit can be done, it takes time and effort, but it can add huge value. In cases such as the one in this story it can save lives.

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