Thursday, 15 October 2020

Tacit, Explicit and .... what? Different types of knowledge, and the definition minefield.

 For years, people have talked about tacit and explicit knowledge, but what about the other types?

Tacit and explicit knowledge have been assumed to be the two main types of knowledge for most of Knowledge Management's short history. Polanyi described tacit knowledge as the things we know without expressing or declaring them ("Tacit" means silent or unspoken). He also said that "we know more than we can tell" which can be taken as meaning that some or all tacit knowledge cannot be "told". Polanyi did not define what explicit knowledge was. 

Nonaka and Takeuchi also addressed tacit and explicit, suggesting at one point that tacit knowledge can become explicit through codification ("transforming tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge is known as codification") and suggesting at another point that tacit knowledge is uncodifiable ("tacit aspects of knowledge are those that cannot be codified"). They also implied, in their examples, that codification equates to documenting, although when they first mention explicit knowledge they describe it as "explainable" (which is what explicit means in dictionary terms).

So the confusion began. 

  • Is tacit knowledge codifiable or not?
  • Is all knowledge in the head tacit, or is some of it explicit?
  • Is explicit knowledge always documented?
  • Is documented knowledge still knowledge, or does it become information as soon as it is documented?
Many of you would give firm answers to each of these questions, but those firm answers would not always coincide. 

Then we introduce the idea of implicit knowledge. This sometimes used as a synonym for tacit knowledge (see example) and sometimes as a descriptor for knowledge which can be expressed but has not yet been (definitions 2,3,4, 6 and 7 here).

But whatever you words you use you can divide knowledge into a number of types:

1) Knowledge that is held by individuals and which cannot be expressed or articulated. Variously referred to as tacit or implicit
2) Knowledge that is held by individuals and which could be expressed or articulated, but which hasn't been yet. Variously referred to as tacit, implicit, or explicit.
3) Knowledge that is held by individuals or groups which has been expressed or articulated, but which is not yet codified or documented. Variously referred to as tacit, implicit, explicit, or (verbal) information.
4) Knowledge which has been documented. Variously referred to as explicit knowledge, or information. Or, as I would argue, both knowledge AND information.

See the confusion?

This is partly why, when we wrote ISO 30401:2018, the ISO Management Systems Standard for KM, we avoided the use of the terms Tacit and Explicit altogether, and used the terms Codified and Uncodified instead. 

5) Also, I increasingly believe there is a fifth type of knowledge which I like to call "embedded," which is knowledge that is encoded in the structures, strategies and tactics of organisations. Our organisations often operate the way they do as a record of past learning, either conscious and unconscious. That knowledge is nowhere written down, but permeates the way the organisation acts and responds. This is regardless of the people within it - introduce new people and the organisation still works the same way.

6) Also nowadays we could add a sixth type, which is knowledge encoded or embedded into the way our machines and our technology operates. Maybe we call this "machine knowledge". Much of this encoding is currently done through an analysis of human knowledge of types 2 and 3 above, and sometimes through an analysis of type 1. The famous example from Nonaka and Takeuchi is of the Matsushita bread-making machine, where the dough-kneading mechanism was only perfected when one of the engineers spent time working alongside master bakers to observe the unconscious "twist-stretch" mechanism they used. Many machines can also improve their machine knowledge through feedback loops (machine learning).

As an aside, it is interesting to see how machine knowledge now seems to be encroaching on areas which once were seen as entirely tacit and human. "How to ride a bicycle" has often been used as an example of pure tacit knowledge which cannot be expressed, and yet machines can ride bicycles. "How to recognise a face" is still given as an example of tacit knowledge on Wikipedia, but machines can recognise faces; even our smartphones can do this. 

However you define the terms, your knowledge management framework has to deal with all these types of knowledge.

Type 1 can be transferred only through coaching, mentoring and apprenticeships.
Type 2 can be expressed through questioning, through interviews and lessons capture processes.
Type 3 can be shared through communities of practice, peer assists, teaching, and many other methods
Type 4 is what we manage in our knowledge bases
Type 5 comes when we act on our knowledge in order to improve the structures, strategy and tactics of the organisation
Type 6 comes when we embed our knowledge into machines and algorithms.

Don't worry too much about definitions - recognise the different types and how they must be addressed, and make sure your KM program addresses them all.

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