Monday, 27 September 2021

The problem with "tacit/explicit"

 There is a real problem with the concept of tacit and explicit knowledge, namely the level of disagreement about what these terms really mean. Until this is fixed, these terms may be unusable.

I blogged about this issue of the definitional minefield a year ago, and had an experience last week which demonstrated just how pervasive this minefield is. During a presentation to the KCN network (view the recording here) I put up a short poll, The poll was as follows:

Which of these three most closely matches your understanding of the term “Explicit Knowledge”

A. Knowledge which has been explained in some way (spoken or recorded)

B. Knowledge which has been recorded (eg in documents, files etc)

C. Knowledge which can be explained, but may or may not have been either spoken or recorded.

About 40 people answered the poll, and the results were as follows.

A- 23%

B - 53%

C - 23%

So the  participants were evenly split between those who thought that explicit knowledge was synonymous with recorded knowledge, and those who thought that it wasn't. And among those who thought it wasn't, there was an even split between exactly where the line lies between tacit and explicit.

Imagine this was another discipline. Imagine if doctors could not agree whether coma and death were the same thing, and those who thought they were different, could not agree on the line between death and coma lies. It would be dangerous chaos. 

There are so many different interpretations of tacit and explicit that I have drawn some of them in the table below, just to illustrate the issue.

At one end we have people who think that tacit knowledge is that which is inexplicable, while anything documented is information. At the other end, people who think that all documents are explicit knowledge, and anything undocumented is tacit. This is not an exhaustive diagram, other interpretations are possible, and some people introduce the term Implicit knowledge as well, which also has no agreed definition. My own definition is shown at the end, as I think knowledge and information need not be mutually exclusive terms.

Who is correct? The source texts are unhelpful here. 

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 implying 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).

Now I expect all of you are reading this and thinking "Well, I am quite clear on the difference between tacit and explicit".

Yes, you are clear, but at least 50% of people within the KM field will be equally clear, and will disagree with you. Therefore you will be communicating at cross-purposes. You will mean one thing when you use these terms, others will understand you as meaning something completely different. Whether or not you are academically correct in your usage of the terms tacit/implicit/explicit (even if such a concept as "academically correct" applies), the terms themselves are so confused that they become a barrier to effective communication. 

That is why you will find no reference to tacit and explicit in the body of the ISO KM standard, and why I will not be using these terms in my blog from now on.

My advice to you would be to do the same. If you want to be understood clearly across the KM industry, then the terms tacit and explicit should be avoided as much as possible. Because however you use those terms, about half your readers will have a different usage, and will understand you as saying something you did not mean.

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