Why Tacit Knowledge is More Important Than Deliberate Practice

Note: this is Part 1 in a series about tacit knowledge.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://commoncog.com/tacit-knowledge-is-a-real-thing/

Just sharing this diagram that I found useful for understanding the different degrees of tacitness within a company.

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Oh man, this is great! Where did you get this from, @Kpaxs?

It’s from Strategy Praxis: Insight-Driven, First Principles-Based Strategic Thinking, Analysis, and Decision-Making, a new book about strategy.

It seems there isn’t much written about tacit knowledge per se (I’ve only just started reading about it), but here is the relevant section that relates to the schema:

Where Do Capabilities Reside Within an Organisation?

There is considerable debate in the management literature over where capabilities reside within an organisation. The debate centres on whether core capabilities necessarily reside only at the corporate level of an organisation or whether they can be thought of as being distributed across various levels. The view taken here is that if the qualifying distinction of core capabilities is their ability to endow competitive advantage, then it stands to reason that they may well reside at multiple organisational levels of a firm. The debate on where capabilities reside within an organisation notwithstanding, there appears to be general consensus that a capability necessarily involves more than one individual. The fact that ‘a capability cannot walk out the door’ implies that the people-embodied knowledge and skills component of a capability entails a collective of people and not a single individual.

Tacitness of Capabilities

The tacit character of capabilities derives from their intrinsic link to organisational knowledge and deeply embedded informal organisational factors. The tacit nature of capabilities presents significant challenges in their analysis. On the one hand, the tacitness of capabilities provides protective mechanisms by presenting barriers to their diffusion. For example the knowledge component of capabilities which encompasses deeply embedded expertise, experience, routines, and practices is difficult to replicate and transfer outside the firm. On the other hand, same characteristics of capabilities that pose barriers to their diffusion outside the firm frequently impose limitations on their effective deployment and exploitation within a firm. Firms often don’t know the full extent of what they know and are capable of doing. Consequently, some capabilities lie dormant and are unused. Dysfunctionalities within an organisation frequently add obstacles to the effective deployment of capabilities.

That being said, capabilities can take on a variety of forms that exhibit varying degrees of tacitness. The degree of tacitness of a capability is ultimately determined by its composition. While all capabilities feature elements of the four defining dimensions, the contributions of these dimensions to a capability are, as a rule, not equally distributed. For example highly knowledge-intensive capabilities which rely on deep expertise are disproportionately dependent on their people-embodied knowledge component and much less so on their physical–technical systems constituent.

Knowledge assets generally, and individual constituents of a capability in particular, feature varying degrees of tacitness—from those ‘just under the surface’ to those deeply embedded in an organisation’s cultural realm. The tacitness of capabilities is therefore more appropriately described in terms of a spectrum which ranges from barely discernible to highly obscure, as suggested in Fig. 4.16."

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It’s very nice to see this kind of material on CommonCog! Tacit knowledge became a big topic in the knowledge management field maybe around ten years ago. It went with the maturation of the field when people realized that not all knowledge could be captured in one big database. Much useful knowledge resided with experts, and much of it was indeed tacit.

I guess Gary Klein is not normally seen as a “KM guy” but I started reading him via that field. I was looking for knowledge model visualizations and came across the technique of Concept Mapping. It’s described fully in Klein’s “Working Minds: a Practitioner’s Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis”. That book got me interested in Klein’s research on tacit knowledge.

But it turns out that Klein has stronger connections to KM: he has done various things with Patrick Lambe, who runs Straits Knowledge in Singapore:

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I’ve actually come across Straits Knowledge and Lambe before (I was researching ties between Klein and Snowden) but I don’t fully understand what the field is, or does.

I know this is somewhat unrelated (or is it?) to the topic at hand, but what exactly is KM? It seemed to be hot in the 90s, but all I can find are traces of the field. What are its goals, what are its methods, and in your opinion, @joepairman, has it succeeded at delivering on them? Where is the field today?

I’ve only seen references to KM practices in Klein’s older work, e.g. he makes a throwaway remark in https://forum.commoncog.com/t/learning-from-workplace-experts-using-the-rpd-model/1752/2 where he says:

If an explanation of KM is too long and unwieldy for this comments section, feel free to split it into a different topic! I’ve long had questions about this, but I haven’t had the time to go digging.

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(Continuing the thread with a relevant Klein + KM paper I just read, and firstly keeping things tidy by linking out to the generic KM topic I started)

I did kick off an “Experiences of Knowledge Management” thread with a long though subjective overview of KM.

More relevant to the conversation in this thread was a paper I read today called “Expertise Management: Challenges for adopting Naturalistic Decision Making as a knowledge management paradigm”. It’s by Brian Moon, Holly Baxter, and Gary Klein, giants in NDM.

Now, Klein has presented at KM World several times, worked with KM people, and does really see NDM as under the purview of KM. From the paper:

Since expertise is one of the most valuable assets in any organization, it stands to reason that adopting the perspectives and methods of NDM as a KM paradigm — i.e., Expertise Management — should enable organizations to realize performance improvements.

But the paper is about challenges for Expertise Management (EM) as a KM paradigm, and it certainly finds lots of them.

Firstly, there’s the challenge of getting EM accepted as a first-class citizen in the KM toolkit. There are a few nice words about expertise but not much serious EM practice in mainstream KM, nor serious treatment of it in KM literature.

Partly that’s because KM folk tend to come from information management or management consulting type backgrounds. And it’s also because, overall, KM does tend to over-emphasize the role of technology. That’s in line with what @cedric mentioned:

But it goes further than just “people don’t always use the tech” to the impression that with fixed KM budgets, tech crowds out the human aspect:

any KM approach that is principally human-centered often struggles to gain audience.

But much of the paper talks about the remaining challenges once an organization has committed to trying EM seriously. Doing it properly can take more time (hence cost) than an organization can justify, and ROI is tricky to prove. Also, some experts don’t think much of NDM approaches — one told one of the authors “I think it is a bunch of crap”.

And even some of the willing experts have so much depth of experience, or experience of such a particular nature, or of such a wide domain breadth, that the Critical Decision Method or Concept Mapping simply can’t work that well. (This bit of the paper is particularly worth reading even if you skim the rest.)

So overall it is a bit bleak, though it ends upbeat (or tries to). There have been real successes, especially those closer to the paper’s publication date of 2015. And the techniques in EM can bring so much to organizations at risk of losing skills and expertise as people retire.

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