Tacit knowledge

The concept of ‘tacit knowledge’ plays a key role in knowledge management. An interplay of explicit knowledge (documents) and tacit knowledge (social interactions) is required to enable knowledge work and drive innovation.


October, 2016

Social Intranet

Knowledge Management

Scrum and knowledge management

The Quaive product design is grounded in academic research in the field of knowledge management. We’ve synthesized knowledge management theory into a digital workplace technology roadmap that provides the blueprint for Quaive. Our goal is to provide a very intuitive user experience with our software, to optimally support knowledge flows in networked organisations.

The process we use to build this software is called Scrum. Scrum is the most widely used agile software project management methodology. There’s a lot of overlap between the way Scrum works in software project management, and the more general knowledge management methodologies we see in the academic literature.

Turns out, this similarity between Scrum and knowledge management theory is not a coincidence. The leading scholar in knowledge management is Ikujiro Nonaka. Nonaka is also one of the authors of the 1986 Harvard Business Review article that launched Scrum as a methodology.

There is a similarity between Scrum and Knowledge Management

Photograph by Ben White via Unsplash

Michael Polanyi

Nonaka heavily uses the concept of „tacit knowledge“, which is key to understanding both Scrum and knowledge management in general. This concept was developed by Michael Polanyi, a prominent mid-20th century academic whose research interests evolved from chemistry, via social sciences, to the philosophy of knowledge.

In the 1930s, Polanyi repeatedly visited the Soviet Union. He had a conversation with Nikolai Bukharin where Bukharin insisted that the distinction between pure and applied research was a capitalist distortion. In communism, Bukharin said, all scientific research will automatically be in harmony with the Five-Year plan as issued by the communist leadership.

Polanyi recognized this as a frontal attack on the freedom of thought. If scientists are not allowed to freely pursue the lines of inquiry they see as most interesting, there cannot be pure science. Effectively, all knowledge and thinking would be subjected to the tyranny of politics.

In response, Polanyi set out on a philosophical quest to prove, that such tyranny is not just offending in the political sense – that would be just an opinion – but that it actually contradicts the fundamental dynamic of how we, as humans, obtain and grow our understanding of the world.

„We can know more than we can tell“

The structure of knowledge

All knowledge has a basic twofold structure, Polanyi argues. We can see this if we imagine a man with a stick, that is probing a dark environment, e.g. a cave. When you’re using the stick to probe the space around you, your consciousness extends to the top of the stick. You attend to the feeling of the tip of the stick impacting on objects around you, and this is how you gain an understanding of the shape of the space you’re in.

While exploring the space around you, you are not aware of the stick itself. You don’t feel the stick against your hand, rather you feel the wall before you when the tip of the stick touches it. It’s as if your awareness, your body extends to encompass the stick. You internalize the stick. The moment you would switch attention to the stick itself and the way it feels in your hand, you’re reduced to feeling only the stick, and not the space around you.

What we have here is a from-to relationship in perception, which Polanyi postulates as the generic pattern of all human knowledge. There’s a proximate element, and a distant element. We know of the distant element only via the proximate element – we sense the cave only through the stick. In doing so, we internalize the proximate element. We feel as if the stick becomes an extension of our body. Only by extending our body this way, can we learn about our environment. Our conscious attention is on our emerging understanding of the environment; not on the proximate object we use to gain access.

We can see this in action in learning how to bike. There is no manual for biking, and if there were, reading the manual would not help you in learning how to bike. You learn biking through trial and error, under close coaching of somebody who does know how to ride a bike. Once you’re then able to ride a bike, you are unable to put in words what exactly it is that you do, to stay upright.

This is the concept of tacit knowledge in action.

The most simple summary of this is: „we can know more than we can tell“.

Michael Polanyi

All knowing is inherently subjective

That sounds simple enough. But Polanyi uses this theory as a platform to draw a wide range of conclusions. I already pointed out that Polanyi was motivated primarily to defend the freedom of thought against tyranny. If we accept that all knowing has a tacit, deeply personal component that cannot be objectified, the consequence is that all knowing is inherently subjective, or at least has a irreducibly subjective component. There is literally no way that you can tell me what to think. I cannot even tell myself fully what I am thinking.

This strikes a hard blow at the positivist tradition in science. Following Polanyi, it’s less than useless to try and objectify and formalize all knowledge. Any attempt to do so, to remove the tacit dimension, can result only in the destruction of all knowledge. There’s no way of knowing without accepting and including the knowing subject into the known object.

In the process of carving out a platform to defend intellectual freedom, Polanyi strikes hard blows at objectivism and reductionism. This is a direct attack on the objectivist, reductionist, Newtonian paradigm that conceives of the universe as a lifeless, deterministic bouncing of atom balls.

Knowledge work is a social activity

This has profound consequences for knowledge work. It significantly limits the feasibility of „extracting knowledge“ (from your employees‘ heads) and storing all that intellectual property into some kind of knowledge database. That approach does not cover the tacit dimension at all.

Instead, Nonaka and collaborators have developed a concept of knowledge flow, in which knowledge is created through an iterative process that oscillates between the tacit and explicit dimensions of knowledge. While we can encode explicit knowledge in documents and processes, working with tacit knowledge requires an acknowledgement of the primacy of subjective knowing. In other words, people are as important as files, if not more.

This explains the rise of social collaboration platforms in enterprise settings. In Quaive, we’re actively pursuing a vision of a humanized digital workplace that empowers people to perform knowledge work across a variety of settings and interaction patterns. We closely integrate social, people-centric social networking functionalities, with more traditional document management and process support capabilities. Instead of isolating tacit knowledge flow support into a separate ’social‘ silo, we provide an integrated system supporting the full knowledge creation cycle, as envisioned by Nonaka, building on Polanyi’s philosophy of tacit knowledge.

Filter bubbles

You’ve just read a summary of the 38-minute talk Filter Bubbles – the discovery of tacit knowledge presented at Plone Conference 2016 Boston. You can see the full talk in the video to the right.

Slides are available at SlideShare.

If you’re interested in diving deeper into knowledge flow theory, an excellent synopsis is provided by the book Managing Flow by Nonaka e.a. As a short teaser: they apply subtle distinctions between ancient Greek concepts of knowledge, and show how techne (know-how) and episteme (analytical knowledge) are integrated in phronesis (practical wisdom) – which is a key element in their advanced framework for understanding cutting-edge knowledge creation and innovation performances in 21st century organisations.

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