Primarily an idea developed by the Hungarian social philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891-1976).
Starting from such facts as our ability to recognize faces without knowing how we do so, and to be trained in a psychological laboratory to respond to certain perceived stimuli without knowing just what it is we are responding to, Polanyi claims that we transfer our attention from (for example) the specific features of a face to the face as a whole (we attend from the former to the latter, as he puts it), and thereby have tacit knowledge of the former.
The idea is then developed to account for the foreshadowing by which a scientist sees first a problem and then a possible solution to it in his data. The important point, however, is not whether the knowledge in question is unconscious, but its function in being that which we ‘attend from’.
‘Tacit knowledge’ has also been used for our knowledge of what gives meaning to the words and sentences of our own language.
M Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (1966), ch. 1
The term tacit knowing or tacit knowledge is attributed to Michael Polanyi in 1958 in Personal Knowledge. In his later work The Tacit Dimension he made the assertion that “we can know more than we can tell.” He states not only that there is knowledge that cannot be adequately articulated by verbal means, but also that all knowledge is rooted in tacit knowledge. While this concept made most of its impact on philosophy of science, education and knowledge management – all fields involving humans – for Polanyi it was also a means to show our evolutionary continuity with animals. Polanyi describes that many animals are creative, some even have mental representations, but they can possess tacit knowledge only, except for humans who developed the capability of articulation and therefore can transmit partially explicit knowledge. This relatively modest difference then turns into a big practical advantage, but there is no unexplained evolutionary gap.
Tacit knowledge can be defined as skills, ideas and experiences that people have but are not codified and may not necessarily be easily expressed (Chugh, 2015). With tacit knowledge, people are not often aware of the knowledge they possess or how it can be valuable to others. Effective transfer of tacit knowledge generally requires extensive personal contact, regular interaction and trust. This kind of knowledge can only be revealed through practice in a particular context and transmitted through social networks. To some extent it is “captured” when the knowledge holder joins a network or a community of practice.
Some examples of daily activities and tacit knowledge are: riding a bike, playing the piano, driving a car, hitting a nail with a hammer. and putting together pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle, interpreting a complex statistical equation (Chugh, 2015).
In the field of knowledge management, the concept of tacit knowledge refers to knowledge which can not be fully codified. Therefore, an individual can acquire tacit knowledge without language. Apprentices, for example, work with their mentors and learn craftsmanship not through language but by observation, imitation, and practice.
The key to acquiring tacit knowledge is experience. Without some form of shared experience, it is extremely difficult for people to share each other’s thinking processes.
Tacit knowledge has been described as “know-how” – as opposed to “know-what” (facts). This distinction is usually taken to date back to a paper by Gilbert Ryle, given to the Aristotelian society in London in 1945. In this paper Ryle argues against the (intellectualist) position that all knowledge is knowledge of propositions (“know-what”), and the view that some knowledge can only be defined as “know-how” has therefore, in some contexts, come to be called “anti-intellectualist”. There are further distinctions: “know-why” (science), or “know-who” (networking). Tacit knowledge involves learning and skill but not in a way that can be written down. On this account knowing-how or embodied knowledge is characteristic of the expert, who acts, makes judgments, and so forth without explicitly reflecting on the principles or rules involved. The expert works without having a theory of his or her work; he or she just performs skillfully without deliberation or focused attention. Embodied knowledge represents a learned capability of a human body’s nervous and endocrine systems.
Tacit knowledge vs. explicit knowledge: although it is possible to distinguish conceptually between explicit and tacit knowledge, they are not separate and discrete in practice. The interaction between these two modes of knowing is vital for the creation of new knowledge.
Differences from explicit knowledge
Tacit knowledge can be distinguished from explicit knowledge in three major areas:
- Codifiability and mechanism of transferring knowledge: While explicit knowledge can be codified (an example of that is ‘can you write it down’ or ‘put it into words’ or ‘draw a picture’), and easily transferred without the knowing subject, tacit knowledge is intuitive and unarticulated knowledge that cannot be communicated, understood or used without the ‘knowing subject’. Unlike the transfer of explicit knowledge, the transfer of tacit knowledge requires close interaction and the buildup of shared understanding and trust among them.
- Main methods for the acquisition and accumulation: Explicit knowledge can be generated through logical deduction and acquired through practical experience in the relevant context. In contrast, tacit knowledge can only be acquired through practical experience in the relevant context.
- Potential of aggregation and modes of appropriation: Explicit knowledge can be aggregated at a single location, stored in objective forms and appropriated without the participation of the knowing subject. Tacit knowledge in contrast, is personal and contextual. It is distributed across knowing subjects, and cannot easily be aggregated. The realization of its full potential requires the close involvement and cooperation of the knowing subject.
The process of transforming tacit knowledge into explicit or specifiable knowledge is known as codification, articulation, or specification. The tacit aspects of knowledge are those that cannot be codified, but can only be transmitted via training or gained through personal experience. There is a view against the distinction, where it is believed that all propositional knowledge (knowledge that) is ultimately reducible to practical knowledge (knowledge how).
In Ikujiro Nonaka’s model of organizational knowledge creation, he proposes that tacit knowledge can be converted to explicit knowledge. In that model tacit knowledge is presented variously as uncodifiable (“tacit aspects of knowledge are those that cannot be codified”) and codifiable (“transforming tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge is known as codification”). This ambiguity is common in the knowledge management literature.
Nonaka’s view may be contrasted with Polanyi’s original view of “tacit knowing.” Polanyi believed that while declarative knowledge may be needed for acquiring skills, it is unnecessary for using those skills once the novice becomes an expert. And indeed, it does seem to be the case that, as Polanyi argued, when we acquire a skill we acquire a corresponding understanding that defies articulation.
- One of the most convincing examples of tacit knowledge is facial recognition. We know a person’s face, and can recognize it among a thousand, indeed a million. Yet we usually cannot tell how we recognize a face we know, so most of this cannot be put into words. When you see a face, you are not conscious about your knowledge of the individual features (eye, nose, mouth), but you see and recognize the face as a whole.
- Another example of tacit knowledge is the notion of language itself – it is not possible to learn a language just by being taught the rules of grammar – a native speaker picks it up at a young age, almost entirely unaware of the formal grammar which they may be taught later. Other examples are how to ride a bike, how tight to make a bandage, or knowing whether a senior surgeon feels an intern may be ready to learn the intricacies of surgery; this can only be learned through personal experimentation.
- Collins showed that Western laboratories long had difficulties in successfully replicating an experiment (in this case, measuring the quality, Q, factors of sapphire) which the team led by Vladimir Braginsky at Moscow State University had been conducting for twenty years. Western scientists became suspicious of the Russian results and it was only when Russian and Western scientists conducted the measurements collaboratively that the trust was reestablished. Collins argues that laboratory visits enhance the possibility for the transfer of tacit knowledge.
- Another example is the Bessemer steel process – Bessemer sold a patent for his advanced steelmaking process and was sued by the purchasers who couldn’t get it to work. In the end Bessemer set up his own steel company because he knew how to do it, even though he could not convey it to his patent users. Bessemer’s company became one of the largest in the world and changed the face of steel making.
- When Matsushita started developing its automatic home bread-making machine in 1985, an early problem was how to mechanize the dough-kneading process, a process that takes a master baker years of practice to perfect. To learn this tacit knowledge, a member of the software development team, Ikuko Tanaka, decided to volunteer herself as an apprentice to the head baker of the Osaka International Hotel, who was reputed to produce the area’s best bread. After a period of imitation and practice, one day she observed that the baker was not only stretching, but also twisting the dough in a particular fashion (“twisting stretch”), which turned out to be his secret for making tasty bread. The Matsushita home bakery team drew together eleven members from completely different specializations and cultures: product planning, mechanical engineering, control systems, and software development. The “twisting stretch” motion was finally materialized in a prototype, after a year of iterative experimentation by the engineers and team members working closely together, combining their explicit knowledge. For example, the engineers added ribs to the inside of the dough case in order to hold the dough better as it is being churned. Another team member suggested a method (later patented) to add yeast at a later stage in the process, thereby preventing the yeast from over-fermenting in high temperatures.
- Activity theory
- Cognitive apprenticeship
- Concept map
- Consensus reality
- Decision making
- Descriptive knowledge
- Dispersed knowledge
- Fuzzy concept
- Hidden curriculum
- Knowledge by acquaintance
- Knowledge tagging
- Logical consequence
- Procedural knowledge
- Situated knowledge
- Tacit assumption
- Text and conversation theory
- Threshold knowledge
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