Tacit knowledge refers to things we know as a result of our personal experience. It is developed over time based on directly experiencing situations and crystalizing what is learned into a broader understanding.
It is the knowledge experts have learned over time without actually being taught or even thinking too hard about it.
Examples of tacit knowledge can be seen whenever we ask a skilled professional why they did something and the professional answers:
“I didn’t think about how, when, or why I did it, but I know it was the right thing to do.”
Simply put, their experience drives their actions, but they may not be able to describe their actions to a novice.
Tacit Knowledge Definition
The term tacit knowledge is attributed to Polanyi (1962; 1966) who stated:
“I shall reconsider human knowledge by starting from the fact that we can know more than we can tell” (1966, p. 4).
Since then, scholars have had great difficulty in developing an operational definition that would lend itself to scientific study.
Ambrosini and Bowman (2001) identify this problem as a substantial impediment:
“…there is little empirical research to support this theoretical proposition. Tacit knowledge has so far resisted operationalization” (p. 811).
An often-cited definition is:
“Knowledge that is “imperfectly accessible to conscious thought” [Nelson and Winter, 1982, p. 79] yet will show its presence in the success of our performance using that knowledge.” (Herfel, Gao & Rodrigues, 2011)
This is in contrast to explicit knowledge, which is easily defined, structured, written and documented. While explicit knowledge is easily transferred from individual to individual, tacit knowledge is not.
Tacit Knowledge Examples
- Learning your Native Language: As a child grows, they acquire their native language through experience, long before formally studying the rules of grammar and syntax.
- In-game coaching: Some basketball coaches have an intuitive feel for the game and instinctively adjust their play-calling and lineup based on in-game developments.
- Remembering Faces: Some people have an excellent memory for faces. This ability seems to come naturally to them, but they cannot explain how they accomplish this feat.
- Social Skills: Aspects of emotional intelligence seem very intuitive, such as the ability to know exactly what to say in almost any social situation.
- Art Appreciation: Aesthetic appreciation is a highly subjective perception of art or design features that distinguish exceptional work from more common forms. It is an acquired sense of taste that escapes the common humans.
- Leadership: The strategic planning of a large corporation is a very nuanced skill that is rare to find. That’s one reason those that possess this form of tacit knowledge are well-compensated.
- Musical Geniuses: Being able to create musical compositions that are so compelling that they touch the heart and souls of millions of people. Those that have this ability usually can’t explain how it happens…it just does.
- Riding a Bike: Learning how to ride a bike cannot be mastered by reading a book. The ability is developed through repetitive experiences.
- Reading Body Language: Interpreting a person’s body language to discern how they are feeling and what they are thinking.
- Skilled Teachers: A skilled elementary school teacher walks into a classroom of rowdy students to assist a beginner teacher who can’t control the class. Shortly after the skilled teacher walks in, they manage get the children into line. Unfortunately, they can’t explain to the beginning teacher exactly how they knew what to do in the moment. They just did it.
- Skilled Parents: A man holding his new crying baby doesn’t know how to calm her down. He passes her to his mother – the child’s grandmother – who has raised many children. She holds the baby just the right way and makes just the right tones to calm the baby. She can’t explain how she did it.
- Master Chefs: A good chef might taste the meal they’re preparing and know tacitly exactly what to add and what changes to make to ensure the meal will be a success. They work by feel rather than strict explicit theory.
- Aging Sportspeople: As sportspeople age, they lose physical prowess, but they can continue as elite sportspeople for a few years yet because their tacit knowledge makes them that little bit faster and more intuitive than their younger peers.
- Essay Writing: When grading an essay, a teacher will often see a poorly-written paragraph and know there’s something missing but not be able to explain what, so they frustratingly write: “needs more depth.” Knowing a well-written essay and how to write well is often reliant on your tacit knowledge of grammar, spelling, and argument structure.
- Practice vs Theory: An arrogant med school graduate starts their new job at a hospital. They walk into the ward and are working slowly, trying to use the theory they’ve learned. Meanwhile, the 20-year experienced nurse runs around doing the work 20 times faster because they know what to do from experience, not from books.
Tacit Knowledge Framework
Murphy et al. (2004) have formulated a conceptual framework for understanding tacit knowledge and its role in organizations. This framework consists of several essential domains.
The domains are:
- Implicitness: Knowledge that is learned and transferred through experience.
- Experiential: “Know-how” which informs as to the best course of action; it is only attained through experience.
- Interactive-ness: Knowledge that is developed through interactions between coworkers.
- Show-how: Allows tacit knowledge to be transferred through demonstration, modeling, and observed practice.
- Non-measurability: Tacit knowledge is uncodifiable; it cannot be observed or measured.
- Personal: It is person-embodied, subjective, and intuitive.
The authors suggest that their conceptual framework “…makes it appropriate as a tool in the development of corporate knowledge management strategies for the twenty-first century” (p. 6).
Case Studies and Research Basis
1. Tacit Knowledge and The Master Chefs
Becoming a master chef is not easy. It requires years of experience, and failure. Although Gordan Ramsay and Jamie Oliver make it look easy enough, it surely is not.
Millions of viewers watch these masters of culinary delights whip-up fantastic meals in less than 30 minutes.
But, when tried at home, with the exact same ingredients, and pausing the YouTube video countless times, the likelihood of replicating what is presented on screen is near impossible.
This is because cooking is an art form that is developed over years, even decades.
It involves an intuitive sense of timing; an acute sense of smell that informs that timing; and a keen eye for subtle changes in texture as food transforms to an optimal state.
The skills of a master chef are the embodiment of tacit knowledge.
As organizations evolve, one of the biggest obstacles they face is how to transfer the experience of senior employees to newer employees. Here, the term “experience” is really referring to tacit knowledge.
The problem however, is that by its very definition, tacit knowledge is uncodifiable. It defies transfer. So, what is a company to do?
Dr. Nancy Dixon explains that the first step to knowing how to share tacit knowledge is to understand how it is stored in memory.
Instead of being stored like semantic knowledge, which is located in a specific location in the memory network, Dr. Dixon states that tacit knowledge “is stored as bits and pieces.”
So, when faced with a workplace challenge, “we construct that knowledge from the bits and pieces that we put together over many years of experience.”
The experienced professional with an abundance of tacit knowledge will almost never be able to provide a straight answer. Instead, they will ask a variety of questions to build context. Understanding context will allow the construction of an answer that comes from their tacit knowledge.
Understanding how tacit knowledge is constructed is key to understanding how it can be shared.
3. Company X: What to do with the Old-Timers
This is a narrative account of a study on the social impact of technological advancements. It took place in an electrical engineering firm in the Republic of Ireland.
Company X operates facilities that utilize some of the most advanced automated systems in the world. One day, the company introduced a new computer-aided design tool.
Unfortunately, this created an issue with older engineers, some of which had worked with the company since it opened. And one who had never used a PC.
“Consequently, there was a very large body of tacit knowledge within the group” (Murphy et al., 2004, p. 3).
The company’s stance: retirement was necessary as technology advances, “otherwise labor costs will increase forever.”
However, the manager “recognized that forty years of engineering knowledge would be lost to the firm.”
Therefore, the manager offered:
- Subsidized home PC purchases
- Implemented computerized and non-computerized working options
- Created a new Senior Engineer title
The plan worked. “The organisation was able to utilise a new technology project to ensure that important tacit knowledge was diffused in the firm” (p. 4).
Losing experienced professionals can create a huge loss of tacit knowledge that cannot be replaced. This can cause a company to lose its competitive edge, which can be fatal in a globalized industry.
4. The Story Of Q
Sharing information among scientists can be a bit tricky. On the one hand, scientists are supposed to share insights for the advancement of knowledge. On the other hand, scientists are people, and sometimes people want to keep their knowledge a secret.
And on another hand (yes, that’s three hands), sometimes scientists are willing to share with colleagues, but because tacit knowledge is so nuanced, they can’t exactly explain what they know.
As Polanyi said, “we can know more than we can tell.”
This paradox is illustrated in a story about a Russian scientist and his Western colleagues.
For about 20 years, the Russian had reported advancements with the Q of sapphire, which refers to some technical parameters needed in research with lasers.
As the story goes, he shared his knowledge with colleagues in Glasgow, but they were unable to replicate his findings for years.
As time went on, they became suspicious.
It was not until the Russian scientist worked extensively with the Glasgow team directly that the results were replicated.
As reported by Collins (2001), the Glasgow team learned about numerous techniques used by their Russian counterpart. None of this knowledge was not documented in the research literature.
The transfer of this tacit knowledge could have only occurred by working side-by-side.
5. Ghost in the Machine
When it comes to high-technology, there may be no better example than NASA. Sending satellites and astronauts into space requires some of the most advanced technology systems on the planet.
Even though technology can progress at an incredibly rapid rate, nothing beats experience. Or, should we say, nothing beats tacit knowledge.
This is illustrated by NASA scientist Pat Simpkins, Director of Engineering at the Kennedy Space Center.
He provides an example of how important tacit knowledge is by telling a story about a cabin-leak check. In order to perform the check, one particular valve had to be open, which was stated in the manual.
However, experience had taught the older engineers that the valve had to be turned to a certain setting.
“Well, that was never written anywhere that that’s how you perform the cabin-leak check. It’s just that the technicians and the engineers who worked that system, knew that’s what you had to do.”
This is an example of how tacit knowledge, formed as a result of experience, is often not documented.
Near the end of the video, Director Simpkins refers to this predicament as the “ghost in the machine” which adds to the risk of each mission.
Tacit vs Implicit Knowledge
Tacit knowledge is similar to implicit knowledge. Both are simply known without having to be expressed to anyone. These are both types of knowledge that you don’t need to think about – you just have them and can apply them in a perfect flow state. But unlike implicit knowledge, tacit knowledge is unexplainable, or at least, hard for the person with the knowledge to be able to put into words and justify. In other words, tacit knowledge is hard to communicate, while implicit knowledge can be communicated if required, but generally isn’t because it’s assumed everyone in the room knows it and has it.
Tacit knowledge is knowledge that comes from experience. It is usually not documented, not easily explained by those that possess it, and not easily transferrable to others.
This can present a real dilemma for companies. As technology changes and older personnel lag behind, the organization must find a way to retain the tacit knowledge of experienced staff without busting the payroll.
Tacit knowledge is also needed in professions outside of high-tech. For example, becoming a master chef can take decades of experience.
Part of the difficulty of transferring tacit knowledge to others is that it is not stored in a single location like semantic knowledge. The information is scattered about throughout one’s mind.
So, when asked a question that requires tacit knowledge to be answered, it is usually met with other questions to better ascertain context from which the answer is dependent.
Despite all the difficulties, tacit knowledge is considered by some to be far more valuable than explicit knowledge, which can often be acquired after a few hours of reading.
Ambrosini, V., & Bowman, C. (2001). Tacit knowledge: Some suggestions for operationalization. Journal of Management Studies, 38(6), 811-829. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-6486.00260
Collins, H. M. (February 2001). “Tacit Knowledge, Trust and the Q of Sapphire”. Social Studies of Science, 31(1): 71–85.
Herfel, W. E., Yin Gao, and D. J. Rodrigues. (2011). Chinese medicine and complex systems dynamics. In Gabbay, D., Thagard, P., Woods, J., & Hooker, C. (eds.). Philosophy of complex systems (Vol. 10). London: Elsevier.
Murphy, F., Stapleton, L. & Smith, D. (2004). Tacit knowledge and human centred systems: The key to managing the social impact of technology. International Multitrack Conference of Advances in Control Systems, University of Vienna (TUWien).
Polanyi, M. (1962). Personal knowledge, towards a post critical philosophy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Polanyi, M. (1966). The tacit dimension. New York: Doubleday & Co.
Puusa, A., & Eerikäinen, M. (2010). Is tacit knowledge really tacit? Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management, 8(3), pp307-318.
Venkitachalam, K., & Busch, P. (2012). Tacit knowledge: Review and possible research directions. Journal of Knowledge Management. doi: https://doi.org/10.1108/13673271211218915