KM 101: Tacit and Explicit Knowledge

This is the second post in a new series about legal knowledge management, called KM 101.  If you haven’t already, you can read the first entry, called KM 101: Introduction to Legal Knowledge Management.

Today, the conversation is about tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge.

At a very high level, it is generally agreed that tacit knowledge is that which has not been recorded, written, printed, or otherwise captured in some medium.  Explicit knowledge, on the other hand, is that which has been codified or captured in some medium.  Simply put, explicit knowledge has be written down or recorded.

Thus, tacit knowledge comprises personal experiences known only to an individual.  Unless converted into explicit knowledge, it cannot be shared because it is “trapped” in one’s mind.  For example, a trial lawyer may know how a particular judge tends to react to certain trial tactics because he has tried cases before that judge.  That knowledge is certainly useful to that trial lawyer, but is of no use to the other lawyers at his firm, unless the knowledge is shared among them.  From an organization’s (as opposed to a personal) KM perspective, tacit knowledge is useless because multiple members of the organization cannot benefit from it.

Conversely, some explicit knowledge can be useful to an organization because others can find it.  For example, the trial lawyer, mentioned above, could prepare notes and make a presentation to the other litigators in his firm about tips and tricks when trying cases.  The notes (e.g., a PowerPoint presentation) could be saved on a networked hard drive, document management system, or intranet page, so that others can find and use them.  Just as important, those notes, because they are accessible by others, can help fellow lawyers determine that the lawyer may be an expert in trial practice.

The tacit-explicit distinction may be interesting, but it is academic and does little for those who are trying to implement KM at a law firm.  For practical purposes, knowledge is either accessible or inaccessible.  Note that explicit knowledge, by definition, is not necessarily accessible.  That PowerPoint presentation, when saved on the author’s  local hard drive, is technically “explicit knowledge,” but is accessible only by the author.  It is not until the knowledge is made available to others that it becomes useful.

Doug Cornelius, of KM Space, has written about tacit and explicit knowledge, and he shares some of these views.  He says that the tacit-explicit distinction is abstract and, in reality, knowledge is “either findable by your computer or it is not findable by your computer.”  There are also some interesting comments on his blog post that are worth a look.

The take-away about tacit and explicit knowledge is to get people to understand that unless knowledge is shared and made accessible to others, it is useless from a KM perspective.  Converting tacit knowledge (or explicit knowledge) into accessible knowledge is truly one of the challenges of knowledge management.

Please join in the discussion. Leave a comment.

  • How do you define tacit and explicit knowledge?
  • Is the tacit-explicit distinction merely academic or is there a practical application?

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7 thoughts on “KM 101: Tacit and Explicit Knowledge

  • January 4, 2009 at 10:53 pm
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    I agree that knowledge that can’t be found is obviously of little value, but I think the distinction between findable or not findable is too simplistic. The distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge is the foundation for the Continuous Learning Cycle, based on cyclic conversion of Tacit to Tacit, Tacit to Explicit, Explicit to Explicit, and Explicit to Tacit knowledge. This has been first formulated by Nonaka (SECI model), there are multiple resources available, for example http://www.12manage.com/methods_nonaka_seci.html or http://www.hcklab.org/research/knowledgemanagement/tacit-explicit-knowledge.htm

    In the legal environment Tacit to Tacit learning can occur when a young lawyer accompanies somebody more experienced in the courtroom, learning by doing and observing. Tacit to Explicit occurs when the young lawyer documents and publishes his/her Lessons Learned. Explicit to Explicit happens when a Community of Practice analyzes Lessons Learned to distill them to Best Practices in particular contexts. Explicit to Tacit occurs when a different lawyer in a different context reads and understands the documents and starts practicing the lessons in his/her own praxis.

    Thanks,

    Slawomir

  • January 5, 2009 at 8:47 am
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    There are obviously many ways to share knowledge and transfer it. The tacit and explicit is a useful paradigm. But, I found the definition of explicit to be lacking.

    I have found the distinction between tacit and explicit to hamper the implementation of KM projects. Participants too often fail to realize that they need to convert their sharing of knowledge to form that is accessible and findable by others. Even if they write it down they think that the writing alone makes it useable by others.

    The classic example is the forwarded email: “this is great stuff. Save it in the KM system.” Usually, the email lacks any of the information needed to reuse it. The authorship is broken, the context of the message is difficult to decipher and there is no meaningful place to store and retrieve it.

  • Pingback: Back to First Principles for Knowledge Management « Dr Fuzzy’s Weblog

  • January 5, 2009 at 8:42 pm
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    I believe that two many KM projects get hung up on the definitions and the “sausage making” of it all the they don’t get off the ground. We need to find ways to capture “stuff” that is useful even if it is not fully baked into various buckets and even if the buckets are not perfectly defined (because they never will be).

    Once you get people contributing then let search technology do the rest. Google Apps has a “Sites” feature that allows just that, AND you get to use the best search technology on the planet to search internally within a domain that your firm fully controls.

    There’s a paper on my blog entitled “Search, KM & the Practice of Law” that you might find of interest.

  • January 5, 2009 at 9:11 pm
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    Patrick, I understand where you’re coming from, I’ve heard my share of “save this in the KM system”. This, however, doesn’t change the fact that this information is Explicit, it’s just not findable (therefore useless), just like my Tacit knowledge is not reachable when I’m on vacation 🙂

    In my practice we’ve set up wikis and SharePoint repositories, not really as means for storing Explicit Knowledge, but rather to document contextual information about any significant knowledge. This contextual information (which contains background, what worked, what didn’t, why, recommendations, people who were involved) is then evaluated by users to determine if personal contact is needed to get in-touch with the Tacit Knowledge.

    Those repositories are typically organized as portals to static (yellow pages type) information, project notes, reference information, Lessons Learned and Best Practices. Everything is organized by Categories and Keywords agreed upon by the user communities. It’s not perfect, but seems to be working fairly well.

    Thanks,

    Slawomir

  • January 5, 2009 at 9:19 pm
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    Sorry, forgot to add that in order to standardize the capturing of context, we created templates that ask questions, such as what was the background, what did you observe, why do you think it happened, what should we do about it, who can be contacted for more information, etc. Those templates are available online. This kind of eliminated the emails I used to get: hey, I had this aha moment, why don’t you save it in your KM system!

  • January 8, 2009 at 7:15 am
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    I’ve worked in midsize to large consulting organizations for close to 20 years before starting my own company. For all the time I worked in these services organizations — which have no product to sell — I have heard management say that “our people are our most valuable asset”! Why? Because of the Tacit Knowledge they carry. Their culture, experience, context, client and market understanding, etc. I have been a global director for KM for a 10 000 people organization, and I can say that most of the Knowledge circulated through the networks (formal or informal, communities of interest or practice, etc.)

    Explicit Knowledge is useful of course, and every organization serious about KM will capture lessons learned and other knowledge from past projects, clients, etc. However, this Explicit Knowledge is — USELESS without the people that can interpret it! That’s why I combined the responsibilities for KM and Competency Development — it takes people at Mastery and Expertise level to contextualize, interpret, update, etc. the Knowledge that is made available to the more junior staff members.

    Of course, the evolution of IT and especially Search Technology is beneficial to KM. Enterprise Search (Google or other) does increase the findability of content. Unfortunately, it does not increase the usability of knowledge…

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