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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