“We know more than we can say” is a popular phrase heard at KM conferences and quoted in the many KM blogs. It is quoted to encourage attending to tacit knowledge, rather than exclusively focusing on explicit knowledge. But those quoting the phrase seldom go beyond referencing it to Polanyi, providing little explanation or reasoning for why, if we know it, we can’t just write it down.
In this post I want to offer the “why” behind the phrase and give some examples. The answer lies in, 1) how our brains store knowledge, 2) how we create knowledge, and 3) the values and relationships that are interlinked with tacit knowledge.
How Our Brains Store Knowledge
What we learn from experience is stored, not in the form of answers, but in bits and pieces of the experience we have accumulated, sometimes over years. What we think of as tacit knowledge is really the human ability to draw on our past experiences to respond to new problems or questions.
When a colleague asks a question, the responder pulls together the bits and pieces from different parts of past experience to construct an answer. The operant word in that sentence is “construct.” The responder constructs an answer in the moment of responding. Responders do not “know” the response they will give until faced with the need for it. Karl Weick, the well-known organizational theorist, affirms this idea when he says, “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?”
Weick describes a situation in a neonatal unit in which the nurse draws on her experience to diagnose that a baby is in a critical situation.
“I took care of a 900-gram baby who was about 26 or 27 weeks…who had been doing well for about two weeks. He had an open ductus that day. The difference between the way he looked at 9 a.m. and the way he looked at 11 a.m. was very dramatic. I was at that point really concerned about what was going to happen next. There are a lot of complications of the patent ductus, not just in itself, but the fact that it causes a lot of other things. I was really concerned that the baby was starting to show symptoms of all of them.
You look at this kid because you know this kid, and you know what he looked like two hours ago. It is a dramatic difference to you, but it’s hard to describe that to someone in words. You go to the resident and say: “Look, I’m really worried about X, Y, Z,” and they go: “OK.” Then you wait one half hour to 40 minutes, then you go to the Fellow (the teaching physician supervising the resident) and say: “You know, I am really worried about X, Y, Z.” They say: “We’ll talk about it on rounds.”
When asked about the meaning of “X, Y, Z,” the nurse begins to describe the items she noticed and finally gives up because she feels it is not possible to identify all the individual symptoms that she drew on.
The fact that the kid is more lethargic, paler, his stomach is bigger, that he is not tolerating his feedings, that his chem strip (blood test) might be a little strange. All these kinds of things. I can’t remember the exact details of this case; there are clusters of things that go wrong. The baby’s urine output goes down. They sound like they are in failure. This kind of stuff. Their pulses go bad, their blood pressure changes. There are a million things that go on. At this time, I had been in the unit a couple or three years.
Her last sentence is significant, indicating as it does, that she has three years of experience dealing with premature babies to draw on to reach her conclusion. In this interview she is being asked, in effect, to make her tacit knowledge explicit for the interviewer and her giving up on that effort illustrates the difficulty in “just writing it down” or in this situation, even being able to say it fully.
The nurse was able to diagnose what was happening to the baby, but was unable to convince the physicians she spoke with that there was a problem. She explains,
I talked to a nurse who had more experience and I said, “Look at this kid,” and I told her my story, and she goes: “OK.” Rounds started shortly after that and she walks up to the Attending [Physician in charge of patient] very quietly, sidles up and says: “You know, this kid, Jane is really worried about this kid.” She told him the story, and said: “He reminds me about this kid, Jimmie, we had three weeks ago,” and he said: “Oh.” Everything stops. He gets out the stethoscope and listens to the kid, examines the kid and he says: “Call the surgeons.”
Another researcher who has studied the sharing of tacit knowledge is Dorothy Leonard, who wrote Deep Smarts. She says, “…Deep smarts are based on first-hand life experiences, providing insights drawn from the tacit knowledge that has built up over time. Deep smarts are as close as we get to wisdom about managing. There is no way to transfer this wisdom, all the packets of knowledge, all the lightening-fast associations, all the rich details that a single word or phrase calls up from the long-term memory in the brain of a person with deep smarts. Rather, wisdom must be re-created.”
She tells the story of Dr. Eleanor Mobilia, a leading expert in fitting specialty contact lenses for people with cornea diseases. Dr Mobilia died before she had fully trained a protégé to take over her practice. “Dr. Eleanor Mobilia’s career spanned 50 years. She had conducted decades of research on contact lenses and had fitted thousands of patients. [Her] protégé, Dr. Janet Rand, reflected on the difficulties of re-creating Dr. Mobilia’s deep smarts:
There are a lot of different scenarios for the shape of the cornea due to how the eye heals. They are like snowflakes. Everyone heals differently, so it’s a very inexact science. Dr. Mobilia had fitted thousand of eyes of each shape and she knew the type of lenses that would best be tolerated. I'm sure she had a plan for how to fit patients with really irregular corneal transplants. But most of her knowledge there was lost. After she passed away, I had a transplant patient with an eye that was so flat lenses would just fall off. Nothing I tried worked. I'm sure Dr. Mobilia knew by looking at some patients, this is impossible, and not even try fitting them until they had further surgery.”
This story illustrates that even when an effort is made to transfer tacit knowledge from one skilled practitioner to another, even working side by side, only portions of that knowledge is actually transferred.
Another researcher is Julian Orr, who in the early 1990’s studied how copy repair technicians went about their work of diagnosing and solving the problems of the machines they were trying to repair. He conducted an amazingly detailed study of the use of tacit knowledge. He explains that the repair technicians, in a given geographic area, often met at the same restaurant for lunch. Orr describes a meeting where Alice, who has a problem she wants some help with, shows up for lunch. She has no faith in the diagnostics that are in the manual about this problem. The diagnostics tell her to change the board, but she has changed the board numerous times and has come to believe there is a deeper problem, which is causing all these boards to fail, and she knows that the diagnostics do not consider that possibility.
Alice brings with her copies of a log from the machine that is troubling her in the hopes that others will get interested in the puzzle. Most of the conversation over lunch is between she and Fred. Fred says he can’t go with her [to look at the machine] but begins to tell her how he would approach the problem. … Fred starts to tell her about running the noise test, and then says she probably cannot do it if the machine will not run at all. … He tells her about testing the communication lines … after she checks the communication lines, [he explains] she should follow the procedures the book specifies for that error code. Another technician asks Fred if the manual specifies testing the communication lines the way Fred has just described; the book only says to check them but Fred prefers more rigorous testing. [Alice] knows his suggestions are based on experience, that they are things he has found to do to shortcut the diagnostic procedures.”
It is in these luncheon meetings that tacit knowledge is shared. Fred’s response to Alice goes far beyond what can be written in any manual. The exchange arises out of a real problem Alice is confronting and Fred is drawing on his tacit knowledge to address that specific problem. But, as he is explaining Alice is listening not only to his solution but also to how he thinks about solving such problems. In this way Alice is building her own tacit knowledge.
Orr explains that the luncheon meetings of copy repair technicians, are not recognized by the corporation. The corporate view is that knowledge and skill are a matter of individual competence, which is gained by attending training, reading journals, and/or listening to lectures. The technicians, however, know that training is only the beginning of developing knowledge. The deep knowledge they need is developed through experience that happens while doing the work, so they willingly use their lunch hour to tap into the tacit knowledge of their more experienced colleagues.
In each of the stories, what the experienced practitioners are doing is finding patterns in their past experience that fit the current situation. A physician, software engineer, or policeman encounters many different situations, perhaps 15-20 times a day. And over months and years they begin to “pattern recognize,” that is, to step back and think to themselves, “I’ve seen this situation before and usually this is what is going on.” Leonard puts it this way. “Armed with this broad-based knowledge, the expert becomes increasingly aware of, and sensitive to, meaningful patterns in a sea of information.”
It is a simple house fire in a one story house in a residential neighborhood. The fire is in the back, in the kitchen area. The lieutenant leads his hose crew into the building, to the back, to spray water on the fire, but the fire just roars back at them. “Odd,” he thinks. “The water should have more of an impact.” They try dousing it again, and get the same results. They retreat a few steps to regroup. Then the lieutenant starts to feel as if something is not right. He doesn’t have any clues; he just doesn’t feel right about being in that house, so he orders his men out of the building… As soon as his men leave the building, the floor where they had been standing collapses. Had they still been inside, they would have plunged into the fire below.
It was only after persistent questioning during an interview, that the Lieutenant is able to name the pattern that led him to the decision that saved the lives of his men. Like the nurse in the neonatal unit, his explanation is offered as only a part of the pattern he detected; “For example, the room was hotter than he would have expected from a small fire, and the fire was very quiet. He unconsciously deduced that there must be an unsuspected basement beneath the living room, and that was where the main fire was; he then “intuited” that his men were in danger.”
The story of the nurse in the neonatal unit illustrates the difficulty of transferring the recognition of a pattern to another. Jane tried twice to explain to physicians in the area that the baby was in trouble, and each time was summarily dismissed. It was only when the more experienced nurse related Jane’s concern to a physician who was just starting rounds. That physician took the time to see the pattern for himself. The tacit knowledge of the more experienced nurse was seen as more credible, which leads to the third element, values and relationships.
Values and Relationships
Constructing knowledge from past experiences is hard work as we saw with Fred, who first thinks of the noise test as a solution to Alice’s problem and then, realizing that won’t work, tackles the problem from a different angle, the communication lines. Sharing tacit knowledge is not about the source recalling the answer, rather it is about the source constructing an answer. How hard the source is willing to work to construct an answer has to do with the relationship the asker has with that responder. In Fred’s situation, he has some interest in Alice’s development as a technician because she is a member of his team and there is a norm that the more experienced Techs help bring the newer people along. In order for responders to be willing to put in time and energy they need to view the asker as, 1) someone who values their information, 2) knows enough to be able to use it, and 3) that the problem being presented is worth their time and effort.
I was studying knowledge transfer at Erickson in Sweden. As I interviewed technicians I kept hearing Hans’ name come up as the person to go to if a technician had a question about the computer language C++. Finally I checked with someone, “So Hans must be the resident expert on C++?” and was quickly told, “Oh no, the resident expert is Joachim, but he’s not very good at explaining. Now Hans, he can really help you understand how C++ works with our switches.”
Later when I interviewed Hans I told him that I kept hearing his name as the person a technician should seek out if they want to understand C++. I asked him how he got that reputation. Modestly, he said, “Well, I’m not sure how I got the reputation, but I’ll tell you how I try to help people who come to me with a question. Is that what you want to know?” I agreed it was what I was after. So he explained, “When a technician comes to my office he usually starts by explaining what he wants to know about. But before I try to answer his question, I ask a few questions to see how much he already knows about C++. Then I ask a few more questions to find out what he’s planning to do with the information. By that time I’ve formulated an idea about where to start and what I need to say. And we just go from there, talking back and forth.”
During this same study, I heard a number of inexperienced software engineers complaining about Joachim. The complaint was that Joachim ignored their questions or was rude when they tried to ask them. When I asked others about this, I got a chuckle in response, “We save Joachim for the really tough problems, the ones no one else can figure out. If he answered all the newbies questions he wouldn’t have time for the work only he can do.” This quite sensible response, illustrates the need for the responder to believe that the person asking the question knows enough to be able to take in the answer. Clearly, from Joachim’s perspective, inexperienced software engineers did not.
What Hans was doing is also what a skilled medical diagnostician does, that is, try to fully understand the context before answering the presenting question, and that takes time.
The knowledge we learn from experience is very personal. In a study conducted by Constant, Kiesler, and Sproull they found that employees considered any product (including documentation) they had produced for their organization to be the property of the organization and therefore should be freely offered to others. However, the knowledge they gained through experience, they considered their own property and although they were willing to share it, they did so only when they felt that the asker was interested and would do something with it. They explain.
“One major distinction people seem to make is between tangible information such as written document or a computer program, and intangible information embodied as human memory, knowledge, experience, or skill such as ability to type, ride horses, or fix a software bug. ...People do not view expertise as simply a commodity but … view it as part of themselves. Hence, expertise more directly reflects on their identity and self worth.”
This study helps us understand why relationships and values are so important in the transfer of tacit knowledge. It what I know if part of my identity and self worth, I would be careful about how and with whom I shared it. It speaks to Block's counsel, "Connection before content."
To summarize the answer to the my question, "why can’t we just write it down?"
- It is possible to write down the answer that a responder provides to a specific question or problem, as we often see in communities of practice. So in a sense the responder has written down his or her tacit knowledge, but the answer is in response to a specific situation. If the responder were to be asked a question with a slightly different context, the answer would be different. In fact if the responder were to be asked the same question a week later, it is very likely that the answer would be different because the experience of the responder has grown and therefore the responder has new bits and pieces to draw upon.
- To ask someone to write, record, or otherwise document their tacit knowledge is like asking them to respond to all imaginable questions or problems about their area of expertise. And given that new problems and technology are constantly arising – the task is clearly not possible.
- Moreover, responders may have little confidence that what they write will ever be read or if read that the reader will have sufficient understanding to make use of it.
Given this understanding, in Part Two, I will lay out several ways that it is possible for an organization to make use of tacit knowledge - ways that reflect the nature of tacit knowledge that I have outlined here.