turning my back on “tacit”

It all started in college when my friend, Maggie, whom i considered the unwitting victim of a charming linguistics prof, picked a fight with me ( one of those days-long undergrad debates). She claimed that all human thought was limited by language and that we couldn’t think about what we couldn’t express in words. Fooey, says I.

I’ve been “i wish I had said”-ing  that debate in my head for 25 years. (ouch).

I’ve long since lost touch with her ( I’ll look for her on facebook later), but the first argument I wish I’d offered was poetry. You might argue that poetry is language, and hence falls within her camp, but I would argue that poetry evokes rather than expresses meaning.

The next thing I thought about was Tacit Knowledge – the stuff you know before you “know” you know it. (Like the fact that I knew her argument was terrible, but I couldn’t say why). This definition of tacit knowledge is akin to what Malcom Gladwell is talking about in “Blink” – a great read, if you haven’t yet.

So later I started getting excited about knowledge management. But knowledge management of the 90’s was about documents. Documents are expressed knowledge – or explicit knowledge. Documented knowledge.

But you know what? Most knowledge is undocumented – even if it could be – it takes a ton of effort. Which means that in most companies people know a lot of stuff that they haven’t written down. And everyday they make tiny additions and refinements to that knowledge just by talking, emailing, getting to the next step, whatever. which means that even if they wanted to document it all they probably couldn’t.

This is another kind of tacit knowledge – and what it means is that probably 90% of the critical knowledge in an organization is Tacit.

One of the many reasons I love social media is that it provides a wonderful platform for sharing small things. Ideas, snippets, links. And those snippets, and links between those snippets end up being a much better representation of what a person knows than the list of documents that they’ve written. And an even better representation of what the organization as a whole knows.

This is the most interesting thing in the world to me – really. Geeky, yes, but true.

So – why have I turned my back on tacit? Well its this. Normal people don’t get tacit knowledge. Its not a term that’s understood in our culture. And I don’t think we can get from documents to tacit knowledge in a single step.

So – when I talk to people about the benefits of social-media supported collaboration, I don’t talk about tacit knowledge (well, I try not to, but sometimes I get kind of worked up.) Cause they either think I’m nuts, or that its like the semantic web – a weird concept that they don’t get and surely won’t invest in. Its like talking about shakras or something in a business meeting – just too weird.

So – I’m focusing on helping people understand the “first order” benefits of this kind of tech-mediated collaboration. The fact that things don’t get lost, that its easy for a group of people to gradually build on what’s there till you have something good, that everyone is always looking at the same set of material. That long email trails where all the good stuff is buried that you can never find again are becoming a thing of the past.

Then I talk about how you can search this stuff, finding not only the snippets, but how they fit together, and the people who’ve been contributing to them. So you can learn from all this stuff, in context. They start to see how this is valuable.

But as soon as you mention the word tacit – you see the wall go up. Its like a verbal fart. It makes people uncomfortable.

Maybe in a few years… but for no… I do not discuss Tacit Knowledge, I will not use the word Tacit. I won’t. Really.



  1. Excellent post!
    Your are completely right about the “verbal fart” that Tacit Knowledge and geeky terms can bring into a meeting.
    For the first time, an IT tool like social media will bring people together (some will certainly stay outside) and extend their face to face meeting into an online communication.
    It will not be difficult to not use the term “tacit knowledge” but will you able to avoid speaking about “socialization network” which was and will be the key of knowledge exchange inside and outside a company.

  2. The “can’t talk about what you can’t describe” is a long-standing philosophical argument. David Edmonds and John Eidinow do a great job of recounting this (in lay terms) in their book “Wittgenstein’s Poker”, which is the story about a very famous feud between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. The latter argued that there “is nothing outside of language” and the former brandished a hot poker from the fire to make his point to the contrary. See http://bit.ly/um1gy for the book. It’s a good summer read–and you don’t have to be a philosopher to enjoy it.

    I, too, have come across blank looks when I mention “tacit” as opposed to explicit (what we write down) and cultural (what we know together) kinds of knowledge. I’ve found, though, when I describe tacit knowledge as, “the stuff that’s between our ears that walks out the door at the end of the day,” even non-specialists get the idea pretty quickly.

    So, the question then is: How can social media help us capture–and use–the stuff between our ears, before we leave for the day?

    To provide a contrary view, I would argue that “a priori” knowledge is the stuff ‘you know before you know it’ (e.g., that a triangle has three sides). I’m not sure that tacit knowledge is exactly the same as a priori knowledge, though.

    1. I just bought the book. Thanks! Perhaps I should have taken a philosophy course to hone my debating skills. Couple other interesting points – apriori vs. tacit knowledge – I think that apriori is a class of tacit – or at least it is for my purposes. I love the “between the ears” bit and I wonder – is there a description or notion of what “we” know and have amongst our collective ears – tribal knowledge I’ve heard it called – vs. what I have btween my personal ears.

      Thank you very much for engaging – I look forward to getting to know you.

  3. Josh! funny – no, though. I mean Maggie Paxson. She was (is, actually) a great singer – not sure you crossed paths at mcgill. she was a close friend of doug sharp – who’m I’m also not sure you knew.

    i’m pretty sure you recall the general nature of those debates, however 🙂

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