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For My Eyes Also (Part 5)

Tacit Knowledge

There is one further dimension of knowledge which needs to be discussed, and that is the concept of tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is knowledge which cannot be put into words. Despite the numerous definitions, and the apparent disagreement of what exactly Knowledge Management is, there appears to be a great deal of agreement on the type of knowledge which presents the greatest amount of potential benefit to a business.

IBM states the issue thus, “. . .lots of valuable knowledge ‘falls through the cracks’ within business organizations, never finding its way into databases, process diagrams, or corporate libraries. As a consequence, much of what the firm ‘knows’ remains unknown or inaccessible to those who need it. Such knowledge is present within the organization, but it remains hidden, unspoken, tacit. In business organizations, this hidden or tacit knowledge takes one of two forms: 1) knowledge embodied in people and social networks, 2) knowledge embedded in the processes and products that people create.”[1]

Tacit knowledge, therefore, represents at once both the most important type of knowledge and the least accessible form of knowledge. It is invaluable in efficiently carrying on the activities of an organization, yet is exceedingly difficult to harness in any meaningful fashion. Even when an organization is able to somehow chronicle the experience of its employees, it does not follow that it will be capable of passing that knowledge on in a manner that is both easily accessible and effortlessly assimilable. Two examples which come to mind from the organization of which I am a part are welding and scheduling.

Welding of exotic metals, especially for components which will be used in manned space flight and are, therefore, subject to the most stringent specifications, is composed of both explicit elements and tacit elements. While the former (the explicit elements) may be capable of precise, scientific expression, the latter of these are similar to art. It is not uncommon to find that a welder has retired and, suddenly, the company is without a person who can reliably perform a critical weld. Immediately, the company finds itself in a position where it must either allot a far greater amount of time to accomplishing the weld, or attempt to lure the retired welder back to perform the weld or to teach a younger welder how to do so.

The second example involves the scheduling of complex, time-phased activities which include the procurement, manufacture, inspection, and testing of literally thousands of items used in the manufacture of rocket engines. This task was performed for years by groups of individuals using hand-drawn Gantt charts. It is now being performed by individuals using a combination of mainframe software (e.g. MRPII, OPT21) and PC-based, standalone software (e.g. Microsoft Project98, Advanced Management Solutions’ RealTime Projects). Experience is showing that the earlier, more labor-intensive methods were, against all logic, accomplished with greater accuracy and reliability.

These two problems point to the necessity of Rocketdyne’s utilizing one of the basic elements of Knowledge Management, that of acquiring, retaining, and disseminating the tacit knowledge, gained through years of experience, of its workforce. This is not the same as simply cataloguing items such as tools used, temperatures achieved, lead time per component, and supplier on-time reliability, nor even placing all this information within easy reach through the company intranet.

Inherent in the definition of tacit knowledge is its ephemeral nature, the difficulty of conveying things which are understood, at times, only subconsciously or of which people are only vaguely aware. This, then, is probably one of the most difficult tasks faced by any organization, given our current state of development in the field of Knowledge Management.


[1] Working With Tacit Knowledge. Horvath, Joseph A., Ph.D. IBM

     <http://www-4.ibm.com/software/data/knowledge/reference.html> (undated; accessed October 28, 2000)

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About Rick Ladd

Born in 1947, I am an officially retired pensioner who still has two teenage daughters and a desire to contribute. I remain intensely interested in, and fascinated by, Systems Thinking, Machine Learning, Knowledge Management, Decision Intelligence, and Business in general. I am also conversant in such concepts as innovation and ideation, collaborative tools and strategies, crowdsourcing, and the use of social media to accomplish goals ranging from improving business processes to promoting small retail businesses. Since my "retirement" I have done a little bit of freelancing as an editor/proofreader, as well as some technical writing. I've also done a fair amount of Facebook marketing as well. There's lots more where that came from. Need some help? Perhaps another set of eyes? Contact me. The first one's free! ;0) View all posts by Rick Ladd

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