“Know-how,” “intuition,” and “gut feeling” are all ways to describe the kind of knowledge that can only be learned through experience
Have you ever noticed how some folks just seem to know things, like just what to do or say in a given situation? Like they have an intuition that you can't learn in a book? Well, that's tacit knowledge.
The knowledge that you acquire in your career is one of your most important assets as an employee. Conversely, the collective knowledge of a team's members is one of an organization's most valuable assets. Transferring knowledge and skills among employees is vital to a company's success. But there are different types of knowledge and each is acquired in different ways.
In this blog, we'll explore the elusive nature of tacit knowledge.
What are the 3 types of knowledge?
The 3 types of knowledge are explicit knowledge, implicit knowledge, and tacit knowledge. What defines them is how that knowledge can be transferred or acquired. Explicit knowledge can be written down and transmitted to someone, implicit knowledge is the practical application of explicit knowledge, and tacit knowledge is acquired through personal experience. It cannot be written down or explained verbally, because it is garnered solely through experience.
Life often demands a constant mixture of all three types of knowledge working together. For example, the ability to speak a foreign language, cook, negotiate, sell, design and build all require a combination of both explicit knowledge and skills that are not easy to explain.
Let's take a closer look at each type.
Explicit knowledge is documented information. This is information like math, measurements, laws, chemical formulas, data sets, sales figures, and market research. But it's also a company's internal structures that can be passed along in a training manual, like protocols, regulations, and procedural steps.
Explicit knowledge is easy to capture, articulate, and share. If you can put it in a textbook, a white paper, or a spreadsheet, then it's explicit knowledge.
Implicit knowledge is applied information. It's developed by applying explicit knowledge and absorbing the results of that experience. Learning to ride a bicycle is a great example of implicit knowledge. Someone might have taught you how to push the pedals to move forward, but only through experience do you learn how hard to pedal to go a certain speed or how soon you need to squeeze the brake to stop.
Implicit knowledge is often acquired without the person even realizing that learning is occurring. Though it takes a great deal of effort, implicit knowledge can, in some circumstances, be documented. For example, best practices are implicit knowledge that are gained through experience, but can be documented and transferred.
The word “tacit” means “understood without being stated.” “Tacit knowledge,” then, is knowledge that is information that is understood. In other words, it's knowledge that is difficult to express or extract and thus more challenging to transfer to others in written or spoken form.
We're talking about knowledge, skills, and abilities gained from personal, first-hand experience. Tacit knowledge can take the form of personal wisdom, experience, insight, or intuition. It's similar to implicit knowledge, though slightly more nuanced. It's that je-ne-sais-quoi that sets experts apart. Often the term “knowhow” is used to refer to tacit knowledge because, sometimes, there are skills an individual has and they can't explain how they know what they know.
To illustrate the differences, let's take playing the guitar. Knowing that a guitar has six strings and has particular chord structures is explicit knowledge. Being able to put those chords in order to play a song is implicit knowledge. Being able to get the right bend for a blues riff, which finger transitions are fastest, or how to “feel” a downbeat are all tacit knowledge.
Explicit: The “What” of information.
Implicit: The “How” of actions taken.
Tacit: The “Why” of expertise.
Examples of tacit knowledge
Tacit knowledge comes in a variety of forms. Let's look at a few of them.
Intuition is something that one knows or believes one knows, based on an instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning. It's the innate ability to comprehend a situation. Intuition is generally based on years of experience, but is also inherently instinctual. It can be extremely helpful in business. For example,
Being able to feel out the exact moment someone is ready to hear your sales pitch
Knowing the most impactful words to use in your copy to engage your audience
Knowing which specific content or product to deliver to a customer
Sensing when it's appropriate to take a bigger risk
Even if your intuition is practiced, you might have a tough time explaining to someone outside your industry how you knew to make those choices.
Leadership abilities involve complex social skills. Good leaders have a swathe of soft skills, like communication and emotional intelligence, that are curated through experience.
Leadership skills can be hard to teach. Even though there are workshops, tools, and training to develop management skills, they are most effective in helping natural leaders to develop their innate ability to lead. Effective leadership comes from experience, expertise, problem-solving, and the ability to take risks and absorb the consequences. It might be possible to list the qualities of a good leader, but those skills are built through exposure and personality.
Sense of humor
“You can't teach funny,” they say. Having a good sense of humor is about being able to look at things from a lighter perspective or in an ironic light. It's about finding things that everyone can laugh about, sensing the right timing, and being able to not only make a joke but take a joke as well.
The elusive nature of humor makes it hard to explain why something is funny. You can study the structure of jokes, but a real sense of humor demands situational awareness and emotional intelligence. Simply knowing whether or not to make a joke in a given situation requires a tacit understanding of social situations.
A sense of humor is inherently instinctive, but it can be improved and the effort is worth it. In the workplace, humor can break the tension and lighten meetings.
The rules and structures of a language can be taught as explicit knowledge. But the nuance of word choice and the sensibility of comprehension are only developed through extensive use of the language, making mistakes in that language, and having enough interactions in that language to see how your word choices affect the listener emotionally. This is the “notion” of language that operates on a tacit level of understanding.
Imagine how a child learns their native language. They experience the interaction of language - and the results - long before they even know about the grammar rules.
Why is capturing tacit knowledge necessary for a company?
When an expert employee leaves a company, they take with them all of their tacit knowledge. If the company fails to transfer that expertise to other team members, that knowledge gap can be hard to recover from.
Organizations are consistently looking for ways to capture that tacit knowledge, to help other employees understand the “why” of how their best employees make decisions. But this endeavor usually looks to move beyond documentation.
Explicit knowledge can be codified and easily transferred, even from a distance. Someone can write a book, distribute notes and so on. The transfer of tacit knowledge, however, requires close interaction and the buildup of shared understanding and trust. It's incredibly personal. It necessitates an environment of knowledge sharing through dialogue, coaching, and open forums.
Looking for more insight into developing your business knowledge? Explore our library of blogs on career advancement and skill development at TopResume.