The Innovating Power of Tacit Knowledge

The Innovating Power of Tacit KnowledgeImagine if we could understood tacit knowledge better—what it was, how we can set about to capture it and organise it effectively, once acquired how it can be built upon even further. How can we learn to recognize it more actively as as essential part of our lives, when to trust it, how to teach it to others, how to share what it has offered to us, as individuals, to others.

Then imagine what it could provide us for this knowledge to be leveraged within any broader community use, so it is knowingly valued by others as something they can gain from, not as we often do, simply reject it as not within ‘our’ experience. That could be pretty valuable. It could give us a deeper understanding and empower us to function better in many sorts of situations. Then surely we must search for understanding this more and what it means, as in this case, for relating it to innovation.

Let’s start off by stating tacit knowledge is inherently inefficient, so is good innovation; it is messy, often unstructured. Why do we continue to not give this TK sufficient ‘head space’ in our thinking? Is this because it is not tangible, that softer aspect that we reject as we don’t have time for it or simply we don’t ‘trust’ it like those ‘hard’ quantifiable measuring points?

Using Michael Polanyi as my main anchoring point here.

Michael Polanyi, was a scientist and philosopher, who while writing Personal Knowledge he identified what he calls the “structure of tacit knowing”. He viewed it as his most important discovery. He claimed that we experience the world by integrating our subsidiary awareness into a focal awareness.

To quote part of an entry in the Wikipedia and get the ‘heavy stuff’ out of the way:

Tacit knowledge is not easily shared. It involves learning and skill, but not in a way that can be written down. Tacit knowledge consists often of habits and culture that we do often do not recognize in ourselves. In the field of knowledge management, the concept of tacit knowledge refers to a knowledge possessed only by an individual and difficult to communicate to others via words and symbols. Knowledge that is easy to communicate is called explicit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge has been described as “know-how” – as opposed to “know-what” (facts), “know-why” (science), or “know-who” (networking). It involves learning and skill but not in a way that can be written down. The process of transforming tacit knowledge into explicit or specifiable knowledge is known as codification, articulation, or specification. The tacit aspects of knowledge are those that cannot be codified, but can only be transmitted via training or gained through personal experience.

Clearworks - Customers, Connections, Clarity

Tacit knowledge (TK) is a crucial input to the innovation process

We depend on many of our different levels of tacit knowledge on how to innovate.

Firstly, new and novel problems require TK about ‘ways’ to tackle the unknowns associated with discovery and how to bring this out into a final innovative concept. The more we can form into teams and share what we know or why we do things in certain ways the greater the potential power of the collaborative effort. So the more interactions we have, especially face-to-face, direct contacts the more our tacit knowledge is seen and applied. The value of knowledge transfer to the innovation process is vital. Often we employ knowledge experts, subject matter experts and have a diversity of specialists collaborating as they are surprisingly as individuals, often unaware, often unable to articulate, communicate and describe what they know; it often requires others around them to bring it out. The important point is they know but often cannot articulate it without prompting or drawing out what they know in a ‘given’ context to make clearer meaning of it, moving it from tacit to explicit.

Secondly, tacit knowledge can be a real sustainable competitive advantage. The more you can transfer knowledge, tacit and explicit and embed it in group settings, to in-build in shared core values, assumptions and beliefs, the better but as we know, it is often hard to pin this down, to locate this, quantify it, map or value it. Especially without encouraging and stimulating the environment to allow time to draw it out.

Thirdly, TK makes up a large part of our human capital, the knowing part. To give TK the chance to spread or diffuse across the organization or outside, organizations not have to invest in their individuals but bring groups together to greatly increase this human capital. Also this knowledge has to  simultaneously be captured (if possible) so it ‘resides’ and can be diffused out even more. Knowledge management systems can help here if tacit knowledge was given the appropriate weight of focus it does need and a skill to decide the ‘what’ in its relevancy (and value) to any discussions.

Fouthly, and central to Michael Polanyi’s thinking on TK was the belief that creative acts (especially acts of discovery) are filled with strong personal feelings and commitments. He saw this as ‘creative tension’ where informed guesses, hunches and imaginings are part of exploratory acts and motivated by what he describes as our ‘passions’.  This is why there is always such a strong argument for innovation champions as well as the need to encourage anyone with a strong belief or insight, to find the time to explore it by clearing the path for them to do this as part of their work day- not just in their ‘free time’.

Conviction is always required for realizing innovation.

Polanyi talks of knowledge of approaching discovery. To hold such knowledge is an act deeply committed to the conviction that there is something there to be discovered -what we try to do through invention and innovation? It is through our determinations and beliefs we ‘push’ our tacit knowledge as we believe this is a path to go on bringing something new into the world, our new innovation. He placed a strong emphasis on dialogue within an open community- our networks for innovation to work. This is why open collaborative innovation is making such headway. We are allowing more ‘convictions’ to enter the innovation pipeline

Polanyi wrote in The Tacit Dimension, we should start from the fact that ‘we can know more than we can tell‘. He termed this pre-logical phase of knowing as ‘tacit knowledge’.

We need to move tacit knowledge out- into the open and main stream- so it can be shared.

Finally, tacit knowledge is certainly very personal, rooted in action and for us needing to acquire new experiences consistently we need to push ‘the organisation’ to find the ways to be more committed, involved and identifying with wanting to strenthen this. Organizations seek the knowledge owned by the individual as it is highly valuable to be shared, to be drawn out and not, as is often the way, the other way around, imposed upon individuals to bury their passions , guesses and hunches, the mistake we make today. A top down process by determining only the knowledge they need to know stifles creativity, enquiry and innovation discovery. We need a ‘healthy’ mix and open minds to allow discovery.

Management certainly needs to lead. It needs to give the context so knowledge can flow. For instance leadership inspires and identifies the right targets, while management identifies the right practice and encourages dialogues and sharing. We need to ‘codify’ as much as we can, hence why I argue, it needs to be built around context. This then allows people, time to explore, to exchange ideas and experiences so they all come together within the appropriate context or ‘spin out’ into something radical that leads to potential real breakthroughs. Finding time and making connections, simply being allowed to explore is rich for innovation possibilities, set around some even loose context.

Having a more open network that seeks out diversity and through this, delves potentially deeper in this often latent tacit knowledge that resides in the individual does needs significant focus and commitment to allow it to happen.

To encourage the free flow requires extensive personal contact and trust. Do we provide this in today’s organisation? Seemingly we are going the other way and perhaps knowledge attainment might actually suffer?

For this blog I drew on an exchange I had with someone within my network, Jim Burke, Manager, Futures, Forecasting & Change Mgt at TASC, Inc.  These were in his private capacity for the exchanges we had that covered a range of different subjects we both wanted to explore our thinking ‘out loud’. Also I drew upon different references that explore tacit knowledge to help me in making some of the points expressed here.

image credit: knowledgecompass.com


Join the global innovation community

Don’t miss an article (3,500+) - Subscribe to our RSS feed or join us on LinkedIn or Facebook.


Paul HobcraftPaul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation, an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations core capabilities.

This entry was posted in Innovation, Management, Psychology, Training, collaboration, culture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Keep Up to Date

  • FeedBurner
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Slideshare
  • Email
  • YouTube
  • IPhone
  • Amazon Kindle
  • Stumble Upon

Innovation Authors - Braden Kelley, Julie Anixter and Rowan Gibson

Your hosts, Braden Kelley, Julie Anixter and Rowan Gibson, are innovation writers, speakers and strategic advisors to many of the world’s leading companies.

“Our mission is to help you achieve innovation excellence inside your own organization by making innovation resources, answers, and best practices accessible for the greater good.”