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The Wellspring of Ideas: Tacit Knowledge

Maya Brahmam's picture

Tacit knowledge has emerged as the “holy grail” of sorts, with many organizations (including the World Bank) seeking a way to capture and deliver it.  Tacit knowledge is a difficult concept, which I thought was worth exploring a bit.

The origin of this idea has been widely credited to Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian scientist of the 20th century. In his book, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Polanyi examines how individuals gain knowledge and share it, arguing that knowledge is highly personal, saying “into every act of knowing there enters a passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known.” He goes on to say that we can see personal knowledge (tacit knowledge) at work in the area of skills and connoisseurship and that some types of knowledge have limited capability for transfer – hence the difficulty of this quest for tacit knowledge. A useful analogy for this kind of knowledge transfer is the master-apprentice relationship, where the master’s knowledge is passed along to the apprentice in practical ways. What’s more, there is a wide body of evidence to show that tacit knowledge is substantially correlated with job performance. 

Ikujiro Nonaka took this concept a step further in a 1991 ground-breaking article, “The Knowledge Creating Company.” Nonaka  found that managers at “knowledge creating” companies recognize that creating new knowledge is not simply a matter of mechanistically processing objective information but that it depends on tapping the tacit and often highly subjective insights, intuitions, and ideals of employees. The tools for making use of such knowledge are often “soft”—such as slogans, metaphors, and symbols—but they are indispensable for continuous innovation. 

Despite the academic nature of this post, what I want to know is simple: How can we replicate for development work what Canon did when they used a beer can as inspiration for new product design? Nonaka concludes that “The leader’s… imagination is an essential factor in eliciting tacit knowledge from project members.”  He also believes that middle managers have a critical role to play in tacit knowledge by serving as a bridge between the experience from the front lines and the ideals of senior management. He calls this process “middle-up-down management.”

Photo Courtesy: Stuart Miles / Freeditigalphotos
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