That thing that you do

Written by Joe Rafferty on 1 June 2013 in Features

Joe Rafferty dives into the deep waters of tacit knowledge

At the start of the 1980s, just as personal computers were commencing their steady but inexorable invasion of the workplace, some imaginative organisations were investing in a promising new aspect of computing called expert systems. An expert system was defined as a computer system that could emulate the decision-making ability of a human expert. The idea, in theory, was that machines could not only become suitable substitutes for human experts in short supply - like doctors and engineers - but also that they could start to learn from their own experiences, thereby pushing new boundaries of knowledge potentially beyond that which humans are naturally capable of.

That initial buzz caused speculation that, before long, computers would begin to generate their own ideas, effectively thinking independently. Back in the day, the science fiction of intelligent machines, depicted in films like Terminator and Blade Runner, seemed not only possible but imminent. We were confident that artificial intelligence would be able to mimic human intelligence in the not-too-distant future.

Of course it hasn't turned out like that at all. Despite the fact that technology has progressed way beyond what we might have imagined (with inventions like pc tablets, smartphones, digital media and the Internet, for example) we are nonetheless still light years away from I Robot.

That is not to say that artificial intelligence never came to fruition. In fact, these days AI applications are all over the place. For example, many people may have used, or at least heard of, Siri, a voice-interface artificial intelligence program built into the iPhone 4S. This featured prominently in an episode of the American comedy series The Big Bang Theory. However the vast majority of AI applications are not nearly as famous as that. Instead, they tend to lurk behind the scenes of an interface and we end up taking them for granted; yet they are widespread and we depend on them. Indeed, the number of AI applications to which we can make reference today is huge, handling everything from computation, diagnostics and analysis through to voice and facial recognition, and even motion and manipulation, but they are still not capable of aping a human's ability to make decisions.

One example of an artificial intelligence machine that clearly illustrated this was Deep Blue, the chess-playing computer that beat Garry Kasparov in 1997. Deep Blue's computational power was astonishing as it was capable of evaluating 200 million positions per second. Ironically it may not have been this mind-boggling level of power that eventually beat Kasparov, it may in fact have had much more to do with the human way in which he made his decisions.

It is suggested that a bug in the computer's software led to a seemingly random move in the second game that troubled Kasparov, causing him to experience a level of anxiety that affected his performance in the following game. The strength and, as it turned out, the problem in Kasparov's game was that he didn't make decisions like a computer, sequentially evaluating millions of moves per second. Instead he made decisions like a human - sometimes tending to be systematic and rational, other times intuitive and emotional, using patterns and experience to cut down the complexity. All this depended on his underlying personality, life experience, inherited general intelligence, underlying mood state and no doubt a whole bunch of other stuff that human brains are capable of throwing into the mix.

So despite all the success and utility of AI systems we are still waiting for the real sci-fi to become a reality because it turns out that human intelligence is proving extremely difficult for a machine to emulate, being much more difficult to understand than we first thought. That is not to denigrate the astounding magnitude of what has been achieved in the world of information technology in the last 30 years (you just need to look at Honda's ASIMO robot to be amazed); rather it is to marvel at the true power and complexity of the standard human mind - the ability to do things and know things that, at this time, machines are just not capable of.

We have always said that people are our greatest asset, and most people would instinctively agree that this is so, but are we now saying that everybody we employ is some kind of hidden genius? Well maybe not that, but what we are saying is that the people you employ probably know a lot more than even they realise.

This hidden expertise has become commonly known as 'tacit knowledge', a term first coined by Michael Polanyi in his book The Tacit Dimension, in which he asserts that "we can know more than we can tell". Tacit knowledge is described by Polanyi as hidden knowledge, specifically knowledge that we cannot transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalising it. Although later noted theorists, especially Nonaka and Takeuchi, have suggested that tacit knowledge can in fact be converted into explicit knowledge, it is nonetheless important to conceive of tacit knowledge as something that lurks deeper beneath the surface than explicit knowledge does.

I remember a silly example of this, but one that serves to illustrate the point, from my old workplace mentor. He told a story, for all I know apocryphal, about an old cheese maker and the difficulties the scientists were having in trying to replicate his expertise in making his truly exquisite cheeses. He always told them that the way he could tell that the cheese was ready was by the texture. He would stick in a digit and, depending on how it felt, he would know if the cheese had reached maturity. Despite detailed analysis of the cheese, probing and sampling, the scientists could not work out what it was about the texture that the old man could so readily detect.

In exasperation, they went with him to his cheese store and asked him to demonstrate with a real cheese in situ. Sure enough, he stuck in his finger and paused… and then he breathed in deeply. Immediately the scientists knew what the answer was. The old cheese maker did not use texture but smell as the indicator of ripeness - he was indeed an expert, he just wasn't aware of what exactly constituted his expertise.

Surprising as it may seem, this is an extremely common problem among business professionals, as those involved in recruitment know only too well. Ask candidates the question what are your greatest strengths? and they will often come up with statements like "I'm a real team player", "I'm a people person", "I know how to get the job done" etc. All of these are very admirable qualities but rarely go to the heart of what makes one prospective candidate different from all the rest. On the other hand, if they did have sufficient insight to give you a more accurate response, it might sound a bit, well, airy-fairy - something like this: "I have what my colleagues perceive as an uncanny ability to know how to motivate team members… they're all different but I seem to know what presses the buttons for each individual… it's not like I think of myself as a people watcher… and I don't have an obsessive interest in other people… I guess I just kind of feel around until I know I'm on the right track… then I sort of drop stuff into conversations or I do things that generally makes people feel motivated. Is this making sense?"

The answer to that question may well be a 'no', but what this exchange is telling you is that this candidate really does know how to motivate people far better than if he gave you a stock description of the theories of Frederick Herzberg or Victor Vroom. It's just that his knowledge is 'tacit' and, since that is the case, you would be far better off looking for the evidence of his success rather than seeking an explanation for it. In fact, it is often the tacit, as opposed to explicit, knowledge or skills that separate the proficient professional from the seasoned expert.

In order to embrace the potential of a concept like tacit knowledge, it is useful to stop thinking of knowledge as just the kind of thing you were able to regurgitate in an exam. That is hard for us to do because, of course, it is the common way in which society measures how good you are at something. It is true that the kind of knowledge that can get you an 'A' grade can be very useful, and perhaps is even prerequisite, for you to be good at your job. But successful practitioners will subconsciously integrate that explicit knowledge with the tacit knowledge and skills that, over time, will become enmeshed in their overall approach.

The true nature of learning is unpredictable and messy because it is such a person-specific process. For example, learning is based on associations, finding connections with what is already known, so it is linked to our own unique life experiences. It also depends on how your own brain is formed to start with and then how it changes over time. Some people are disposed to linguistic challenges, others logical-mathematical, still others musical, kinaesthetic, emotional, spatial and so on, or more likely some interesting combination of a range of these forms of intelligence.

Furthermore, the brain is plastic, the physical structure changing with your learning, so people can end up with great variations in their processing and performance functions. The environment also makes a difference because part of how people learn is by making sense of the stimuli that surrounds them. And, finally, individuals will be drawn to what they find significant, influenced by a specific cultural or social context, meaning that communities and relationships have an effect on your learning, as well your personality and how it fits with the prevailing culture.

This description of how we learn is by no means a comprehensive one of the influences or mechanisms at play but it serves to show that the whole person, together with his own disposition, relationships with the outside world, memory of the past and hard-wiring of nerves and other physical structures, is all part of any given experience. All of this suggests that a person's knowledge and strengths are not necessarily bobbing about on the surface, waiting for any talent scout to easily pick off, rather that the majority of what he can offer is under the surface and that the substance of knowledge must, in some cases, go very deep indeed.

The implications of this are very important, and valuable, for the individual and for the organisation. For example, an increased awareness of your hidden skills will help you to develop confidence in your abilities, as well as potentially providing you with a path for future personal development. What psychologists call metacognitive skills - being able to contemplate and monitor your own thinking - helps you to plan and manage your own learning, take on new fields of learning and develop effective approaches to solving problems. Not only does this have a positive effect on your professional development and your performance within the job, it can also help you to present your skills more accurately on your CV.

From an organisational perspective there are other benefits - such as the potential for making better use of skills across the organisation and for improved opportunities for effective succession planning. Nonaka and Takeuchi go further, suggesting that by capturing and transferring the tacit knowledge of individuals we can establish a competitive edge for the organisation. Their SECI model of knowledge transfer has become the foundation model for the discipline of knowledge management1.

This is all sounding more and more tantalising but, since tacit knowledge is not by definition easily identifiable, how do we go about helping individuals become more aware of their own hidden skills?

One obvious way is through coaching - particularly when the coach develops a transformational style. In such a construct, the coach encourages the individual's self-reflection by asking him different types of questions. What he learns in the process may never be verbalised but the outcome is often that he learns a lot about what motivates him, how he may resolve issues or problems that are constraining him and then what his inner strengths are and what he could do to go on and develop them.

Another way that people can become aware of their tacit knowledge is through reflective practice, especially when the reflection is part of a planned learning opportunity in which time and space is made to discuss their learning in a deep way. That is to say, not simply discussing the experience in terms of what they have learned, but also how the interplay affected them, how they feel about their experience, what might help to move things forward and so on.

This process of reflection can be done in different ways such as: using a mentor or line manager as a sounding board; through peer group discussions; informally chatting things over with a colleague, or more formally as part of an action learning set. Incidentally, it is important to remember that human interaction is often an important part of the process of becoming aware of your tacit skills - the coach, mentor, facilitator, audience etc acting as a catalyst in the process. So human interaction is a vital aspect of acquiring tacit knowledge directly from the expert, remembering that tacit knowledge cannot be easily codified and therefore is easier to pass on through observation.

One more way of accessing your tacit knowledge is by writing a blog, an article or paper, or by training or mentoring other people. These activities force you to translate your knowledge into accessible language and, in so doing, help to draw your hidden skills to the surface.

So, against this background, the questions still remains outstanding will artificial intelligence ever be able to replace human expertise? Who knows? It is fun to think that there may one day be an indispensable Data to help Jean-Luc overcome the malevolent ambition of The Borg. But what is clear is that, at this time, when it comes to skills and knowledge, we humans, even in our frailty, have hidden depths that can outclass even the cleverest computer.

And what is really empowering is that the tacit knowledge we speak of is so peculiar to the individual. It defines your talent. It's that thing that you do. So get to know it. Nurture it. It could take you to places you always wanted to go (boldly).



About the author

Joe Rafferty is organisational development manager, human resources and organisational development, at the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration. He can be contacted on +44 (0)300 200 1585 or via

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