What’s So Great About Tacit Knowledge? — Cont’d
| Nicolai Foss |
Peter asks, “what’s so great about tacit knowledge?”, pointing out that there is a tendency in the KM literature (and, I may add, parts of the strategic management literature as well) to exalt tacit above explicit knowledge. He correctly points out that tacit knowledge may well be errorneous, to which it may be added that errorneous tacit knowledge is usually more of a problem than errorneous explicit knowledge, since the latter is presumably easier to correct. In a comment on Peter’s post, JC Spender points out that “for the most part the discussion of tacit knowledge is sheer obscurantism.”
I agree with both Peter and JC. But I may want to be even more radical, and ask “What’s — analytically speaking — so great about tacit knowledge?”More specifically, as social scientists what do we need the concept of tacit knowledge for? OK, it sounds sexy, students (and occasionally managers as well) are attracted to the mystique surrounding it, and there is indeed a substantial (and not necessarily obscurantist) philosophy literature to back it up.
However, the emphasis on tacit versus explicit knowledge knowledge tends to polarize, whereas in actuality we are dealing with a spectrum. What matters to the things we are interested in as social scientists are the costs of making knowledge explicit. This suggests that it may be more useful to speak of knowledge-that-is-extremely-costly-to-articulate and knowledge-that-isn’t-at-all as defining the two ends of a continuum. (In contrast, the literature on tacit knowledge sometimes reads as if there is tacit knowledge that is inherently impossible to articulate; no matter the costs (Hayek may actually have taken this position)).
What we are, at the end of the day, usually interested in in the organization theory, strategic management, knowledge management, etc. fields are the costs of articulating (and per implication transferring, absorbing and integrating) knowledge. It is not clear that we are assisted here by the tacit-explicit dichotomy.