Do a diagnostic test to learn your own Tacit Knowledge!


© Karl E. Sveiby Dec 31 1997 All rights reserved.

Also recommended: Transfer of Knowledge in the Information Processing Professions European Management Journal 1996.


Main Thesis

Tacit and Focal Knowledge

Action Oriented Knowledge

Articulated Knowledge

Knowledge is a Tool with Rules

To Know is to Do

A Hierarchy of Knowing

Skill, Know-how, Expertise and Competence

Intellective and Agentive Doing

Tradition of Knowledge

Human knowledge articulated through language is essentially metaphoric in character. "Knowledge about knowledge" is therefore a question of which metaphors one chooses to express one´s knowledge in.

Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) was a Hungarian medical scientist whose research was mainly done in physical chemistry before he turned into philosophy at the age of 55. He accepted a personal chair in social studies at the university of Manchester in 1948. His lectures were collected in his opus magnum Personal Knowledge, Towards a Post Critical Epistemology in 1958. Although very influential in the background he was never recognised as a "true" philosopher by his contemporaries.

Tacit Knowledge is of particular interest for those who are interested in how to manage Knowledge Oragnizations or those involved in Intellectual Capital.

The concept also explains some of the paradoxes on the Information Markets. Michael Polanyi called his book Personal Knowledge because he wanted to underline that the intellect also in science is connected with a "passionate" contribution of the person knowing. Emotions are a vital component of the person`s knowledge. But this does not make our understanding subjective.

Knowing is objective in the sense of establishing contact with a hidden reality.

Main Theses

Polanyi`s concept of knowledge is based on three main theses: First, true discovery, cannot be accounted for by a set of articulated rules or algorithms. Second, knowledge is public and also to a very great extent personal (i.e. it is constructed by humans and therefore contains emotions, "passion".). Third, the knowledge that underlies the explicit knowledge is more fundamental; all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge.

Knowledge is thus not private but social. Socially conveyed knowledge blends with the experience of reality of the individual.

Both Quantum Mechanics and the theory of relativity are very difficult to understand; it takes only a few minutes to memorize the facts accounted for by relativity, but years of study may not suffice to master the theory and see these facts in its context. At all (these) points the act of knowing includes an appraisal; and this personal coefficient, which shapes all factual knowledge, bridges in doing so the disjunction between subjectivity and objectivity.

New experiences are always assimilated through the concepts that the individual disposes and which the individual has inherited from other users of the language. Those concepts are tacitly based. All our knowledge therefore rests in a tacit dimension.

When we are tacitly involved in a process-of-knowing we act without distance. This describes how and why we take things "for granted". The individual changes, "adapts", the concepts in the light of experiences and reinterpret the language used. When new words or concepts are brought into an older system of language, both affect each other. The system itself enriches what the individual has brought into it.

Tacit and Focal Knowledge

In each activity, there are two different levels or dimensions of knowledge, which are mutually exclusive:
Knowledge about the object or phenomenon that is in focus - focal knowledge. Knowledge that is used as a tool to handle or improve what is in focus - tacit knowledge.

The focal and tacit dimensions are complementary. The tacit knowledge functions as a background knowledge which assists in accomplishing a task which is in focus. That which is tacit varies from one situation to another. For instance, when reading a text, words and linguistic rules function as tacit subsidiary knowledge while the attention of the reader is focused on the meaning of the text.

Inspired by Gestalt Psychology, Polanyi regards the process of knowing as fragmentary clues, senso-motoric or from memory, which are integrated under categories. We make sense of reality by categorising it. The patterns of categories contain, theories, methods, feelings, values and skills which can be used in a fashion that the tradition judges are valid. We attend from the particulars to the focus upon which they bear. This act of integration is an informal act of the mind and can not be replaced by a formal operation.

This integration of knowledge is a personal skill in itself and can not be disposed of. A special kind of meta knowledge is required for integration; knowledge about knowledge as integrated. It is possible to have this meta-knowledge without knowing its details.

Action Oriented

Polanyi`s theory is about how human beings acquire and use knowledge, it is action oriented and about the process of knowing. In his earlier works he frequently uses the verb "knowing" and the noun "knowledge" as synonyms. In his later works (Tacit Knowing) he emphasises the dynamic properties, i.e. the verb:

Knowledge is an activity which would be better described as a process of knowing. Polanyi thus regards knowledge as both static "knowledge" and dynamic "knowing". When the dynamic properties are emphasised, He uses verbs like knowing or learning. The dynamic properties describe how human beings strive for acquiring, coming to know, new knowledge.

Subsidiary awareness and focal awareness are mutually exclusive. If a pianist shifts the attention from the piece he is paying to the observation of what he is doing with his fingers while playing it he gets confused and may have to stop.

When I read an article or book I am vividly aware of the meaning conveyed by the text, still I may know none of its words. I have attended to the words but only for what they mean to me and not as the objects they are. The message of a letter is therefore remembered even after the symbols of the text is forgotten. I might not even remember what language it was written, if I know several languages.

Polanyi emphasises that the human being is knowing all the time, we are switching between tacit knowing and focal knowing every second of our lives, it is a basic human ability to blend the old and well-known with the new and unforeseen, otherwise we would not be able to live in the world.

Articulated Knowledge

Polanyi also sometimes describes knowledge as an object that can be articulated in words. When tacit knowledge is made explicit through language it can be focused for reflection.

The process of articulation has rendered immense effective assistance to our native mnemonic powers. Man is not much superior to a rat in finding his way in a maze; and it is not clear that he possesses much greater native intelligence than the animal for reorganizing remembered experiences. But the bare unaided memory of animals can only collect scraps of Information, unsystematically; nor could man do much better but for the power of systematization dependent on speech. Not until the invention of printing enormously speeded up the reproduction of records could descriptive zoology and botany expand from the Aristotelian and medieval history covering a few hundred types to a systematic science comprising millions of species. (About drawings)Articulation pictures the essentials of a situation on a reduced scale which lends itself more easily to imaginative manipulation than the ungainly original; it thereby makes possible a science of engineering.

But words convey nothing except a previously acquired meaning which may be somewhat modified by their present use, but will not as a rule have been first discovered on this occasion. Our knowledge of the things denoted by words will have been largely acquired by experience in the same way as animals come to know things, while the words will have acquired their meaning by previously designating such experience, either when uttered by others in our presence or when used by ourselves.

Therefore when I receive Information by reading a letter and when I ponder the message of the letter I am subsidiarily aware not only of its text, but also of all the past occasions by which I have come to understand the words of the text, and the whole range of this subsidiary awareness is presented focally in terms of the message. This message or meaning on which attention is now focused is not something tangible; it is the conception evoked by the text. The conception in question is the focus of our attention in terms of which we attend subsidiary both to the text and to the objects indicated by the text. Thus the meaning of a text resides in a focal comprehension of all the relevant instrumentally known particulars, just as the purpose of an action resides instrumentally used particulars.

By distancing the actor from the knowledge and articulate it in language or symbols, the knowledge becomes possible to distribute, criticise and thereby increase.

Polanyi`s emphasis on the dynamic properties makes articulate propositionary knowledge (facts) - metaphorically speaking - only the top of the iceberg.

Because we can know more than we can tell it follows that what has been made articulate and formalised is in some degree underdetermined by that of which we know tacitly. Language alone is not enough for making knowledge explicit.

While the correct use of medical terms cannot be achieved in itself, without the knowledge of medicine a great deal of medicine can be remembered even after on has forgotten the use of medical terms.

All articulated propositionary knowledge has originally been constructed in someone`s mind, be it in my own or somebody else`s. Facts are thus personal, not objective in a positivistic scientific sense. Facts can be tested for their truth content by an act of assertion but the act of assertion contains a tacit part too.

Knowledge is a Tool with Rules

Polanyi also emphasises the functional aspect of knowledge, i.e. he regards knowledge as a tool by which we either act or gather new knowledge. This tool is unreflected knowledge that we take for granted in a situation.

When we use a hammer to drive a nail, we attend to both nail and hammer, but in a different way....The difference may be stated by saying that the latter (hammer) are not, like the nail, objects of our attention, but instruments of it. They are not watched in themselves; we watch something else while keeping intensely aware of them. I have a subsidiary awareness of the feeling in my palm of my hand which is merged into my focal awareness of my driving the nail.

Whether an object is a tool or not depends on the actor's attitude. If a stone is used as a hammer it is a physical tool. Methods, rules, beliefs and theories are intellectual tools. Polanyi uses the notion of rules. A "rule" is tied to the result of an action. The knowledge of the rules also functions as a tacit knowledge, i.e. a kind of tacit "tool of tools".

A rule is a standard for correctness, a norm. The difference is that the norm is entirely static whereas a rule can be changed. The rules develop in the process of knowing or come from tradition. Mastery of the rules also brings with it the ability to change them or extend them. Rules are generally tacit but they may be articulated into explicit rules-of-thumb, maxims.

When the static properties are emphasised, Polanyi thus use nouns like knowledge, or emphasise the function of knowledge, tools or criteria for standards like rule or value. The static dimension describes the functional properties of knowledge; how knowledge as an object can be used in various contexts. The nouns however need the dynamic verbs for describing how new knowledge is acquired, created or made obsolete.

Polanyi maintains that craftsmen, "makers", use the same kind of methods as other practitioners "doers". They both follow rules and exemplars and they rely on experience for making judgements in their work just like scientists have to do in their work. Polanyi makes no clear distinction between practical knowledge and other kinds of knowledge, like theoretical propositionary knowledge. Polanyi therefore makes no difference in principle between the analytical skills of a Bertrand Russel or the blind man`s rod. The process-of-knowing is the same.

To Know is to Do

The medical diagnostician's skill is as much an art of doing as it is an art of knowing.

Intellectual tools are however different from physical tools in that they are based in a social context. A person needs to be confident in that social context in order to be able to use intellectual tools. It is an important distinction as regards the rules and the tools.

The scientist`s and the professional`s tools and rules are more intellective than the craftsman`s or the practitioner`s more agentive tools and rules. This distinction is important to add to Polanyi because intellective tools are a main feature of professions involved in Information processing. One important feature is that experts working with physical tools can detach themselves from their tools. Intellective tools can not be disposed of that easily.

A common notion is that thinking is not doing and a common distinction is made between "thinkers" and "doers". A more appropriate distinction is between agentive and intellective doing. To focus one`s thoughts as in writing an article can be seen as an intellective act, thus = "intellective doing". To move one`s body or to "get things going" through other people can be seen as an agentive act, "agentive doing".

A Hierarchy of Knowing

If one regards the dynamic properties of knowledge the most material, the notion Process-of-Knowing probably gives a better description than the word "knowledge". Bertil Rolf suggests in his book Profession, Tradition och Tyst Kunskap (1991) a hierarchy of knowing based on how the rules are followed: The lowest level of knowing is to follow rules which can be controlled by the subject itself, Skill The next level is to follow rules which are established by a social context outside the individual, Know-How The highest level is to be able to (and be allowed to) change the rules, competence or perhaps better in contemporary English expertise. Each level contains both tacit and focal knowing.

Skill is the ability to act according to rules which depend on feedback from a non-social environment. Polanyi: Skills combine muscular acts which are not identifiable, according to relations that we cannot define. Skills might be the ability to chop wood or type on a typewriter. The actor him/herself is able to judge whether the action has been successful or not.

Know-how includes skill and is the ability to act in social contexts. Other actors, like a professional institution or the tradition (the fourth level) establish the rules. Know-how implies problem solving. The ability of reflection on the rules, however, is of a higher order and should not be a part of skill or know-how. The British philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1949) points out that the boxer or the surgeon or the poet all apply their special criteria when they accomplish their special tasks. And they are regarded (by others) as good or bad or creative - not because of their ability to reflect over what they are doing but because of the result of their performance. The label "Know-how" has been used by many authors, Ryle probably being one of the first. Polanyi seems very close to Ryle`s concept Knowing-How but in fact he argues against Ryle. Ryle`s knowing-how does not imply a subsidiary awareness as Polanyi`s tacit knowing does. Polanyi does not use the label at all, probably because he argues against his contemporary Ryle. The Know-How label might thus lead to unfortunate confusion.

Expertise is know-how + the ability of reflection. Expertise orCompetence in Polanyi`s sense implies the ability of know-how within a certain domain and the ability not only to submit to the rules but also by reflection influence the rules of the domain or the tradition. Expertise is thus not a property but a relation between individual actors and a social system of rules. A person is an expert within a tradition: In a competent mental act the agent does not do as he pleases, but compels himself forcibly to act as he believes he must.

Polanyi also makes an illustration of incompetence: We draw here a distinction between two kinds of error, namely scientific guesses which have turned out to be mistaken, and unscientific guesses which are not only false but incompetent.

An individual is thus not competent per se, rather it is the individual in a role and in a context who is competent or not. In order to change the rules a competent individual needs a social or interpersonal communicative knowledge in addition to know-how. It is the expertise of mastering the rules of the profession so well that they no longer need to be obeyed. A characteristic of expertise compared to know-how and skill is that the actor has power over his own knowledge, i.e. over the rule system which decides quality standards. Only when an individual has this kind of power is the system in the position to learn from the experience of the individual.

Knowing can be both tacit and focal. It depends on the situation whether it is used tacitly or being focused and/or as articulated knowledge. Tacit and focal are not categories or levels in a hierarchy but are more like two dimensions of the same knowledge. Skills which are very difficult to articulate and to transfer between individuals thus have a large proportion tacit knowing, whereas a competent person must be able to focus more of his/her tacit process-of-knowing in order to articulate and communicate in a social context.

Intellective and Agentive Knowing

As I suggest in this Paper, work also has an Intellective and Agentive Knowing dimension. Agentive knowing is more oriented towards using the body as a tool whereas intellective process-of-knowing is oriented towards using the mind as a tool. Agentive skills are therefore more emotional and body oriented than intellective skills. Intellective abilities tend to be more analytical. Agentive skills are more oriented towards the syntetical. The distinction is made because these two dimensions are important in the Information processing professions and in organisations employing mainly professionals. It is not possible to be too distinct, however, since knowing includes always usage of both mind and body. The border between the two is thus fuzzy. One might see the categorisation as a family of abilities with biases towards one of the two categories.

Tradition of Knowledge

. One of the central concepts in Polanyi`s concept of knowledge is tradition. Tradition describes how knowledge is transferred in a social context. The tradition is a system of values outside the individual. Both language and tradition are social systems which take up, store and convey the knowledge of society. "Personal" knowledge is thus not the same as subjective opinions. It is more like the knowledge of a judge who within the framework of the law and praxis (= tradition) gives a judicial decision based on his judgement in a particular situation. Another judge should in principle be able to take the same decision.

An art which cannot be specified in detail cannot be transmitted by prescription, since no prescription for it exists. It can be passed on only by example from master to apprentice. This restricts the range of diffusion to that of personal contacts. We find accordingly that craftsmanship tends to survive in closely circumscribed local traditions. While the articulate contents of science are successfully taught all over the world in hundreds of new universities, the unspecifiable art of scientific research has not yet penetrated many of these.

To learn by example is to submit to authority. By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known to the master himself. A society which wants to preserve a fund of personal knowledge must submit to tradition.

Polanyi is mainly interested in transfer of a process-of-knowing from one person to another(s) and he identifies three tacit psycho-social mechanisms for this: Imitation, identification and learning-by-doing. They are mechanisms for direct knowledge transfer. Facts, rules and exemplars are transferred without intermediate storage in a medium. The term I use - Knowledge "transfer" - is therefore not quite appropriate, since knowledge is not moved as goods. The "receiver" reconstructs his/her version of the "supplier`s" knowledge.

A tradition transfers its patterns of action, rules, values and norms. They create a social order because people can foresee both the action of others and the implied expectations on themselves. The tradition also tells what attitudes one should take. The individual defines him/herself as someone by submitting to the tradition. The formation of knowledge within a tradition is done both locally (by master/apprenticeships) and in a larger context through professional bodies.

Values are not subjective but part of a professional tradition outside the individual self. In the value an individual's experience is integrated with a claim of being general within the tradition of a profession. Personal knowledge contains elements from how reality is perceived by the tradition. The individual lets the lingual forms and cultural patterns of the tradition form his own idiosyncrasies into an image of reality, irrespective of whether his tools are patterns of thought, patterns of action or social institutions. As time passes, some of the values are validated and transformed cognitively into beliefs about how things are. They are therefore no longer in need of being tested so they become a taken-for-granted tacit knowledge shared by the members of the group.

Even if Polanyi does not discuss this particular aspect one might use his concept for identifying traditions of a particular industry, organisation or department, the latter being the "tradition within the organisation".

There is an important distinction between organisation and tradition. Tradition is a dynamic unarticulated process by which a process-of-knowing is transferred between individuals, it has no purpose, no written rules and no power centre. Tradition exists independent of organisation boundaries.

Polanyi`s notion of tradition is based on the psycho-social context of scientific professions, which have procedures for enforcing compliance of unwritten rules. He therefore sees the older professional as having authority over the younger (= socially sanctioned knowledge). The apprentice lacks the ability to question what he learns, tradition thus implies submission. In addition credibility, trust and confidence are necessary. Credibility carries the social exchange of views between equal individuals within a tradition.

Tradition of knowing thus takes place only if the combination of legitimacy (on behalf of the sender) and trust (receiver) exists. When the relation between master and apprentice is shifted to the ideals nurtured by the tradition the apprentice becomes liberated.

I distinguish some limitations in Polanyi`s concept of tradition of knowledge: Polanyi seems to regard tradition as a process in which the master is always the older. This notion fit most profession fairly well until the 1970s. It does not fit fast moving computer professions like computer programming very well.

Tacit knowing and tradition function as a taken-for-granted knowledge, which in its turn delimits the process-of-knowing and sets boundaries for learning. Polanyi does not problematise this aspect.

Polanyi does not distinguish the implications of the difference between interactive knowledge transfer (as in a tradition) direct from individual to individual and indirect knowledge transfer via a medium like information. Organisations involved in production and selling of information rely on more indirect vehicles like massmedia, manuals, books, or computer programs. Articulated rules (maxims) for guiding behaviour like texts in manuals or accounting procedures, check lists, handbooks, guidelines for salesmen etc. are also examples of indirect knowledge transfer.