What Is Tacit Knowledge?

S. Ashraf

Tacit knowledge is a concept, originally developed in philosophy, which is one of the basic premises of what is known as the theory of knowledge. In the theory of knowledge, there are two fundamental types of knowledge that an individual might have: explicit and tacit. Explicit knowledge is knowledge that can be explained and, if needed, easily communicated either orally or in writing. Tacit knowledge, by contrast, is knowledge that an individual has but might not be aware of and is difficult, if not impossible, to document, describe or communicate either in writing or verbally. Frequently, tacit knowledge is described as “know how” as opposed to knowing what or knowing why.

Businessman giving a thumbs-up
Businessman giving a thumbs-up

Simply put, tacit knowledge is the term used to describe the fact that individuals can know more than they can tell. An example of this knowledge is knowing how to ride a bike or swim. Even though it is possible to write down a long list of instructions on how to bike or swim, it is not possible for one to communicate all that he or she internally knows about either activity or how he or she goes about doing it because the individual is unaware of some of his or her knowledge.

Tacit knowledge is often acquired as part of learning a set of skills either through instruction, observation, imitation, or practice. After the skill is learned, individuals go on to develop an understanding of the skill that is virtually impossible to communicate. As part of a theory of how individuals learn as well as come to understand and know processes and procedures, tacit knowledge has become an important area of study and research in organizational management and behavior.

In many cases, the type of knowledge that a master craftsman or top manager has acquired is the result of apprenticeship and years of individual experiences and ideas. Transfers of tacit knowledge are usually done informally through conversations or storytelling and require personal contact and trust. Much “know how,” or knowledge of how work actually gets done, can be lost to the organization because of this.

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Businesses have developed three basic approaches to capturing this type of knowledge from individuals and groups. A structured interview of experts in a given area is the most common technique; an example of this is an exit interview. Learning by being told, either by interviewing or task analysis, is another technique. Finally, learning by observation is used: an expert is given a case study or a sample problem, and then the process that he or she uses to solve the problem is observed.

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