Organizational Learning & Knowledge Management LO23933

From: Fred Nickols (
Date: 02/10/00

Replying to Winfried Dressler in LO23919 --

>I completely agree to your definition. So I will not waste time (o.k.
>there are other ways to waste time as well ;-) ). But:
>I see in Polanyis quote more than a definition:
>Definition: Tacit knowledge cannot be articulated (the difference between
>'know' and 'can tell')

The distinction above is very important. Thanks for extracting it. It
reminds me that we use the word "knowledge" in more than one way. Below
is a paragraph from the paper I wrote for John Woods that illustrates what
I mean.

In general, we seem to mean three things by our use of the word
"knowledge." First, we use it to refer to a state of knowing, by which we
also mean to be acquainted or familiar with, to be aware of, to recognize
or apprehend facts, methods, principles, techniques and so on. This common
usage corresponds to what is often referred to as "know about." Second, we
use the word "knowledge" to refer to what Peter Senge calls "the capacity
for action," an understanding or grasp of facts, methods, principles and
techniques sufficient to apply them in the course of making things happen.
This corresponds to "know how." Third, we use the term "knowledge" to
refer to codified, captured and accumulated facts, methods, principles,
techniques and so on. When we use the term this way, we are referring to a
body of knowledge that has been articulated and captured in the form of
books, papers, formulas, procedure manuals, computer code and so on.

>Proposition: Tacit knowledge can exist.

Agreed. But in what form? I don't think it is know-about and I don't
think it is part of that captured body of knowledge. I think tacit
knowledge exists as know-how; it is, therefore, unique to each individual.

>I don't find the inference, that I cannot do tomorrow, what I cannot do

Nor do I. Indeed learning is all about being able to do tomorrow what I
cannot do today (although the time interval might be more or less than a

>When I manage to articulate today, what was tacit yesterday, then this bit
>of knowledge emerged from the tacit to the formal. Fred, don't become
>angry, please, I know that you would call such knowledge implicit.

A. I'm not angry. B. Yes, I would call such knowledge implicit.

>look, the fact that I could articulate the knowledge today, making it
>implicit knowledge from some point in the past up to the moment I made it
>explicit, does not mean, that the knowledge was already implicit all the
>past, including yesterday. Isn't it at least thinkable, that I wasn't able
>to, really could not tell what I knew yesterday, making this knowledge
>tacit according to your definition. But then, as time passed, somewhen I
>could - and somewhen I did.

I do not believe we can articulate tacit knowledge. Our best attempts to
do so take the form of words. What we produce is a description of
know-how not the know-how itself.

>Taking my children as example, I know about some of their experiences and
>also some of their tacit knowledge. There is also a lot that they
>articulate explicitely. From this I am quite sure about their implicit
>knowledge - knowledge which they could articulate, but didn't and will
>never do so for most of it (although they are talking most of the time).
>Tacit is that part of their knowledge, which they know, but cannot tell.
>It is there, and it is distinct from the implicit knowledge, so your
>distinction makes much sense to me. But some day they surprise me
>articulating what I thought was tacit to them. It is then when I know that
>they have taken another step of their development.
>I hope you don't mind that I introduced time dependence of knowledge - the
>arrow of time is too obvious when it is about knowledge throughout
>history. We even talk about creating knowledge.

Not at all, Winfried. I think the time dependence of knowledge is an
important addition to the conversation.


Fred Nickols The Distance Consulting Company "Assistance at A Distance" (609) 490-0095

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