TestPappy on “tacit knowledge”

TL;DR: This article only reflects the highlights of a discussion on tacit knowledge, it will not describe what tacit knowledge is. My key takeaway was, based on the exchanges in this twitter conversation, there didn’t appear to be a shared understanding of ‘tacit knowledge’ by all participants of the discussion.

The concept of tacit and explicit knowledge is an important one to software testing. Testing usually is a highly brain engaging discipline. And making things explicit is part of our every day. Writing test scripts, writing documentation to share knowledge, reporting on our testing, etc. But what about the tacit part, that often stays tacit?

In some discussion happening lately on Twitter there was a disagreement on the nature of tacit knowledge. I thought I have a certain understanding of what tacit knowledge is, but a personal discussion with a good friend left me not so sure anymore. There is explicit knowledge, knowledge that has been spoken, written, or somehow made available for others to consume without interacting with the initial knowledge owner. Then there is knowledge that is not explicit. You might call it “tacit” knowledge. So, a question that came up was, is tacit knowledge “only” very hard to describe or “simply” impossible to describe? Or is it “just” something that was not made explicit yet? That’s what I was trying to learn.

I posted a badly written question with a survey on Twitter the next morning:

And it triggered some interesting discussions. I will only quote few examples from the threads out of context, so you rather check them on Twitter yourself, if you are curious.
This will not be my definition of tacit knowledge, I will only summarize some insights and highlights I got from the discussions.

First of all I quickly realized that my question was badly explained and too ambiguous. I got the impression that several people thought that I don’t understand the principle of tacit knowledge. But that helped to trigger some further interesting thoughts.

Even if Wikipedia partially describes tacit knowledge as impossible to describe, alternating with “just” very hard to describe, most people participating in the survey agreed rather on “very hard to describe”.

The first (and longest) example used was learning how to ride a bicycle. Actually most of the examples were very technically oriented. The discussion also changed between “teaching” a robot to ride a bike and teaching a person to ride a bike.

For Stephen Blower it seemed to be very important that the learning from explicit knowledge is successful on the 1st try.
When I remember how I learned how to ride a bike, I remember a lot of failed attempts to do so. So is explicit knowledge sometimes held to different standards than tacit knowledge?
But even if it is on the 10th try means that it is possible, and maybe only hard to describe or wasn’t described yet.

And there was no agreement on the bicycle example being really a good example. Which for me showed an important thing. Several people that I all highly respect, especially for their deep understanding of many test related topics, were not able to agree on a “simple” example of tacit knowledge.

Several times I got the tip to read Harry Collins’ book “Explicit and tacit knowledge“. But is that just an excuse, because people are not able to explain it in their own words?
For me that raised also the question, is that the only truth about tacit knowledge or are there other explanations existing as well? Maybe contradicting Collins?

I was not happy to get answers with a reference to a book.

A new example came on the scene, using cooking, as in following a recipe (that in my opinion presumes a lot tacit knowledge) or “simply” cooking based on what you know (your tacit knowledge).

Now that is a position that was completely new to me. “An experience long forgotten.”

But Mark Federman also came up with alternative reading material on the topic. The concept of “Ba” is very interesting on how knowledge can be managed within organizations and companies. It also describes the spiraling lifecycle how tacit knowledge becomes explicit, to then become tacit knowledge again for other people. It is though not talking about if tacit knowledge is hard or impossible to make explicit. It simply skips that part and assumes that knowledge is transferable from individuals to groups and organizations.

One aspect that makes a good example for tacit knowledge in my opinion are emotions. Mohinder mentioned them shortly, but nobody picked it up from there.

Emotions are actually very hard, if not impossible to describe, if you can’t rely on comparison or the other person having had the very same experience. But is that even possible? Is naming the emotion just shallow agreement? Do both really feel the same?
Are emotions an example of something that is impossible to describe in a sufficient way? Or do we tacitly agree on a more or less shallow understanding to make life not too complicated?

In the learning to ride a bike thread, John Stevenson tried to shift the aspect away from the actual riding a bike, but to ride a bike in cultural context.

One aspect that was important for me, some things are maybe possible to make explicit, but they are not worth it.

My summary: Tacit knowledge seems to be of tacit nature by itself. Very hard to describe, though some, e.g. Collins, have done it. At least to a degree that satisfied many readers. What I can observe on Twitter or in blog posts is, that people boldly use the term tacit knowledge as if it has a well-known meaning. But my impression is rather that it’s shallow agreement. Most people I know are aware of the concept of tacit and explicit knowledge, some read Collins, some read summaries, some read other interpretations, some learned from someone. But my short, and malformed, question and the following discussion showed me clearly, that it seems not be that clear of what it actually is.

I, at least, have learned a lot about tacit knowledge in the course of the discussion. And I want to thank everyone involved for their input.



11 thoughts on “TestPappy on “tacit knowledge””

  1. Hi Patrick, nice summary of the Twitter discussion.
    When you say “But my ipression is rather that it’s shallow agreement. ” I get the impression that this is negative, do you see it that way? If people point to a box and say that it contains knowledge but I can’t really describe what it is but we know that it contains a form of knowledge we can work with it.
    We can analyse and discuss how we collect tacit knowledge – which may be interesting but not necessarily helpful for the more practical oriented people.
    As you pointed out the discussion becomes technical quite quickly. You can explain how someone can learn how to ride a bike. How they need muscle movement, balance, preferrably eyesight and much more. That is not even wrong but also not that helpful. Instead of explaining it, one can show how to ride a bike, ask them to copy you and coach and encourage them when the first attempts fail or are not fully successful. That is how we learn quickly – so why is that? What lesson can we learn from the fact that there is something like tacit knowledge and that we need different mechanism to transfer this knowledge which is different to the mechanisms we use for explicit knowledge. For me that’s the point where theory becomes practice and where it’s also useful for the next day in the office.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      Shallow agreement is not negative when all involved parties are aware of the fact. When parties involved think that it’s strong agreement while it is shallow, it’s getting more negative for me. It depends on how much you rely on the fact that the same understanding is there.
      A friend of mine likes to avoid using special terms when he can’t be sure that all involved have the same understanding and rather describes what he means in the best way possible.

      One example: when you agree in your project that you need to create a “test plan”, is everyone speaking of the same document, the same content, the same detail?

  2. Hi Patrick, I really enjoyed your article on tacit and explicit knowledge – especially as I plan to release an article on a similar topic at the end of the week.
    For me tacit knowledge is knowledge which can’t be expressed by the learner (-yet) – and from many twitter post I sensed a similar opinion. What was interesting for me, was that different levels of knowledge had no impact on your discussion.
    From a theoretical point of view, I differentiate between factual,conceptual and procedural knowledge (for an overview see http://cte.illinois.edu/resources/topics/syllabus/blooms.html). Up to your article for me tacit and explicit knowledge only referred to factual knowledge – as it is this kind of knowledge which is often kind vague in your head before making it explicit. With procedural knowledge (like riding a bike) it’s different as the goal is often to gain a competence and here the learning process seems to be different and it is not always so important to have a very explicit idea about the factual concept rather than to automate the “how to”.
    So perhaps it is helpful for your definition to apply a learning model in order to get more accurate results.

    1. Hi Vera,
      thanks for your comment.
      As stated at the beginning of the article the intend was not to explain what tacit knowledge is, it was all about the discussion based on the question “Is tacit knowledge… impossible to describe, very hard to describe, or just not described yet?”
      Thanks for the link. I think though that tacit knowledge is not restricted to any kind of knowledge. There are other views on knowledge apart from Collins, like Latour or the mentioned concept of ‘Ba’, that look differently on tacit knowledge. The concept of ‘Ba’ for example is describing exactly what you say, the learning model, and how tacit knowledge of an individual becomes part of an organization’s tacit knowledge.

      But back to my initial question, when you take your old and new view on tacit knowledge, in which box would you put it? Impossible to describe, hard to describe, or just not described yet?

      All the best

  3. Hi Patrick, piggy-backing on @verageba’s comment (yes, it’s #Day5 of the #30DaysofTesting challenge) I’d also like to add my 2 cents. Your summary “Tacit knowledge seems to be of tacit nature by itself.” cracked me up… because it’s so true!

    I had the privilege of attending Iain McCowatt’s talk on this matter during last year’s TestBash. Iain gave an amusing example of this socially and geographically implicit knowledge that stuck, and which you might call tacit…
    So Iain used to spend some time in the Caribbean, if I recall correctly.
    Over there it’s a custom that when attempting to overtake a vehicle, oncoming cars would flash their headlights to indicate that you can pull out, as they’d go easy on the accelerator, allowing you to overtake.
    You know what’s coming next… having returned to the UK he was in a similar situation on an A road when a car in the wing mirror on the motorway would flash its lights, so he intuitively (*TACIT KNOWLEDGE!*) pulled out to overtake the one in front with a happy smile… which almost got him into an accident, as in Europe this is a customary way of telling cars in front of you to “get the hell out of the way”.

    Anyhow, I enjoyed reading your blog (especially the Twitter bits are good fun) and have to admit I haven’t read Mr. Collins. Should I? Will that add to the tacitness of my knowledge? 😉

    1. Hi Ron, thanks for your comment.
      You mentioned an interesting example. If you call something explicit, when you are able to describe it in words, why is Iain’s example of tacit nature? He was able to explain it in words to all of you without you needing to learn it by yourself, experiencing it on a road in the Caribbean.
      And to ask you the same question as Vera, in what box would you put tacit knowledge? And think about the example you have given.

      1. To my mind, examples like riding a bike, speaking a language, or even humour are not tacit knowledge, but rather acquired skills (even given talents for some gifted and/or simply blessed people).
        You can try to show and teach them to others, but it will take a long time and considerable practice for someone else to get on that train.
        I see tacit knowledge much more in the direction of being hard to explain because it is taken for granted, so it’s natural for you, you don’t see the immediate necessity to explain it. For lack of awareness or sheer ignorance…
        Which btw matches the dictionary definition of tacit being “expressed or understood without being directly stated” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tacit).
        So to cut it short, to me it’s knowledge between the lines of the obvious.

  4. Hi, Patrick,
    As a non-English speaker I always enjoy terms explained when I don’t know a meaning. I love your summary, but feel like I still don’t know what Tacid knowledge means 😉
    I’m still in progress in teaching my friend to learn bike riding, and have no clue how to do it successfully.
    While I can explain perfectly how to do it, I don’t think it will work from first time. I have thought my kids to ride bike and I think Tacid knowledge is based on experience. Try and error is best way on acquiring it. You could describe your journey of doing things, but as there are so many parameters it still not work for all.
    So there is question – if I knew all parameters for person to learn to ride bike – can I teach it to my friend?

    1. Hi Gita,
      thanks for your comment. Sorry that the article was not intended to help explain tacit knowledge. The original discussion was initiated to find an additional label for tacit knowledge. Is it impossible to describe, just very hard to describe, or has it simply not been described yet. Yet the discussion took some interesting turns away from the original question.
      Teaching to ride a bike was a favorite example chosen, so are you able to successfully describe and transfer your knowledge to your friend that is necessary to ride a bike. So you have to describe how it feels to be in balance and all that. Maybe you have analogies to chose from to have something comparable to address other, maybe already existing, tacit knowledge to transfer the know-how. Maybe you are able to describe it in a way your friend can take in the knowledge and recognize the experience of some factors and assign them to the labels that you have given. Please let me know about the success.
      But for me as non-English native-speaker it’s also a steady learning process to find the detailed definitions of words to find the most fitting ones for the context.

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