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.