Tacit knowledge

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Tacit knowledge (as opposed to formal, codified or explicit knowledge) is the kind of knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it. For example, that London is in the United Kingdom is a piece of explicit knowledge that can be written down, transmitted, and understood by a recipient. However, the ability to speak a language, knead dough, play a musical instrument, or design and use complex equipment requires all sorts of knowledge that is not always known explicitly, even by expert practitioners, and which is difficult or impossible to explicitly transfer to other users.


The term “tacit knowing” or “tacit knowledge” was first introduced into philosophy by Michael Polanyi in 1958 in his magnum opus Personal Knowledge. He famously summarizes the idea in his later work The Tacit Dimension with the assertion that “we can know more than we can tell.”.[1] He states not only that there is knowledge that cannot be adequately articulated by verbal means, but also that all knowledge is rooted in tacit knowledge in the strong sense of that term.

Tacit knowledge can be defined as skills, ideas and experiences that people have in their minds and are, therefore, difficult to access because it is often not codified and may not necessarily be easily expressed (Chugh, 2015).[2] With tacit knowledge, people are not often aware of the knowledge they possess or how it can be valuable to others. Effective transfer of tacit knowledge generally requires extensive personal contact, regular interaction[3] and trust. This kind of knowledge can only be revealed through practice in a particular context and transmitted through social networks.[4] To some extent it is "captured" when the knowledge holder joins a network or a community of practice.[3]

Some examples of daily activities and tacit knowledge are: riding a bike, playing the piano, driving a car, hitting a nail with a hammer.[5] and putting together pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle, interpreting a complex statistical equation (Chugh, 2015).[2]

The formal knowledge of how to ride a bicycle is that in order to balance, if the bike falls to the left, one steers to the left. To turn right the rider first steers to the left, and then when the bike falls right, the rider steers to the right.[6] You may know explicitly how turning of the handle bars or steering wheel change the direction of a bike or car, but you cannot simultaneously focus on this and at the same time orient yourself in traffic.

Similarly, you may know explicitly how to hold the handle of a hammer, but you cannot simultaneously focus on the handle and hit the nail correctly with the hammer. The master pianist can perform brilliantly, but if he begins to concentrate on the movements of his fingers instead of the music, he will not be able to play as a master. Knowing the explicit knowledge, however, is no help in riding a bicycle, doesn’t help in performing well in the tasks since few people are aware of it when performing and few riders are in fact aware of this.

Tacit knowledge is not easily shared. Although it is that which is used by all people, it is not necessarily able to be easily articulated. It consists of beliefs, ideals, values, schemata and mental models which are deeply ingrained in us and which we often take for granted. While difficult to articulate, this cognitive dimension of tacit knowledge shapes the way we perceive the world.

In the field of knowledge management, the concept of tacit knowledge refers to a knowledge possessed only by an individual and difficult to communicate to others via words and symbols. Therefore, an individual can acquire tacit knowledge without language. Apprentices, for example, work with their mentors and learn craftsmanship not through language but by observation, imitation, and practice.

The key to acquiring tacit knowledge is experience. Without some form of shared experience, it is extremely difficult for people to share each other's thinking processes[7]

Tacit knowledge has been described as “know-how” – as opposed to “know-that” (facts). This distinction is usually taken to date back to a paper by Gilbert Ryle, given to the Aristotelian society in London in 1945.[8] In this paper Ryle argues against the (intellectualist) position that all knowledge is knowledge of propositions ("know-that"), and the view that some knowledge can only be defined as "know-how" has therefore, in some contexts, come to be called "anti-intellectualist". There are further distinctions: “know-why” (science), or “know-who” (networking)[citation needed]. Tacit knowledge involves learning and skill but not in a way that can be written down. On this account knowing-how or embodied knowledge is characteristic of the expert, who acts, makes judgments, and so forth without explicitly reflecting on the principles or rules involved. The expert works without having a theory of his or her work; he or she just performs skillfully without deliberation or focused attention[4] Embodied knowledge represents a learned capability of a human body’s nervous and endocrine systems (Sensky 2002).[9]

Tacit knowledge vs. explicit knowledge:[10] Although it is possible to distinguish conceptually between explicit and tacit knowledge, they are not separate and discrete in practice. The interaction between these two modes of knowing is vital for the creation of new knowledge.[11]

A related point in the area of "tacit knowledge" is that in many cases, despite the existence of good library indexing systems and search engines, the way specific knowledge may be described is not obvious unless one already has the knowledge.

Differences with explicit knowledge[edit]

Tacit knowledge can be distinguished from explicit knowledge[12] in three major areas:

  • Codifiability and mechanism of transferring knowledge: while explicit knowledge can be codified (an example of that is 'can you write it down' or 'put it into words' or 'draw a picture'), and easily transferred without the knowing subject, tacit knowledge is intuitive and unarticulated knowledge that cannot be communicated, understood or used without the ‘knowing subject’. Unlike the transfer of explicit knowledge, the transfer of tacit knowledge requires close interaction and the buildup of shared understanding and trust among them.
  • Main methods for the acquisition and accumulation: Explicit knowledge can be generated through logical deduction and acquired through practical experience in the relevant context. In contrast, tacit knowledge can only be acquired through practical experience in the relevant context.
  • Potential of aggregation and modes of appropriation: Explicit knowledge can be aggregated at a single location, stored in objective forms and appropriated without the participation of the knowing subject. Tacit knowledge in contrast, is personal contextual. It is distributive, and cannot easily be aggregated. The realization of its full potential requires the close involvement and cooperation of the knowing subject.

The process of transforming tacit knowledge into explicit or specifiable knowledge is known as codification, articulation, or specification. The tacit aspects of knowledge are those that cannot be codified, but can only be transmitted via training or gained through personal experience. There is a view against the distinction, where it is believed that all propositional knowledge (knowledge that) is ultimately reducible to practical knowledge (knowledge how).[13]

Transmission models[edit]

A chief practice of technological development is the codification of tacit knowledge into explicit programmed operations so that processes previously requiring skilled employees can be automated for greater efficiency and consistency at lower cost. Such codification involves mechanically replicating the performance of persons who possess relevant tacit knowledge; in doing so, however, the ability of the skilled practitioner to innovate and adapt to unforeseen circumstances based on the tacit "feel" of the situation is often lost. The technical remedy is to attempt to substitute brute-force methods capitalizing on the computing power of a system, such as those that enable a supercomputer programmed to "play" chess against a grandmaster whose tacit knowledge of the game is broad and deep.

The conflicts demonstrated in the previous two paragraphs are reflected in Ikujiro Nonaka's model of organizational knowledge creation, in which he proposes that tacit knowledge can be converted to explicit knowledge. In that model tacit knowledge is presented variously as uncodifiable ("tacit aspects of knowledge are those that cannot be codified") and codifiable ("transforming tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge is known as codification"). This ambiguity is common in the knowledge management literature.

Nonaka's view may be contrasted with Polanyi's original view of "tacit knowing." Polanyi believed that while declarative knowledge may be needed for acquiring skills, it is unnecessary for using those skills once the novice becomes an expert. And indeed, it does seem to be the case that, as Polanyi argued, when we acquire a skill we acquire a corresponding understanding that defies articulation[4]


  • One of the most convincing examples of tacit knowledge is facial recognition. ‘‘We know a person’s face, and can recognize it among a thousand, indeed a million. Yet we usually cannot tell how we recognize a face we know, so most of this cannot be put into words.’’ When you see a face, you are not conscious about your knowledge of the individual features (eye, nose, mouth), but you see and recognize the face as a whole[7]
  • Another example of tacit knowledge is the notion of language itself – it is not possible to learn a language just by being taught the rules of grammar – a native speaker picks it up at a young age, almost entirely unaware of the formal grammar which they may be taught later. Other examples are how to ride a bike, how tight to make a bandage, or knowing whether a senior surgeon feels an intern may be ready to learn the intricacies of surgery; this can only be learned through personal experimentation.
  • Collins showed[14] that Western laboratories long had difficulties in successfully replicating an experiment (in this case, measuring the quality, Q, factors of sapphire) which the team led by Vladimir Braginsky at Moscow State University had been conducting for twenty years. Western scientists became suspicious of the Russian results and it was only when Russian and Western scientists conducted the measurements collaboratively that the trust was reestablished. Collins argues that laboratory visits enhance the possibility for the transfer of tacit knowledge.
  • Another example is the Bessemer steel process – Bessemer sold a patent for his advanced steelmaking process and was sued by the purchasers who couldn't get it to work. In the end Bessemer set up his own steel company because he knew how to do it, even though he could not convey it to his patent users. Bessemer's company became one of the largest in the world and changed the face of steel making.[15]
  • When Matsushita started developing its automatic home bread-making machine in 1985, an early problem was how to mechanize the dough-kneading process, a process that takes a master baker years of practice to perfect. To learn this tacit knowledge, a member of the software development team, Ikuko Tanaka, decided to volunteer herself as an apprentice to the head baker of the Osaka International Hotel, who was reputed to produce the area’s best bread. After a period of imitation and practice, one day she observed that the baker was not only stretching, but also twisting the dough in a particular fashion (“twisting stretch”), which turned out to be his secret for making tasty bread. The Matsushita home bakery team drew together eleven members from completely different specializations and cultures: product planning, mechanical engineering, control systems, and software development. The “twisting stretch” motion was finally materialized in a prototype, after a year of iterative experimentation by the engineers and team members working closely together, combining their explicit knowledge. For example, the engineers added ribs to the inside of the dough case in order to hold the dough better as it is being churned. Another team member suggested a method (later patented) to add yeast at a later stage in the process, thereby preventing the yeast from over-fermenting in high temperatures.[16]

Knowledge management[edit]

Knowledge management is the dynamic process of creating new knowledge, identifying sources of this new knowledge and the elicitation and distribution of this knowledge.[17] The identification of tacit knowledge sources and the creation of knowledge through tacit to tacit knowledge sharing and tacit to explicit knowledge sharing are fundamental to this process.[18]

According to Parsaye, there are three major approaches to the capture of tacit knowledge from groups and individuals. They are:[19]

  • Interviewing experts.
  • Learning by being told.
  • Learning by observation.

Interviewing experts can be done in the form of structured interviewing or by recording organizational stories. Structured interviewing of experts in a particular subject, is the most commonly used technique to capture pertinent, tacit knowledge. An example of a structured interview would be an exit interview. Learning by being told can be done by interviewing or by task analysis. Either way, an expert teaches the novice the processes of a task. Task analysis is the process of determining the actual task or policy, by breaking it down and analyzing what needs to be done to complete the task. Learning by observation can be done by presenting the expert with a sample problem, scenario, or case study and then observing the process used to solve it.[citation needed]

Some other techniques for capturing tacit knowledge are:[citation needed][original research?]

All of these approaches should be recorded, in order to transfer the tacit knowledge into reusable explicit knowledge.

Professor Ikujiro Nonaka has proposed the SECI (Socialization, Externalization, Combination, Internalization) model, one of the most widely cited theories in knowledge management, to present the spiraling knowledge processes of interaction between explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge (Nonaka & Takeuchi 1995).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Polanyi, Michael (1966), The Tacit Dimension, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 4.
  2. ^ a b Chugh R. (2015). Do Australian Universities Encourage Tacit Knowledge Transfer?. In Proceedings of the 7th International Joint Conference on Knowledge Discovery, Knowledge Engineering and Knowledge Management, ISBN 978-989-758-158-8, pages 128-135. DOI: 10.5220/0005585901280135 ( https://www.researchgate.net/publication/286920454_Do_Australian_Universities_Encourage_Tacit_Knowledge_Transfer
  3. ^ a b Goffin, K.; Koners, U. (2011). "Tacit Knowledge, Lessons Learnt, and New Product Development". Journal of Product Innovation Management 28 (2): 300–318. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5885.2010.00798.x. 
  4. ^ a b c Schmidt, F. L.; Hunter, J. E. (1993). "Tacit knowledge, practical intelligence, general mental ability, and job knowledge". Current Directions in Psychological Science 2: 8–9. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.ep10770456. 
  5. ^ Engel, P. J. H. (2008). "Tacit knowledge and Visual Expertise in Medical Diagnostic Reasoning: Implications for medical education". Medical Teacher 30 (7): e184–e188. doi:10.1080/01421590802144260. PMID 18777417. 
  6. ^ Bicycle and motorcycle dynamics
  7. ^ a b Lam, A. (2000). Tacit Knowledge, Organizational Learning and Societal Institutions: An Integrated Framework. Organization Studies 21(3), 487–513.
  8. ^ Ryle, G. (1945). Knowing How and Knowing That. Papers from the Aristotelian Society, 1945-46.
  9. ^ Sensky, Tom (2002). "Knowledge Management". Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 8 (5): 387–395. doi:10.1192/apt.8.5.387. 
  10. ^ Lam, A. (2000). Tacit Knowledge, Organizational Learning and Societal Institutions: An Integrated Framework. Organization Studies 21(3), 487–51.
  11. ^ Angioni, G., Fare, dire, sentire: l'identico e il diverso nelle culture, Il Maestrale, 2011, 26–99
  12. ^ Polanyi, M, (1958) Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-67288-3
  13. ^ Hetherington, S, (2011) How to Know: A Practicalist Conception of Knowledge, Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 9780470658123.
  14. ^ Collins, H.M. "Tacit Knowledge, Trust and the Q of Sapphire" Social Studies of Science' pp. 71–85 31(1) 2001
  15. ^ J.E. Gordon, "The new science of strong materials", Penguin books.
  16. ^ Nonaka, Ikujiro; Takeuchi, Hirotaka (1995), The knowledge creating company: how Japanese companies create the dynamics of innovation, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 284, ISBN 978-0-19-509269-1.
  17. ^ McInerney, Claire (2002). "Knowledge Management and the Dynamic Nature of Knowledge". Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 53 (12): 1009–1018. doi:10.1002/asi.10109. 
  18. ^ Smith, Elizabeth A. (2001). "The role of tacit and explicit knowledge in the workplace". Journal of Knowledge Management 5 (4): 311–321. doi:10.1108/13673270110411733. 
  19. ^ Parsaye, Kamran; Chignell, Mark (1988), Expert systems for experts, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, p. 365, ISBN 978-0-471-60175-3 
  20. ^ Haldin-Herrgard, Tua (2000). "Difficulties in diffusion of tacit knowledge in organizations". Journal of Intellectual Capital 1 (4): 357–365. doi:10.1108/14691930010359252. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Angioni G., Doing, Thinking, Saying, in Sanga & Ortalli (eds.), Nature Knowledge, Berghahm Books, New York-Oxford 2004, 249–261.
  • Bao, Y.; Zhao, S. (2004), "MICRO Contracting for Tacit Knowledge – A Study of Contractual Arrangements in International Technology Transfer", in Problems and Perspectives of Management, 2, 279–303.
  • Brohm, R. "Bringing Polanyi onto the theatre stage: a study on Polanyi applied to Knowledge Management", in: Proceedings of the ISMICK Conference, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 1999, pp. 57–69.
  • Brohm, R. (2005), Polycentric Order in Organizations, Erasmus University Rotterdam: Published dissertation ERIM, hdl:1765/6911 
  • Castillo, J. (2002). "A Note on the Concept of Tacit Knowledge," Journal of Management Inquiry, March 11: 46-57
  • Collins, H.M. "Tacit Knowledge, Trust and the Q of Sapphire" Social Studies of Science' p. 71–85 31(1) 2001
  • Dalkir, Kimiz (2005) "Knowledge Management in Theory and Practice" pp. 82–90
  • Gladwell, Malcolm 2005. Blink: the power of thinking without thinking. Little, Brown: New York.
  • Gourlay, Stephen, "An Activity Centered Framework for Knowledge Management". In Claire Regina McInerney, Ronald E. Day (2007), Rethinking knowledge management, Springer, ISBN 3-540-71010-8 
  • Kimble, Chris (June 2013). "Knowledge management, codification and tacit knowledge". Information Research 18 (2). 
  • Nonaka, Ikujiro; Takeuchi, Hirotaka (1995), The knowledge creating company: how Japanese companies create the dynamics of innovation, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 284, ISBN 978-0-19-509269-1 
  • Patriotta, G (2004). "Studying organizational knowledge". Knowledge Management Research and Practice 2 (1). 
  • Polanyi, Michael. "The Tacit Dimension". First published Doubleday & Co, 1966. Reprinted Peter Smith, Gloucester, Mass, 1983. Chapter 1: "Tacit Knowing".
  • Reber, Arthur S. 1993. Implicit learning and tacit knowledge: an essay on the corgnitive unconscious. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510658-X
  • Sanders, A. F. (1988). Michael Polanyi's post critical epistemology, a reconstruction of some aspects of 'tacit knowing'. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
  • Smith, M. K. (2003) 'Michael Polanyi and tacit knowledge', the encyclopedia of informal education, www.infed.org/thinkers/polanyi.htm.© 2003 Mark K. Smith
  • Tsoukas, H. (2003) ‘Do we really understand tacit knowledge?’ in The Blackwell handbook of organizational learning and knowledge management. Easterby-Smith and Lyles (eds), 411–427. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Erik Cambria and Amir Hussain: Sentic Computing: Techniques, Tools, and Applications. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, ISBN 978-94-007-5069-2, 2012
  • Wenger E. Communities of practice: learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge University Press, New York 1998.
  • Wilson, Timothy D. 2002. Strangers to ourselves: discovering the adaptive unconscious. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA. ISBN 0-674-01382-4
  • Chugh, R 2013, ‘Workplace Dimensions: Tacit Knowledge Sharing in Universities’, Journal of Advanced Management Science, vol. 1, no.1, pp. 24–28. http://www.joams.com/uploadfile/2013/0426/20130426024311542.pdf

External links[edit]