David Weinberger
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Tacit Knowledge

22 November 1999

To heck with tacit knowledge. (Go for tacit documents instead.)

The originating goal of knowledge management was to capture the tacitknowledge that differentiates your best technical support person (forexample) from all the rest. You see, your best techie carries around in herover-heated brain some set of "knowledge," a special type of extra-specialcontent which she somehow has neglected to ever make explicit. If only wecould mine this tacit mental gold and share it among all of our tech supportstaff!

There are lots of ways that this line of thought goes wrong, but let's takethe main one: there is no such thing as tacit knowledge, at least not as acontent. Our image is that we carry facts around in our head the way wecarry coins in our pocket. But the mind is more magical than a pocket oreven the latest computer. The only evidence we have that we have a brainfull of facts is that we can answer questions. But in many cases -- in fact,most of the interesting cases -- it's not real plausible to think that wecome forth with answers by fetching them from a mental knapsack. Forexample, if I ask you which way is north, you may well be able to answercorrectly. But that's not to say that you carry around a"which-way-is-north" fact that's constantly updating. I know it soundsweird, but if you look at our actual experience of ourselves, our minds aremore about capabilities than about containers.

But forget the abstract question about the nature of the mind. Put it likethis: Would you rather have tech support people with heads full of knowledgeor people able to answer lots of different types of questions and solve lotsof different types of problems? (Think carefully: there “is” a right answerto that question.) At best, transferring Knowledge Rocks from one head toanother is but a small part of the task of making your organization smarter.

So, this tacit knowledge folderol is a distraction. But there “is” a typeof tacit stuff that's well worth capturing and sharing: tacit documents.These are the writings that are under the radar of corporate informationsystems. For example, at one company I know, the support staff got so tiredof waiting for the technical manuals to be updated that one of the supportpeople wrote up his own set of installation instructions which then becamethe preferred documentation set among his colleagues -- unapproved,colloquially written, and far more useful.

More frequently, however, the tacit documents in an organization are emailmessages. That's where coworkers trade stories, ask questions, propose newmethods, debate techniques. But the very thing that makes email anattractive medium also makes it hard to manage. People write email wherethey wouldn't write a memo because it's far more informal and far moreentertaining.

The issue is finding the email that's worthwhile. But email has a couple ofthings going for it when it comes to management techniques. First it has afair bit of metadata attached to it: you know who wrote it, to whom it wassent, when it was sent and what the author thinks the subject is. Evenbetter, email is threaded: a message generates a reply which generatesanother reply, and so on until the thread reaches one of the three endingsavailable to email: it dies out, one of the author gets called a fascist, orit becomes an exchange of dumb jokes.

Now, there are very serious issues around intercepting corporate email andmaking it available to anyone other than the intended recipients. Suchbehavior will cause email to dry up and you will roast in hell being whippedby the spammers who are being punished less severely because they weremerely annoying. We are still awaiting the solution that is incredibly smartabout email and somehow manages to avoid invading people's privacy.

So, in the interim, here's a suggestion so obvious that if you're not yetdoing it, you ought to be ashamed: Create mailing lists for the variousgroups in your organization that do a lot of emailing. For example, create amailing list for your sales force so they can ask one another questions. Putsome of marketing and engineering on the list so they can listen, learn andoccasionally speak. Let everyone know that all email to this mailing list isbeing archived. Index it. Maybe even invest some time organizing it into aFAQ.

Once you've done that (today!), start looking for other tacit documents youcan make explicit. The great thing about these documents is that they existbecause someone needed the information and someone took the time to express it. Seek them out! Ignore all quests for the will o' wisp of tacitknowledge. Only thus will you achieve enlightenment, o grasshopper