Tacit Knowledge

Written — Updated
  • Author: Cedric Chin
  • Source: https://commoncog.com/blog/tacit-knowledge-is-a-real-thing/
  • Why Tacit Knowledge is More Important than Deliberate Practice
    • Tacit knowledge is knowledge that can't be captured through words alone.
    • You can try to tell someone how to do the task but that is insufficient for them to actually learn it.
    • These kinds of skills are better taught through imitation and practice. Seeing examples and performing the task under a guide goes a long way where words fail.
    • This applies most obviously to physical tasks, but it also is a valuable concept in knowledge-based tasks.
    • People skilled at programming, stock trading, or other tasks may be able to show you their knowledge and provide answers, but be unable to provide a explanation that actually teaches others how to arrive at the same conclusion in a similar case.
      • In these cases, they can often explain the specific features and tradeoffs they evaluated in a particular decision, but the underlying principles used to make those evaluations are harder to express in a way that really teaches them to others.
      • Those underlying principles are also often filled with exceptions and small, but important, details that have been learned over the years. A skilled practitioner uses these details when making a decision, but consciously recalling them in a teaching scenario is more difficult.
      • A good sign that someone is using tacit knowledge to make an decision is when their explanation is accompanied by a long list of caveats and exceptions that they used to make it.
      • Atul Gawande tells a story about appendicitis surgery. As surgeries go it's a pretty common thing, but there are still a wide variety of approaches to take and decisions to make, depending on the patient's body, how easy it is to find and extract the appendix, and numerous other details.
        • This story in no way prepares someone to perform surgery, but it illuminates that surgery is full of tacit knowledge.
    • Teaching Tacit Knowledge
      • The Holy Grail of this would be to be able to make tacit knowledge explicit in some way so that everyone could take advantage of it without extensive practice.
      • Many have tried to do this, whether through creating flowcharts, computer systems, or books. The consensus is that it's very difficult to do this effectively. There are just too many little details that a human expert has internalized but wouldn't necessarily recall in an interview without specific prompting.
      • These kinds of systems for teaching tacit knowledge also tend to prevent the development of tacit knowledge. Because someone following a flowchart is not really thinking for themselves, they don't engage the parts of their brain that would encode exceptions and variations on rule.
      • There are some rare cases where tacit knowldge has been successfully expressed.
        • Gary Klein developed a technique called Critical Decision Method (CDM) which seems to work well, but is also difficult to perform.
        • John Boyd developed an Air Force manual for dogfighting, previously thought to be impossible.
      • Some place hope in AI systems for better encoding the various exceptions and when they apply through learning over massive datasets.
    • Learning Tacit Knowledge
      • The problem with applying deliberate practice to tacit knowledge is that deliberate practie requires an understood task with well-encoded rules. Fields that are made up largely of tacit knowledge are not well-suited to this.
      • Apprenticeships work well here.
      • Naturalistic Decision Making is the study of how to tacit knowledge is learned, and it is overvied in The Oxford Handbook of Expertise.

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