Durrance, B., Some Explicit Thoughts on Tacit Learning,

Training & Development, 1998, December, 24-29.

What do a Japanese tea ceremony, Clint Eastwood’s dead ringer, and riding a bike have in common? They are all examples of tacit learning.

It has been a long, hot day on the set. Out on the back lot, guys have gathered to vent their frustration over beers and horseshoes. As they miss their target, sand explodes around the stake, and the men curse. Suddenly, a long shadow falls over the horse shoe pit. The men look up. Clint Eastwood, silent, unsmiling, steps up, takes a swing. Clang. Direct hit. The men’s jaws drop. With a slight nod and only a trace of a smile, Clint turns and walks away.

Damn. How does he do that?

Hirotaka Takeuchi, a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author (with Ikujiro Nonaka) of The Knowledge Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation, directs us, for insight, to the Japanese tea ceremony. "When you’re doing tea ceremony," he explains, talking from the Friday-morning serenity of his Tokyo home to my late- Thursday perch on the California coast, "a very well-trained person would pour water from a wooden spoon to a kettle about two feet below and make one straight line, like a thread coming down. If there is oneness of body and mind, you’ll have that kind of performance."

The master’s sureness of action, like Clint’s dead ringer, is a fundamental expression of tacit knowledge.

Our Western culture loves explicit knowledge—the quantifiable, definable information that makes up the reports, memos, manuals, and instructional materials you probably have on your desk right now. Tacit knowledge is more mysterious and harder, being tacit, to talk about. It can be the result when a training program works. Or it can be the reason another fails. Think of tacit knowledge as information become action. Performance. It underlies what we actually do.

"It’s what we know in our bodies," explains Takeuchi, "in our muscles, in our guts." Picture yourself driving a car, riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard. You know how to do those things so well that you don’t actually have to know how to do them; you just do them.

Tacit knowledge also lives in our hunch, intuition, emotions, values, and beliefs. Those nonintellectual qualities— or mental models—form the basis of how we behave and act, the filter through which we see the world.

For example, Takeuchi recalls his college roommate at Berkeley. "His family was military," Takeuchi begins, "and when he found out that that he was rooming with an ‘ex-enemy,’ I’m sure he was quite shocked. However, being a nice guy, he invited me to his home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and so on. After a year, when I was leaving to return to Japan, he tells me, ‘I don’t think there’ll he World War III. I can’t imagine being on the battlefield fighting against you!’"

A lecture on Japanese and American cultures could have provided explicit in formation to Takeuchi and his roommate about the other’s good qualities, but it would have missed the tacit element— the deep physical and emotional knowing that grows as result of working and living alongside each other. A lecture would have joined other intellectual material to collect dust, be argued about, or be dismissed, whereas the tacit knowledge shared by the two men will remain with them for a lifetime.

"Japanese companies are very sensitive to these things," says Takeuchi, "and they feel that this knowledge is deeper, in a sense, than words." Imagine the depth and range of tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge as being what the proverbial iceberg is to the tip. A successful organization, like a well-steered ship, makes room for both.

Takeuchi and Nonaka write about the time Mitsubishi and Caterpillar collaborated on a project in Japan. At the end of the project, the two teams were asked what they learned from each other. The Japanese team said, "Oh, those Americans, they write such good manuals. So explicit. And job descriptions!" The Americans said, "Well, that business of cho rei—the morning greeting, when everybody stands around and says what ever is on his or her mind—seemed like so much wasted time." But as the Americans talked about it further, they realized that thanks to the "frivolous" communication, they had learned things about everyone that they never would have in the course of formal work. They learned where others were "coming from," what values were driving them, how they felt. That helped them work together better.

As a result of the exchange, the Japanese realized that as their companies became more global, they could benefit from converting some of their tacit conventions to explicit forms so that people unfamiliar with their culture could understand. The Americans, in turn, realized that performance involves more than instructions or explicit knowledge. "Until that gets internalized and sinks in to your guts," says Takeuchi, "it really doesn’t have much of an impact."

Think of the Chinese proverb: "What I hear, I forget, What I see, I remember. What I do, I understand."

As Pavlov’s dog "learned" to salivate in response to a bell or a child learns never again to touch a hot stove, tacit knowledge is forming when we’re least aware. It can also be instilled consciously by practice.

Takeuchi recalls the skater in the recent Olympics who was asked if a disturbance just before his turn had upset him. No, he said, his gold medal gleaming in the sun, he was concentrating on getting the sound of the starter into his muscles. "He was visualizing it," says Takeuchi, "and having the sound, which is explicit, sink into his body, which is tacit. That’s part of his mental training."

Picture a technician who performs a motion until it’s second nature, or a speaker who repeats his lines until they feel spontaneous, or a facilitator who after a few hundred sessions can shift the energy of a group by speaking hardly a word. Each of those people, whether consciously or unconsciously, is converting external information to tacit knowledge, bringing together body and mind by practice.

Making tacit knowledge explicit

So, how does tacit knowledge become explicit? It doesn’t. Peter Senge, chairman of the Society for Organizational Learning at M.I.T. reminds us: "Embodied knowledge is embodied knowledge." But with reflection or careful observation, patterns of tacit knowledge can be experienced, expressed, and described. It’s like a translation or, as Takeuchi calls it, a "conversion," and has a new life all its own.

"Our theory," says Takeuchi, "is that new knowledge will be created if you convert one type of knowledge to another." The conversion can be tacit-to-tacit (watching somebody, then doing it); tacit-to-explicit (doing it, then describing it); or explicit-to-tacit (reading about it, then doing it). The one we’re most used to is explicit-to-explicit (reading about it, then describing it). The result, whenever knowledge translates from one form to another, is liberated energy, innovation, and performance. Got it! Aha!

"If you have an insight, an Aha!," says Takeuchi, referring to an event within an individual, "there’s quite a bit of new knowledge being created." He describes it as a spiral: Within an individual, explicit becomes tacit; then, as you reflect and express, that tacit knowledge is translated and creates new knowledge—either tacit or explicit— that others can share.

But how?

If you really want to know how to throw a horseshoe, you could run after Clint and ask him. But could he tell you?

"Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you can describe it," says Rick Karash, a Boston-based independent consultant and creator and host of Learning Org, an ongoing dialogue about organizational learning on the Internet (www.learning.org.com). "For example, 90 percent of the people who know how to ride a bicycle will tell you the wrong thing when you ask them to describe how to execute a left-hand turn." Really? I tried to describe it: "You lean to the left and turn the handlebars to the left, yes?" No. "First," he says, "You turn the handlebars slightly to the right so you can then lean to the left and turn." Hmm. It’s not our tacit knowledge that is inadequate but the translation to explicit. Moreover, even if we could describe how to ride a bike perfectly, describing it will never be the same as doing it.

So, how can you teach something that is tacit?

"Key to that," says Senge, "is action." (Clint hands you the horseshoe, nods to ward the pit.) Practices involving action have been an essential part of M.I.T.’s leadership training for years. The exercises—derived from Aikido, a nonconfrontational Japanese martial art—are designed to bring awareness of both body and mind. As such, they both create and express tacit knowledge.

Here’s a simple example: the unbendable arm exercise. Extend your arm straight out. Focus and brace yourself. Any attacker can come along and grab that arm like a pump handle and push you off balance. But if you extend the arm, exhale, concentrate on your center, ground yourself to the floor, relax the arm, and let the energy flow through it, your attacker will be unable to move it. As you’re reading this, you may think: Sure, so what? But you won’t have the knowledge that this exercise offers unless you actually do it and have the experience of it in your body. Go try it.

Takeuchi, in his Harvard programs, also uses action exercises, but he borrows from our Western Outward Bound. "We take groups to Hurricane Island, blindfold them, and go through the rope courses and all kinds of things." The labor and triumphs of building and sailing a raft, as one of Takeuchi’s international business groups had to do, remains in the bodily memory, where back on the job, it brings a new knowledge and energy to projects at hand. When a problem comes up, team members say to each other, "Remember the raft?" The knowledge instilled in them from somewhere on a beach as their raft fell apart and had to be redesigned, gives the team a whole new physical memory of themselves, their competence, and each other. This new knowledge gives them a more accurate mental framework through which to perceive and tackle a technical problem.

How do those exercises reveal tacit knowledge? Alan Snow, an internal education consultant for Hewlett-Packard Medical Products Group, trains groups in team building at the Browne Center in New Hampshire. He explains, "These exercises really serve as a metaphor for the workplace. Invariably, once people arc given a task and a set of instructions and parameters, they will kind of launch off and use their own predisposition to working with each other. The true workplace behaviors come to the surface pretty quickly." Participants get to recognize and express (make explicit) in a safe, nonthreatening context what confronts them every day.

Recently, for example, about 10 minutes into an activity, a team witnessed a sudden and shocking conversion of tacit knowledge to explicit. "One of the members just stopped one of the people who was attempting to lead the session, turned to him, and said, "You see? What you’re doing now is exactly what you do at work!" Everyone got it.

For Snow, the physical metaphors, carried out in the tacit domain, provide deeper learning than exercises carried out solely on the intellectual plane. He says, "In this kind of learning environment, you can see and feel very powerful results right there on the spot. It reverberates through the group."

I ask Snow if he can be more specific. He confronts the natural inadequacy of making tacit experience explicit: "It’s one of those subjective things. You have to kind of be there. There’s an atmosphere, camaraderie. When you see people who for years never really cooperated or talked to each other, hugging in an exercise, that’s really powerful."

Does it last?

"Unless you, as you are going through these exercises with your team, debrief," Takeuchi reminds us, "and right there begin to make the transition back to the workplace, it’s just a fun day in the woods." The facilitator must lead participants in reflecting on their experience so that the meaning can emerge (Aha!) and the insight or changes in mental models can be shared. Then, importantly, the new knowledge must have a receptive environment—a learning community—to return to, in which to grow. As Senge tells us: "What we have to learn in the West is that learning is in the body and, without the opportunity to practice, there is no real learning."

The conversion and exchange of knowledge are going on all of the time within and among individuals. That process becomes more complicated when a conversion is from an individual to an organization. "The natural place where knowledge resides," says Takeuchi, "is in an individual. And companies have to do something unnatural to convert that to what we call organizational knowledge."

A working example of that is Eureka (now called Smart Services), a project created by Xerox France and Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California. Eureka enables service engineers to share and be recognized for their tricks-of-the-trade. The principle is simple. Do you perhaps remember the last time that you listened to your auto mechanic describe in baroque detail the convolutions he had to go through to fix your car? A PARC study found that Xerox engineers, who make more than a million customer calls a month worldwide, tell similar "war stories to each other about diagnosing and fixing machines. It’s how they brag, but it’s also how they instruct each other. Xerox recognized that manuals and training programs can’t keep up with the fast-paced change of hardware and that the really current know-how is in the heads and hands of the service technicians. So, it did something "unnatural." It created a program aimed not to hand down instructions from the top, but to facilitate shared knowledge among peers. Eureka!

How does it work? The technology, Eureka’s literature says, is "a relational database on a mainframe tied to Minitel, with a simple case-based reasoner, a hypertext-based format for capturing tips, and processes for validating and distributing them." Whew! But it’s not the technology that’s important. It’s the social interactions that make it work. First, a Xerox technician must reflect on his or her performance and decide there’s a tip to share. Then, he or she writes it up (makes it explicit) and submits it to the review board. Then, the tip, with the technician’s name, is certified and broadcast on the company intranet.

Xerox found that for the program to work, the review board had to be made up of people whom the technicians respect or no one would bother to submit tips. Xerox also learned that name recognition (having the technician’s name associated with the tip) was more motivating than any cash incentive.

Last, trust is a subtle, but key, factor in the success of any project in which individual knowledge is converted to organizational knowledge. Just as the participant of an outdoor survival course must trust the competence and integrity of the facilitator, a technician, before sharing his or her knowledge, must trust that the organization will use it for his or her own good as well as the common good.

Xerox cultivates that confidence. "We put in a whole knowledge-sharing environment," says Dan Holtzhouse, director of business strategy and knowledge initiatives. "And we now have about 5,000 tips a month." That’s a lot of information. Does it work? "Knowledge," Holtzhouse reminds us, "is information put into action." Each technician who wants to adopt a tip will still have to act on it, practice, and make it his or her own.

Knowledge must expand exponentially for a company to hold a competitive edge. "Because things are speeding up so fast," says Holtzhouse, "your competitive advantage is your ability to use quickly what you’ve discovered and to continually improve on it and move beyond it, because somebody’s going to be copying it, and fast. So, you have to be continually re-creating. I think this notion of extracting or making available one’s tacit knowledge is an incredibly rich field for exploration."

Michael Polanyi, post-modernist philosopher and author of the 1967 book The Tacit Dimension, was among the first people to discuss and develop the concept of tacit knowledge. He says, "Tacit knowledge: It’s in there. We know more than we can ever say."

Actions speak louder than words. If you wanted to find out what your people need in order to be able to work better, you could ask them what they think, and everyone would have an opinion. Very explicit. But if you really want to know what they need and you remember that their deepest knowledge is in what they do, you might try something very tacit: You might watch.

Susan Stucky, director of the Institute for Research on Learning in Menlo Park, California, does just that. "I think we’ve over-relied on the explicit to do work. We have really spent a lot of energy to figure out how to go from tacit to explicit. Think of all of the textbooks, etc. And that’s not it. You’ve got to know it in practice for it to be effective in the work place." Stucky’s group concentrates not on making tacit knowledge explicit, but on making it visible. To show how individuals do what they do, and how groups and organizations do what they do. She studies communities of practice—ways of talking, being, dealing with things. Style. Culture. All very tacit. You can observe it in how members of a group handle a difficult customer, how a team puts together a solution, or how people walk through a hall.

One client, for example, wanted to design a new workspace and enlisted Stucky’s group to study the way its workers work. Because members of the client’s software team had their own offices, management wanted to build team rooms for meetings. So, with full cooperation from the workers being studied, Stucky’s group setup video cameras in strategic places and began recording the seemingly uneventful daily patterns. When Stucky’s group reviewed the tape, they could see that, though the employees worked behind closed doors, the doors had windows and, that as people walked down the hall, they’d look in the windows to see who was there and what was going on. The people inside their offices could interact. A lot of talk and a lot of work were accomplished out there in the hallways. "So," says Stucky, "the client ended up not making team rooms but redesigning the hall ways so that the mobile, fluid kind of exchange remained possible."

That is not to say, Stucky cautions, that we should all should spend our days out in the halls. "I think the hardest thing," she says, "is making room for informal and tacit [workers] to do their jobs. They don’t do all of the jobs. They shouldn’t be privileged. They should just get their fair share."

Stucky sees identifying tacit knowledge as fostering organizational integrity. She believes that there has to be alignment between what people are doing and where the company’s headed. "That alignment is what we’re trying to make happen—bringing the pattern forward, saying here’s what we see, now what do you want to do about it?" she says.

Whatever learning technology is used—whether it’s ropes, notepads, videotape, or any of the electronic programs now or yet to come—the same basic ingredients are necessary for success: a master facilitator, a learning environment, action, reflection, and trust. Now, we add one more: commitment. For people to participate in exercises that extract something from them—especially something as valuable as their tacit knowledge, not to mention their time—they want to know what’s going to become of that knowledge.


Doug Stover, who conducts the group ware room at Hewlett-Packard’s human resource division in Rohnert Park, California, gets commitment at the outset. Whenever he designs a groupware session—that is, an online meeting in which participants (usually, but not always, present in the same room) communicate via networked computers—he asks managers what will happen to the data that gets created. Stover builds that commitment into the program.

Stover’s own commitment and passion for groupware—one of the prevalent electronic means for eliciting, sharing, and organizing quantities of information—sets the tone for the room where tacit knowledge gets converted all of the time. Really? Stover quotes a manager who, at the end of a recent session, said to his team, "I’ve worked with you guys for 20 years, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard you. When you’re talking, I’m always trying to figure out what I’m going to say in response. Here, I get to see all the comments without the emotion, so I’m overwhelmed."

We may still wonder how something as impersonal and disembodied as people sitting around a room typing to each other over networked computers can have anything to do with tacit learning. A colleague of Stover’s explains. "Groupware, masterfully facilitated, allows people to play around with ideas in a virtual space, without the social and emotional barriers of conventional exchange," says Dennis Hong, World Wide Web curriculum manager for corporate information systems at Hewlett Packard’s headquarters in Palo Alto. "Everybody’s looking at information electronically, so you have no bullies, no shy guys; you’re focusing on the ideas. Everybody’s ideas get equal footing. It’s a great leveler. It’s like a big core dump. You can get people’s knowledge out and discuss it in a new way."

Groupware is a powerful tool part of a whole world of tools ranging from survival activities to high-tech programs to intelligent objects—all can help foster a new understanding of the way we see things; offer new ways to show us what we do; and provide massively efficient ways to store, categorize, and broadcast what we know. When we think about extracting tacit knowledge or making it explicit, we can see that, though those technologies are powerful, the conversion from tacit to explicit is a deeply personal activity made possible only in an atmosphere of trust and respect. It’s the result of reflection and interpersonal exchange. Tacit knowledge, that inner competence of what we know and do and believe and feel, is a living resource to be shared and cultivated to bring new knowledge and creative life. It’s not just information to the organization at large.

Here’s how you can cultivate the sharing of tacit knowledge among people in your organization.

If you’re a facilitator and want to teach others, have someone watch you and point out what you do that works. Remember that your greatest impact as a teacher or manager is in who you are and what you do, not what you say.