Topspin and Tacit Knowledge

Do you know what you know? And, more importantly, do you know how to communicate it effectively to someone else? For far too many of us, the answer to both of these questions is “No.”

To be fair, we may think we know the extent of our knowledge and may even believe we can be effective teachers of that knowledge, but Malcolm Gladwell suggests that we are just fooling ourselves. Take a look at the brief video clip below of Gladwell discussing why people succeed. He recounts instances where professional tennis players believed they were giving an accurate account of their knowledge and practice, and yet a video of their game proved the inaccuracy of what they said. At the end of the day, the explanation they gave about how they hit a topspin forehand did not match what they actually did.  Rather, their instructions would have led to a sprained wrist. Were they just dumb? Gladwell doesn’t suggest that.  Instead, he says that their knowledge as extremely competent professionals was instinctive and they really weren’t able to reduce it to words that could produce a topspin forehand if put into practice by someone else.


Now consider the implications of this for knowledge managers who seek to “capture tacit knowledge.” It is an article of faith in knowledge management that some of the most valuable knowledge is tacit knowledge:  that part of knowledge that comes through experience and cannot easily be codified into explicit knowledge.  It’s prized and it’s elusive.  Dave Snowden years ago reminded us that we know more than we can say and we say more than we can write down.  Yet so many of our knowledge management systems depend upon the written word. If you’re lucky, your knowledge management system will contain merely incomplete information.  If you’re unlucky, your attempts to render tacit knowledge explicit may result in information that is just plain wrong — like the instructions on how to hit a topspin forehand.

What are the solutions? Rather than asking experts to write everything down, consider making a video.  But have that video focus on what the experts are doing — not what they are saying. As we discovered with the tennis players, verbal explanations may be no more accurate than written explanations. Better still, facilitate knowledge transfer by having the experts work directly with less knowledgeable people.  It’s this old-fashioned apprenticeship approach that maximizes the flow of tacit information.

Granted, instituting an apprenticeship isn’t quite as cool as implementing new technology. But if you really want to learn how to hit a topspin forehand, you will have to learn by watching and doing.  If you rely on the incomplete transfer of tacit knowledge into verbal or written instructions, you may end up with a sprained wrist.

You’ve been warned.



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