Trust to your tacit knowledge

April 17, 1998

A guide to girding your intellect on the long research road, faced with the mindset of the 'institutionalised dominant', by Pete Mann

So you're contributing through your research to the stock of knowledge? Which stock? The stock of explicit knowledge? This is the knowledge of discourse, of define-your-terms, of contestation: it uses symbols and systems to codify, transmit and locate what we consciously think we know. This articulated knowledge is characterised by rationality, logic and analysis - it is the knowledge of the mind tempered through detachment, order and objectivity. The school of explicit knowledge, where we learn before doing, teaches us know-about.

Or are you contributing to the stock of tacit knowledge? This is the knowledge of know-how and learning while doing. It is the knowledge of the body, which includes heart and soul, enriched by involvement, intuition and serendipity. Tacit knowing derives from practice and experience, swapping tools and savvy. We take this knowledge for granted, as it includes our mental maps and underlying assumptions. When we share it, it thrives on figures of speech and vernacular.

So which stockpile are you adding to? My hunch is when you submit for your postgraduate award or that publication to a refereed journal, you are preoccupied with fulfilling conventions of explicit knowledge - because those deciding the fate of your efforts are judging it that way too.

For at university, the prescribed syllabus, the coherent lecture, the set reading list underpin academic teaching. "Active" researching similarly demands review of what others know before you even start knowing it, prescience of your findings at the proposal stage before you have found them. Yet tacit knowing pervades the shopfloor and salesforce, informs process development and technological transfer, and propels learning how to learn in a learningful society. So why, in academe, is it devalued? And what can an aspiring researcher do about it?

Western epistemology has been consumed in dividing the indivisible. The legacy of positivism and reductionism pushes illuminative and generative tacit knowledge creation into a colloquial back water. In the scientificated thought world of explicit knowledge something not testable is something now knowable. The result is statistics over stochasis, measuring over meaning.

Five pieces of guidance for the unwary postgraduate keen to legitimise tacit knowledge:

* Expect incredulity. Highly intelligent people won't accept your reliance on a way to knowledge that contravenes orthodox reasoning. They block out former critical consciousness for asking fresh questions. So never expect the institutionalised dominant to willingly embrace intellectual parity with the individualised deviant.

* Externalise tacit knowing. Acknowledging the inherent contradiction of explicitly researching tacit know-how, become adept at bringing tacit knowing into its owner's consciousness. Two simple but powerful interventions in data collection (moving data gathering into data analysis): "What does that mean?'' asked after an informant has said something he or she takes for granted. And: ``What is important to you in believing that/feeling that way?'' The first helps convert the implicit into the articulated. The second digs deeper. Core value assumptions surface. Rich, hitherto tacit knowledge.

* Trust subjective experience. A great injustice inflicted by an elder - parent, teacher, supervisor - is the injunction to their charges that they deny the truth of day-to-day experiencing. People generally are doing the best they can when they offer: "It hurts," or "I find that difficult." And when in turn our primary senses are blotted out, this leaves us caught in an iniquitous transaction, a bind: we comply with sapiential authority masquerading as mature reason. Or, we retain the integrity of our fresh experience. Do trust the subjective experience of people contributing to your data since it is a basis of their tacit knowing. And get better at trusting your own, which may have been impaired by defective parenting/teaching/supervising.

* Sensitise yourself to the dynamics of the debate. Do not let others in the dominant paradigm distort your message. When you speak of balance, for example, in knowledge acquisition between tacit and explicit ways of knowing, your concern may be reinterpreted in either/or terms, as if you reject all explicit knowledge and embrace only tacit. Be alert to these manifestations of unconscious social control. They are further ironic evidence of the establishment of tacit knowing among explicit knowledge adherents: the internalised authority of people used to inflated influence. Compare the consultant praising the "high cooperation" of nursing staff on his ward: "We sort things out.'' This articulated "truth" becomes incomplete if we find "cooperation" experienced as compliance by subordinates. What he tacitly mean is: "I get my way." Knowledge is power, and explicit knowledge in lopsided circumstances is always more powerful, so learn to recognise it.

* Invoke here-and-now examples. And learn to recognise tacit knowing too, because it is all around you. You level the playing field when you can draw attention to in vivo illustrations of it. These are more incisive than diffuse arguments and generalities. For example, when somebody is raving on about explicit knowledge being the only basis of important knowledge, ask them to say explicitly how they know they hold that view. Or how they account explicitly for the intelligent remark they are going to say next. Important and valued abilities like these - as in my writing this sentence or then choosing to change it - we only know tacitly. As Michael Polyani said 35 years ago: "People know more than they can say."

Your task in undertaking research is huge - and uneven. Much of it may feel like a solitary sojourn, but the reality is that contributing to the stock of knowledge is a social act. You will need emotional stamina as well as intellectual might along your long journey. Can you reflect during your private tacit struggles on such research fundamentals as the relationship between known and unknown or between subject and object? One thing for sure, if encountered in compulsory assessed "pre-research" training workshops, they will not mean much. Once you begin learning by researching, though (as distinct from learning to research), you can be assured they will hold meaning. So can you, in your research, account explicitly for your emergent understanding - for your tacit knowledge formation - of these and other relevant philosophical issues? Can you both add to the stock of knowledge and take stock of your additive contribution? Can you research and learn while in higher education?

Pete Mann is a senior lecturer at the Institute for Development Policy and Management, Manchester University.

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