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Blog: We can know more than we can tell

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  • Picture of Ross Smith FRSA
    Ross Smith FRSA
    Director of Engineering and Skype Translator at Microsoft Skype Division
  • Creative Institutions and Systems
  • Fellowship

Global business is changing at a lightning pace. New 'best practices' are published online every day. To survive and succeed in this climate of rapid change, we need to tap all dimensions of human knowledge. Breakthrough organisations will be those that build a climate of trust and inclusion to engage the best and brightest across cultures, generations, ethnicities, genders and disciplines. A changing world requires diverse talent.

The modern organisation is a microcosm of the transforming landscape and the global society in which we live and work. Organisations are increasingly diverse – cognitively, culturally, generationally, and experientially. People are living and working longer; for the first time in human history, we have five generations in the workforce. Co-workers come from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and bring unique knowledge and expertise. 

We also now live in an age where the speed of communications is unprecedented. Long ago, cave paintings, carved tablets, papyrus scrolls, or town orators spread the news of the day,  but as we move deeper into the 21st century activity feeds, status updates, real-time language translation and co-authoring have all ratcheted up the email and internet frenzy of the late 20th century.

Consequently, we struggle to stay in touch with what we need to know - battling to survive in a world of “continuous partial attention”. As Linda Stone describes it: “to pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — continuously.  It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behaviour that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis.

We are expected to connect, collaborate, communicate, and operate at extraordinary speeds to create and compete, yet in a global community we are more aware of our differences than our similarities.

Diverse environments means less shared context with our co-workers than ever before. tiny_TwitterThis juxtaposition is one of the top challenges for 21st century organisations.

The teams that will flourish are those that create an inclusive, high trust, open environment where individuals can share their experiences, voice their opinions, and build a culture of experimentation. The communication tools we have at our disposal enable diverse teams to share 'tacit' knowledge in new and exciting ways.

The term 'tacit knowing' or 'tacit knowledge' was first introduced into philosophy by Michael Polanyi in 1958 in his magnum opus Personal Knowledge. He famously summarises the idea in his later work The Tacit Dimension with the assertion that “we can know more than we can tell”. Polanyi suggests that “human’s intellectual superiority over animals is due to our linguistic capabilities…” What’s left he called tacit knowledge - information that’s difficult to transfer to others.

Examples of tacit knowledge start with recognition – how can you teach another what characteristics you choose to recognise a friend? On the list of things we can’t teach others, we can include things like experience, perspective, and intuition. When you ask a successful employee how they became successful, they will often cite their experience, some of the best of which they attained through failure. Their 'professional intuition', honed by years on the job, is critical to success.

However, as more and more 'best practices' are codified and detailed online, it becomes more difficult for teams to differentiate themselves and stay creative. Within this increasingly competitive landscape, how can an organisation stay motivated?

I was privileged to pay a visit the RSA House in London in May, and every visit underscores the history and purpose that brings us all together. In his autobiography, RSA Fellow Benjamin Franklin talked at length about the importance of principles in sharing tacit information in conversation:

  • "Remember that the purpose of conversation is the attainment of truth or pleasure; conversations aren’t debates to be won."
  • "Listen well, putting aside our own assumptions in order to understand what the other person really thinks."
  • "Express our own beliefs in a way that acknowledges their possible falsehood."

As teams start to bring together diverse talent, it’s critical that leaders build organisational trust by adhering to Franklin’s principles. A high degree of trust forms the basis for creative and innovative behaviours tiny_Twitter

John Helliwell, Haifang Wang and Robert Putnam have performed extensive research that suggests “having a job in a workplace where trust in management is ranked 1 point higher on a 10-point scale, has the equivalent effect on life satisfaction as a 36% change in income”.

This is even more important in diverse teams, where culture, context, and shared experiences are fewer. The best teams will be made up of cognitively diverse members who share a high degree of trust with one another.

As we enter a new realm of technological achievements – a world where social media democratises voice and can amplify any given opinion, we must remain cognisant of the risk that lies with ignoring those with diverse tacit knowledge. The perspective of a team member from India will vary dramatically from someone from rural United States or London or Brazil and designing the ultimate experience will benefit from the experience of each of those team members. We need diverse teams that bring tacit knowledge together to be more creative and to innovate beyond what the web can codify.

The power of human evolution comes from our ability to share what we learn. We continue to find ways to convey our tacit learning. As Benjamin Franklin noted about the development of his own tacit knowledge: “were it offered to my choice, I should have no objection to a repetition of the same life from its beginning, only asking the advantages authors have in a second edition to correct some faults in the first.”

Diverse teams will be the innovators of the 21st century.

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  • This is a really great article - thanks so much for sharing such great insight, Ross!

  • I have been using tacit / explicit knowledge interplay with my clients for over 5 years now and agree it does give companies a sustainable competitive advantage.  The problem tends to be educating the clients about what KM is and how tacit / explicit leads to new knowledge they can benefit from commercially.  

    Look forward to other thoughts and comments.  

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