Strolling along the Border between Implicit and Explicit Knowledge Management

June 12, 2012 | LND | Methods & Tools |


Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Ernst BolligerMake implicit knowledge explicit und thus accessible to everybody! This is a request I often come across dealing with knowledge management issues. In how far is this possible? Kitchen recipes make it clear: Basic knowledge and skills can be described, but what about mastery skills? There are limits in transforming implicit into explicit knowledge.

By Ernst Bolliger, Agridea

If your are living in Switzerland, you might know, what “Betty Bossy” means. It’s about basic cooking recipes that work. You just have to follow the instructions and you get a dish, cake or dessert that will not disappoint your family, your friends. It’s often a bit basic, but it works, the product is fine. This is explicit knowledge management in the kitchen, made accessible to a large range of people.
But assume you would like to go for more; you strive for a mastery level in your kitchen. Your best friends, whom you did not meet for months, will come for a visit and you really would like to prepare a surprise dinner for them.
Fortunately Alfredo, the star cook in the downtown restaurant is a good friend of you. There is no problem for open sharing his knowledge with you; he does not have to keep secrets in favour of his restaurant to maintain the pole position in the market. Alfredo is famous for his excellent dishes, sauces and desserts.
Alfredo is just preparing one of the sauces you are so much interested in. You observe and note down all minor details in order to be able to imitate his fine art of cooking at home. At the beginning it is quite easy; there are the standard ingredients he is using. After some time, he tastes the sauce, decides to add a bit of this, a bit of that. What are the criteria to add a bit of this? And how much? The more Alfredo is refining his sauce the more you get puzzled. Should you note all this? Is this all part of the standard recipe? Alfredo laughs, oh, that depends on … hmmm … the initial ingredients, the wine, the taste after the first step of preparation … on my mood, on … well … it is not every day exactly the same. You give up. How can you get hold of Alfredo’s experience, if he himself doesn’t really, explicitly know what he is doing? How should you transform his implicit into explicit knowledge you can use later on? How can you get hold of a mastery performance?

I experienced something very similar in a training event for facilitators. Conducting such trainings for more than 20 years, I definitely have acquired some experience and the way I am conducting the training follows as well a basic programme and basic standards, as the needs of the ever changing participants. My way of performing depends on the material available in the training room, on the number of participants, their skills, their expectations, their behavioural patterns … on my energy, my mood, on … on the dynamic of the previous step in the programme … and sometimes on factors I even myself ignore.
In a recent training, one of the co-trainers took notes of everything she could observe. Out of the five day training she produced no less than 100 pages with an exact description of each and every module: the steps, the material and time needed, the assignments for group work, my comments while coaching the groups, the evaluation of the results, the feedback, etc. Impressive, I must admit it. I never imagined to produce such good and conclusive material about my own trainings.
And then, I started to ask myself: Will all these notes be useful one day? To whom? To the co-trainer? When will she read all these notes? Will the next training develop in a similar way that the notes can help steering the learning process in the desired situation?
I suddenly remembered a film I saw once in my childhood. A German pilot in a fighter had a problem with the engine. He took the emergency checklist and went through all the pages, trying to find out what was wrong with his machine while his machine approached more and more down to the ground … and in the really very last moment the pilot found the important information, performed the instruction and was up again in the air. It was an English film making a nice joke about German (Prussian) behaviour.
There is a deeper truth in this joke. I hardly can imagine a trainer with one hundred pages of notes in her hands in front of a group trying to find out what to do next. And my friend – the co-trainer – she cannot imagine either to do so. The notes may serve for preparation. She needs to transform explicit knowledge into implicit before starting the training. Every theatre actor knows this form of rehearsing: It is a must for a good performance.

In knowledge management, transforming implicit into explicit knowledge is only half the work. The second half is to re-transform explicit back into implicit knowledge in order to be able to apply it. Explicit knowledge is just a form of information that needs to be transformed into personal skills thus becoming implicit again. Explicit knowledge is the storable hard copy of knowledge – implicit knowledge is the soft copy applied in practical live. The higher the mastery level – the more difficult it will be to produce an explicit hard copy.


Comments to“Strolling along the Border between Implicit and Explicit Knowledge Management”

  1. Ernst, you have posted a nice and eloquent blog about implicit-explicit knowledge.
    And what Coincidence! I’ve often used the (seemingly simple) preparation of fried eggs, to indicate the weight of implicit knowledge. One will notice this only when you IMAGINE the many possible CRITICAL INCIDENTS in the preparation of fried eggs. Finally, you can end by burning down the kitchen …
    Regards, Thuri.

  2. Dear Ernst, thanks a lot for this “master & the cook story”. I love metaphors…. It’s good to have a cooking recipe in the background, because you can do really wrong (Thuri’s egg story). And if possible we don’t want to repeat the known mistakes. The master starts to play with the situation, using explicit and his/her implicit knowledge. The beginner probably still needs to have a look at the recipe and is not yet confident to start playing and experimenting. Best, Nadia


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