Tacit Knowledge

 See also – Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacit_knowledge

Tacit knowledge is all the knowledge that cannot be written down and formally transmitted and learnt by other people from such writings, instructions, procedures or rules. It seems a trivial point but is far reaching. Language is a tacit knowledge – children learn to speak it, but adults have to be given grammar lessons for a foreign language, and yet the child native speaker would not know what a noun or a verb or a clause was and don’t need to.

Engineering and Energy policy all involve the acquisition and use of important tacit knowledge and this point has been widely ignored by successive government who use undoubedly clever people, but without the relevant tacit knowledge to make policies which then inevitably fail.

The Claverton Network is a store of tacit knowledge, and this can only be accessed by being part of the network – it is existing in the dialogues between experts.

One of the reasons learning to ride a bike is so hard, is that in fact, in order to turn left, say on a bike, you actually have to counter intuitively  first turn the bars slightly to the right, which tilts the bike, over to the left, and only then do you turn the bars left. Very few people know this piece of formal knowledge, although those who can ride a bike have clearly picked up the tacit knowledge, but it doesn’t stop them riding a bike, and it wouldn’t help their children learn to ride the bike if they were told this.

Even learning algebra as Professor Harry Collins has shown in his classic paper “Collins, H. M., (1974) `The TEA Set: Tacit Knowledge and Scientific Networks’, Science Studies, 4, 165-186.” has shown involves tacit knowledge – “X is the unknown, but is it the same unknown on Wednesday or Thursday, does it matter if it is written as  “x” or “X”, or  if it is written in chalk or printed in a book? There are whole list of tacit rules that cannot actually be written down. but can be learnt by doing algebra under instruction”

Collins also showed how tacit knowledge is vital in say the building of a certain type of laser – even when the originating lab tried to tell other labs in absolute detail how to do it, they couldn’t – the originators actually had to visit them and do it themselves because there were things they were doing – very technical things, which they were not aware of and could not therefore articulate.

Tacit knowledge also comes into designing atomic bombs: Tacit Knowledge, Weapons Design, and the Uninvention of Nuclear Weapons Donald MacKenzie and Graham Spinardi The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 101, No. 1 (Jul., 1995), pp. 44-99 (article consists of 56 pages) Published by: The University of Chicago Press

When the US restarted its atom bomb building programme, although it had all the books, blueprints and designs, the new guys couldn’t do it, and they had to get the old boys out of retirement to tell them how.

Tacit knowledge clearly also applies to our field of trying to work out what to do in Energy….to come to correct policy decisions also involves a lot of tacit knowledge and this can only come from dialogue with other practitioners, and this is what we see being transferred invisibly in all the Claverton dialogues.

Implications for UK Governance

It can be plausibly argued, that the failure to understand this very basic issue – tacit knowledge, and to design knowledge networks, that either are in government or feed into it, explain the hopeless state of many of our public services, and the catalogue of stupid counter productive decisions and policies implemented or inflicted on the UK over the years. Particularly the practice of employing economists and businessmen to deliver reports on important issues, which often when implemented are a disaster – witness the PFI fiasco of the Underground, or the privatisation of the railway by essentially lawyers and accountants, who did not appreciate how railways actually wor4ked. One can make a strong case to explain the decline of UK after the war on this issue.