Tacit & Explicit Knowledge – Wha…?


Firstly I need to mention that I read this book extremely fast. Approx. 2 weeks is all it took, and for me that is a record. I think there are a couple of reason for this:

  • It’s a relatively small book – 178 pages.
  • I’ve been catching the train to work recently – reading time.
  • I was very keen to see what I could learn from it.
  • I would normally back track a lot while reading, going over paragraphs a few times to clear any misunderstanding. I didn’t do that as much with this book because not matter how many times I went over certain paragraphs I know I wouldn’t have understood it any better!

I recall telling some colleagues of mine that it was a ‘mind bender’ after reading only a few pages, and I still maintain that description. I don’t have an academic background so I’m not used to reading text such as this. It was a struggle to begin with, but about half way through certain elements began to make sense and I could start to relate them back to not only my testing, but also my martial arts training. The book prompted some tweets from me (some direct quotes):

  • “What the mistaken claim that all knowledge is tacit does indicate is that, mostly, explicit knowledge is harder to understand…” H Collins
  • “The modern world is thought of as driven by explicit knowledge – patterns.” H Collins
  • “The explicit is taken as the norm rather than the tacit – and the contrast with what is not explicit is ever present.” H Collins
  • “Education is more a matter of socialization into tacit ways of thinking and doing than transferring explicit information or instructions.” H Collins
  • #testing standards are like lookup tables, being frozen history at best… and often not even that. 1/2
  • –Little to no sensitivity to social constructs and changing contexts. #stopiso29119 2/2
  • The /rules/ of #testing are like the /rules/ of society… constantly changing. Explicit standards don’t change with them. #stopiso29119
  • So, just finished Tacit & Explicit Knowledge by Harry Collins. It’s going to take a while to digest, but some instant gems are evident.

Along with the tweets there were multiple thoughts that have found their way into my book (currently in progress); specifically related to knowledge transfer.

As soon as the book moved on from explaining the explicit, into explaining the tacit, my thoughts quickly moved to martial arts and how the many instructors I’ve work with have attempted to transfer knowledge on to me, their student. While Harry does well at explaining a very complex subject using working examples (riding a bike for example) I still found myself getting more from the book when linking it back to my own experiences. While this would seem common place, I want to make this point very clear because had it not been the case, I would have really struggled with this particular read. I found it to be a rather confusing style of writing; however with persistence I managed it.

Harry draws a very useful ‘map’ of tacit knowledge throughout the book, and this helps to analyse what can, should, cannot, and should not be explicit/explicable. My relatively naive understanding of both forms of knowledge, pre-read, appears to have been correct to some degree, but that understanding was nowhere near deep enough. The book has helped me to question further the extent of both forms of knowledge, and how they may impact the work we do, and could do, as testers.

Making something explicit can be as simple as writing it down on paper, but does that mean it will hold any meaning to the recipient? Will be useful to them? Will it afford them the understanding they need in order to do a good job? Are you making knowledge explicit when doing this, or simply writing words on paper? This book prompts a lot of great questions!

Harry, very neatly, breaks up tacit knowledge into three forms:

  • Relational Tacit Knowledge (RTK – Weak) – Contingencies of social life.
  • Somatic Tacit Knowledge (STK – Medium) – The nature of the human body and brain.
  • Collective Tacit Knowledge (CTK – Strong) – The nature of human society.

He sets out to explain how each of these forms of tacit knowledge can, or could, be made explicit, and how elements of each cannot. CTK held the most meaning for me. This is the area of tacit knowledge that calls on our society, the knowledge that remains sensitive to the varying contexts of our lives, surroundings, interactions, etc. Learning to drive a car was a great example used for this. While the instructions for interacting with the car itself could be explicable, how would you go about making explicit the knowledge required to react to varying traffic conditions, driving rules, etc. Or simpler again… while you can tell someone (make explicit) how far away they must remain from another person while walking past them on the street, what would that person do if it were a busy walkway? What would they do if the person passing them was of the opposite sex? Can they break the distance rule and bump into them because it’s busy? What if they did this when it wasn’t busy? Each time they passed a different person, in different conditions, they would need to call on their CTK in order to navigate the situation. Thinking of, and making explicit, every conceivable scenario for passing someone on the street could be possible; however the limitations (we would die first, and where would we store all the data?) would be far too great for any of us to achieve it.

Now with all of the above in mind, think about your testing. How many possible scenarios do you think you could call upon in order to make the task explicit? Exactly… don’t bother! Testing is social. Our CTK (along with RTK and STK) plays a huge part in us doing a good job. This fly’s in the face of testing that solely calls upon explicit step by step procedural artifacts (test cases). While these may add value in some contexts, doing them alone will not allow for the CTK that is so greatly required in our work.

There is much more within the covers of this book. The above is merely one learning that fell from the pages for me; and while I ‘knew’ it already, I don’t think I knew it deeply enough.

I’d like to do an analysis of some testing activities and see where they fit on the map of tacit knowledge as it’s written in this book. That will take time.

I now need to read The Shape of Actions, one of Harry’s earlier books in collaboration with Martin Kusch. It’s mentioned a few times through this book, as are polimorphic and mimeomorphic actions. While I have a high level understanding of these, I would like to go deeper.

I recommend this book to testers out there. It may be tough going, but persist like I did. There is value to be gained.

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