You know more than you think: tacit knowledge

Image: Gerd Altmann,
Image: Gerd Altmann

We know much more than we think. Our tacit knowledge, sometimes called “know how” is a rich collection of learning from experience. Unlike explicit knowledge (easily communicated and documented), tacit knowledge* is:

  • subjective, cognitive, experiential learning
  • personal
  • context sensitive/specific
  • dynamically created
  • internalized
  • difficult to capture and codify
  • difficult to share
  • high value
  • hard to document
  • hard to transfer/teach/learn
  • dependent on human interpretation

Tacit knowledge is typically invisible, difficult or impossible to document and often not apparent until we use it. Intuition and insight are examples of tacit knowledge held by those experienced in a specific task or activity. The inability to document or record this “know-how” creates challenges for knowledge management within organizations, creating knowledge gaps when employees move to a new job or retire. “Reportedly, 90 percent of the knowledge in any organization is embedded and synthesized in people’s heads … it is tacit knowledge that plays a key role in leveraging the overall quality of knowledge.” (Smith, p. 311-12)**

Whether it’s embedded in our own head or in that of our colleague or co-worker, awareness of and exploration of tacit knowledge offers exciting opportunities. Considering that our tacit knowledge includes learning, experiences and understanding that we take for granted and have often forgotten, examining our life experience from a new perspective may yield surprising and useful results.

Learning to recognize the tacit knowledge held by people in our workplace can be beneficial too. “People use metaphors, analogies, demonstrations and stories to convey their tacit knowledge to others (Stewart, 1997). … Listeners can evaluate story content and actions and apply useful tacit knowledge to their own jobs.” (Smith, p. 314)** Utilizing knowledge of co-workers, neighbours and others we know requires listening, observation and curiosity. Use of “soft” or interpersonal skills is essential to engage in tacit knowledge exchange.

Recognizing our own tacit knowledge—as far as is possible—is a worthy initiative but does not occur quickly. Awareness of the existence of tacit knowledge is the essential first step. Documenting (listing/describing) our training, experiences, beliefs and assumptions can move us forward in identifying potential tacit knowledge. In some cases, we won’t know what we know until we are facing a situation with familiar characteristics or “mental prompts.” Understanding that this scenario is a possible link to tacit knowledge opens our mind to possibilities.

We live in a digital age where attention is frequently focused on our devices. Many think of knowledge as external, relying on Google as their memory. While acknowledging the indisputable wonders of the Internet, maximizing awareness of our tacit knowledge affords creativity, insight and proficiency highly valued in modern workplaces. However, accessing this elusive knowledge is the opposite of “device obsession.” Mindfulness, awareness of our surroundings, observation, listening, curiosity and interpersonal/conversational skills are keys to unlocking tacit knowledge.

* Virkus, S. (2014). Key Concepts in Information and Knowledge Management. Tacit and Explicit Knowledge. Retrieved from

** Smith, E. A. (2001). The role of tacit and explicit knowledge in the workplace. Journal of Knowledge Management, 5(4), 311-321. Retrieved from