The Value of Inarticulate Knowledge

7 Jul

Two people are in a garage. In front of both people is a drum kit; one garage, two people (let’s call them person A and person B), and two drum kits. Person A picks up the drum sticks and produces one of the most awesome displays of drumming person B has ever seen, including a trick that person B believes could only be performed by a super human. This dialogue follows

Person B- how did you do that trick?

Person A- the one with both hands?

Person B- Yeah, that one

Person A- I don’t know really, just practice I guess, I made it up

The above exchange is typical when someone tries to find out how someone else performed something which exceeded their expectations. What person A performed was beyond routine, and beyond good. It broke the limits of person B’s technical knowledge, they (B) simply didn’t recognise the skills required to perform “that tick”. Person B was so amazed by what they saw because they didn’t recognise it, it broke their norms and expectations; it was a surprise event. Immediately, person B attempted to adapt by trying to make sense of “that trick” by asking person A the question- how did you do it? However, person B was unable to adapt because person A simply did not know how to describe it, it was a tacit skill they had acquired through practice.

There is a general dilemma contained above; when human beings are confronted with events which are beyond routine, experience, and their current limits, they attempt to adapt their skill\knowledge base to incorporate this “new event”; human beings need to know how to make sense of new events, how to frame them, understand them and improve as a result of them. However, frequently, this understanding is bound to be limited, as so much of what we see is tacit-inarticulate knowledge. And this leads us into another set of questions.

Why do we trust some people more than others in a professional environment? What seems to separate the best performers from those who seem to struggle and how can this gap be closed? These questions are asked quite frequently in organisations, professions and skill based activities. The question’s aren’t necessarily asked or framed in this way, but appraisals, seminars, training and many other regular activities all seek to take the lessons from the “best” and give them to others to use and improve. In some cases it’s obvious what separates the good from the outstanding, but in most cases the interaction between an individual’s reasoning and their environment create tacit skills which are incredibly difficult to locate, collect and articulate in any meaningful way. This produces a fundamental of the human condition- we frequently know more than we can say. For researchers in my field, and similar fields, we aim to close the gap between inarticulate and articulate knowledge.

Every piece of research should have some benefit, so what benefit is there in drawing out lessons from people who have adapted to non-routine situations or redefined limits? I’ll start with an example that is probably familiar, almost routine. Imagine a CEO about to carry out a pretty simple piece of change management, take a highly successful team which operates in building A and move the team to building B; seems straight forward. A relatively simple change like this can actually have large consequences if the CEO doesn’t have some basic knowledge of how the team interact with their environment. Is this team successful because they have open plan offices and so frequently discuss their projects, allowing everyone to pick up hints, tips and absorb tacit skills? Or do they each have their own offices but communal lunch and common room facilities where similar learning can take place? If the CEO only understands that the team are successful as opposed to why they are successful, and that includes some basic knowledge of how the environment supports this success, a simple act like an office move could have a profound effect if the new work space has some innocent, but vital, differences which influence communication. Sometimes office moves are designed solely by architects and removed executive teams, and this is why tacit skills can be innocently washed out within a couple of weeks.

Another example is being able to turn emotional responses, such as trust, into usable information and ultimately knowledge. I was asked by a construction site manager to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their performance. The site manager “virtually” managed specialist teams who operated across six separate sites at any one time. So, the site manager had six teams who were assigned to construction sites, anywhere across the UK, to carry out specialist projects. When the projects were completed, the teams would move on to another project located at another site. For the site manager, this was the problem- three of teams would work independently, use their initiative, problem solve and move smoothly between projects. By contrast, the other three teams would consistently run into problems, contact the site manager repeatedly about how to fix these problems, seek to consult on every decision and were causing the site manager “a lot of stress”. An aggravating problem with the latter three teams was that even when things were going well, the site manager couldn’t help but over manage them with constant phone calls and checks, further concreting a culture of dependency.

When the site manager was explaining the above situation, they talked about which teams they trusted and which teams they didn’t. This is a familiar human method for making sense of other people; carving people into “trust” and “don’t trust” groups. The challenge is to identify what beliefs and behaviours people are recognising which generate these emotional responses. So, what was the site manager recognising which led them to trust someone? Before each site job, a strategy for getting the job done was drawn up by themselves (the site manager) and the team who would be carrying the project out. This strategy was a sketch, and was meant to be a guideline for carrying out the job. It was at this point the two sets of teams separated in their approach.

When the teams which the site manager trusted arrived on site they would weigh up the situation and visualize how the strategy could run into trouble based on what they were seeing. The “trusted teams” would then adapt the plan based on perceived problems, develop contingency plans, and plan extra\alternative resources up front. This kept surprises to a minimum, and even when they did occur, they were far easier to recover from. The “untrusted teams”, alternatively, would start work immediately by implementing the sketched out strategy. This led to fast and frequent problems, and the total inability to recover from unexpected events, for example, the job would have to close down whilst they waited for alternative resources. The suggestion? Get the “untrusted teams” to adopt a simple, three stage, pre-planning routine when they arrived on site for each new project. This immediately got the teams focused on adaption, rather than frequently asking “what do I do next?” Identifying how people make sense of events, teams and other people through the casual use of everyday words like “trust”, can provide simple lessons which accelerate performance; so ask, what are people recognising which makes them trust someone else’s performance?

The eminent psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer (2008) provides a fascinating example, which illustrates how adaption can sometimes be achieved by letting go of information, as opposed to gathering more. Gigerenzer wished to test the role of recognition in decision making. The recognition heuristic is based on research which suggests that when human beings are faced with two or more competing choices, situations etc. they will select the choice which they recognize the most. Like many heuristics, its potential origin lies with how our ancestors used to make sense of uncertainty- trust friends over strangers etc.

Gigerenzer and his colleague entered a stock picking contest in 2000 organized by the magazine, Capital. The editor chose 50 internet equities and over a period of six weeks, each contestant could buy, sell or hold any of these equities to produce a profit. To pick their portfolio, Gigerenzer et al, asked 50 Berlin men and women with no professional knowledge of equities which stock names they recognised out the 50 equities. Choosing the 10 stocks most frequently recognised, the Gigerenzer portfolio was held for the six week tournament; no changes were made. The competition benchmark was the performance of the editor, at the end of the six weeks the Gigerenzer portfolio was up by 2.5% whilst the benchmark editor portfolio was down 18.5% (see Gigerenzer, 2007 for a full account). What broader conclusions can be drawn?

The novice group selected their stock picks on recognition. They had limited knowledge of stocks so just picked the names which the 100 Berliner’s recognised. The experts used very complex models and analysis. The problem occurs for experts when so much data from previous performance (which the experts had access to) is used to forecast future performance. No one is capable of predicting the future, so it is impossible tell which data from the past will be relevant to future performance, this causes errors to be factored into analysis. In other words, the experts simply knew too much, and name recognition demonstrated a far more reliable method for anticipating future performance. This finding has been repeated across multiple domains, and Gigerenzer himself invested a significant amount of money in a “novice portfolio” making substantial gains.

The lesson is that complexity can frequently derail intuition, and can blunt adaption to fast changing events. The point is that the Gigerenzer portfolio was selected intuitively, using a more productive method than complex data collection and analysis. This isn’t always the case of course, but it’s important for an organisation to know what highly effective short cuts exist which can cut down endless, time consuming and unproductive data collection. The point equally applies to procedures and processes. Procedures and processes should ensure that fundamentals are being attended to (airplane check lists, basic patient information etc.) but should not become so overly complex, bureaucratic and burdensome that fast, effective intuition, such as the recognition heuristic, becomes impossible. This is was something myself and colleagues discovered when investigating how experts produced excellent patient care for people who had dementia. The experts would use heuristics, experienced based rules of thumb, to provide simple and productive solutions. Too much bureaucracy would not only make these short cuts hard to share but nearly impossible to develop.

In this article I’ve taken a brief look at why it’s worth examining adaptive thinkers. A lot of what we do is tacit, known, but not articulated. Without taking simple steps to uncover tacit knowledge we can take it for granted, until the people we rely on leave, or we can wash it out with seemingly innocent changes, or we can make it impossible to surface with too much complexity, or we can mistake an adaptive mind for an open mind by constantly searching for more data and the gold at the end of the rainbow. Back to the scenario at the start, It’s not just about marvelling at the drumming skills of person A, it’s about giving person B a few tools which they can apply to learn those skills. Below are articles from Echo Breaker which has discussed the role and collection of tacit knowledge.

A quick look at expertise in action

What tacit sense making goes on when we read and respond to emails? This article takes a look at the consequences of making sense of emails

A look at some of the conclusions Echo Breaker research drew toward the end of 2013

Why exploring decision making has value not just for fulfilling research agendas but also for what it tells us about how we interact with, and make sense of our environment

Taking the emotion of trust and turning that into a resource which has use for management, planning and innovation


Gigerenzer, G (2008) Gut Feelings: Shorts Cuts to Better Decision Making. Penguin

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: