Mining the Tacit Database

12 May

If an organisation is trying to use experience as a resource to learn and develop, what’s an effective approach? Every organisation has a “tacit database”, the experience based skills and reasoning people use every day to effectively complete tasks, solve problems, and innovate. The tacit database, however, is combined of taken for granted rules of thumb (heuristics), meaning that people do impressive things, but struggle to explain how they did it.  This leaves an organisation knowing far more than it can say– the tacit database is frequently a hidden asset.

Organisational initiatives based on learning and development to improve performance are frequently focused on adding something new. Far fewer initiatives are focused on finding out what works on the frontline. Such as how people adapt to novel events, the limits of procedures, what goes right to avoid unwanted incidents. And perhaps most crucially, subtle innovations which tweak processes to make them more effective, but are never shared beyond an individual or at best, a team. So a cultural reason which keeps the tacit database below the organisational eye line, is the drive for something new.

The effectiveness of tacit knowledge lies in that it is experienced and context based. It is genuinely the sum of what works for who and why and in what circumstances. Something new can potentially disrupt these subtle processes, leading to falls in performance. Unless, efforts are made by planners to understand what happens (tacitly) on the frontline.

This leaves a question of how to capture and mine the tacit database. A colleague recently shared with me a draft book chapter written by Starbuck and Hedberg (2001). The chapter is concerned how organisations can learn from success and failure, and in it, the authors describe how both cognitive and behavioural approaches to organisational learning have their strengths, but also their weaknesses, see below

“Behavioral approaches explain as much behavior as possible without allowing for conscious thought, so learning arises from automatic reactions to performance feedback. Because it is learners’ environments that generate this feedback, environments strongly influence what is learned” (Starbuck and Hedberg, 2001, p.1, abstract.)


“Cognitive approaches describe learners as being able to perceive, analyze, plan, and choose; learning modifies cognitive maps that guide action. Cognitive approaches make effective learning dependent upon realistic perceptions, so these theories have difficulty explaining how learners can improve even though they misunderstand their environments. On the other hand, cognitive approaches can explain how people and organizations suddenly act in dramatically novel ways” (ibid)

In other words, you need both approaches to explore learning. The authors conclude that not only are both approaches required to effectively learn about organisational success and failure, but that you simply cannot close off one approach from the other. The consequences for curating tacit knowledge is that people make sense of their environment, notice cues and patterns, make sense of cues and patterns, develop an action script (Klein, 2007) and then act, receiving further feedback from their environment. Sometimes this process goes wrong, and sometimes it goes very well.

The important point is that environments provide cues, and people make sense of these cues in different ways, influenced by experience, training, culture and more. This is where cognition and behaviour interact. Controlling environmental cues can influence sense making (cognition) and sense making can result in actions on these cues, positively and negatively (behaviour). Tacit knowledge is most effectively collected when both approaches are taken into consideration

For example, someone joins an organisation with a wide range of experiences, training and achievements. Their background influences their cognition-what they notice, prioritise, how they make sense of cues etc. The environment our person enters contains procedures, protocols and training which are designed to influence their behaviour in a direction which leads to positive outcomes.

When this person starts work in their new environment, they might hit the limits of procedures fairly quickly, a grey area, and improvise, using their experience and sense making. The outcome is very positive. The person has adapted effectively by applying their tacit knowledge, but what they did, and how they did it remain hidden.

What we’d like to know from this person is in what circumstances the environmental resources hit their limits, how did the person identify this, and although their behaviour was contrary to formal process, what experience\sense making did they apply to effectively adapt?

In short, for an organisation to learn, it needs to mine its own tacit database through both cognitive and behavioural approaches.


Starbuck, W.H. Hedberg, B. (2001) Handbook of Organizational Learning and Knowledge; M. Dierkes, A. Berthoin Antal, J. Child, and I. Nonaka (eds.); Oxford University Press, 2001

Klein, G. (2007) The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work. Currency


One Response to “Mining the Tacit Database”


  1. Health Care and the Tacit Database | Echo Breaker - May 24, 2016

    […] a recent article (here), I discussed the potential of an organisation’s tacit database- an organisation’s frontline […]

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