Thursday, December 18, 2014

Tacit Knowledge-The Map is not the Territory

When I first learned how to drive in Cincinnati, there were no gadget gizmos like Google Map or OnStar. This was back in the mid-1990s’ and if you wanted to get somewhere unknown, you had to plot it on a map—which I found on the back of a phone book—and figure out the major streets and a sense of direction. From there, you just have to get on the road, and test it out. Cincinnati is also a bit strange. Streets will cut off in one part of the city and pick up in another. Most often, streets will change names as you proceed through from one part of the city to another. This made driving fun and difficult, but it forced me to learn landmarks and develop a topographic understanding of the city’s throughways.

More than ten years later, my wife and I moved back to Cincinnati and now it’s her turn to figure out the streets. She, of course, has the handy-dandy smart phone with the not so helpful Siri. She also has OnStar and those people will bend over backwards to do your bidding. My wife heavily relies on the technology and plotted routes. I get very frustrated when I try to tell her not to go a certain way because instinctively I knew that would be a bad way to go. She often refuses to listen and trusts the formal institutional knowledge Google and OnStar have put together on their servers. Sure, my brain may have less memory and horse-power; but I am much better at predicting the traffic flow and knowing just how long it will take the car to get from point A to point B. My wife, on the other hand, refuses to acknowledge my intimate familiarity with this city’s landscape.

What I have in my brain about the city’s driving ecosystem is a sort of “tacit knowledge” It’s earned through driving countless times and being lost in the city’s maze . . . again, and again, and again. It’s tacit in the sense that I don’t know the street names or which street connects to which. Instead, I know the feel of the neighborhoods, the old buildings that have been there for decades, the empty parking lot that once was a dwindling shopping center. This is not really knowledge in a formal sense since I don’t categorize it by north vs. south, left-turns vs. right turns. Instead, I rely on a judgment on how far I’ve gone in which direction and what’s around that seems right and what seems wrong. The details are voluminous and often mundane; I taken them for granted.

This phenomenon also occurs in organizations and companies. Often referred to as “organizational knowledge,” most people think it can be categorized and transferred. But in part I believe it should not if the objective is organizational growth. Instead of transferring it, your organization or company should really think about permeating it into your organizational culture and to innovate with it.

Think about it, "tacit knowledge" resides with the people who live and breathe your organization or company. They are information or practices that would make a difference in an stakeholder collaborative innovation process because they give you a sense or feel of what’s right and what’s wrong. That’s why when companies innovate, they should rarely rely on outsiders to do the job. Leaving it to strangers to create means leaving them with a map and letting them find the formal path that you would’ve found anyway if you weren’t so lazy. Internal innovation means stakeholder involvement and getting comfortable with the way things will come together in a group setting. When tacit knowledge of a group of internal stakeholders is put together, you will find they inherently find a pattern and a path forward.

This is an intuitive way of moving forward. It's much better than the institutionalized methods of paying for a boxed thinking. Out of the box I say.


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