Two types of knowledge


Explicit Knowledge

#1 is explicit knowledge. By definition, explicit knowledge can be captured in words. It’s the facts. Answers on Jeopardy.

Retention of explicit knowledge is easily measured and graded and for that reason it’s where tests focus, over-simplified or not. We grade recent recall, but people have forgotten 90% of what they learned before they have the opportunity to apply it.

A wide variety of jobs rely on the look-up, transfer, and interpretation of explicit knowledge. They are being replaced by algorithms. This is not where you’ll create value in the future; that takes a human touch.

Some people (managers, consultants, teachers) mistakenly think that learning explicit knowledge is all there is to it because fact are the focus of schooling. A Silicon Valley engineer once told me that knowledge was simply “the stuff we haven’t figured out how to put into words or an algorithm.” The poor fellow didn’t appreciate the richness of life or the fact that somethings are too awesome to ever be reduced to words.

Tacit Knowledge

#2 is tacit knowledge. It’s about really doing it. It’s what separates a chef from a home cook following recipes. Tacit knowledge can’t be captured in a book. It calls forth judgments, emotions, and complexities that you only absorb through experience. Tacit knowledge doesn’t simply inform you, it makes you a better person.

The basic difference is that explicit knowledge adds to what you know. Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, transforms your identity. For example, you can know a lot about cooking but until you have tacit knowledge, you can’t call yourself a chef. It’s learning to know versus learning to be.

Take the phase “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” It’s untrue. People manage what they can’t measure all the time. The higher you go in a hierarchy, the more likely you have to make decisions on the basis of incomplete information. You have to make judgment calls. You have to trust your gut feel because there are no measurements to go on. We reward senior managers highly because they have the confidence and wisdom to wing it when logic and explicit knowledge don’t provide the answers.

New York Times columnist David Brooks talks of two different sorts of personal virtues. There’s “resumé knowledge” what you know, primarily explicit knowledge. More important is “eulogy knowledge” what you’d like said at your funeral, and it’s primarily tacit. Brooks concludes “wonderful people are made, not born — the people I admired had achieved an unfakeable inner virtue, built slowly from specific moral and spiritual accomplishments.” It doesn’t get more tacit than that.

The Right Stuff


Aha! focuses on acquiring tacit knowledge from experience and conversation. It accentuates what makes us human. Challenge. Variety. Growth. Relationship-building. Judgment. Complexity. Human skills. This is where value is created. Expanding your experience is the way to get there. 

Change your work to include what you want to know and become. Whatever it takes in your organization, do something about it. Don’t let yourself stagnate. What’s good for you and good for them? Aha! shows you how to get there.

Get your copy of Aha! (in beta) for $2.99 here.

The role of tacit and explicit knowledge in the workplace by Elizabeth A. Smith


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