What is Tacit Knowledge and How Is It Manifested?

Tacit knowledge is that which is acquired through experience and remains implicit or relatively forgotten. Learn more about the subject.
What is Tacit Knowledge and How Is It Manifested?

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 19 October, 2023

Tacit knowledge is that which a person possesses and uses intuitively and automatically but is unable to express or communicate explicitly. It corresponds to the information and knowledge acquired through personal experience, practice, and interaction with the environment; it’s rooted in abilities, skills, and perceptions.

Within this knowledge is all the information and knowledge that’s consciously forgotten but remains alive in the unconscious. It’s possible that you don’t remember when or how this knowledge was acquired and it usually comes to light instinctively.

Implicit knowledge plays an important role in many activities and professions, as it’s based on personal experience and intuition. It’s also essential for decision-making and problem-solving.

“Tacit knowledge is like an invisible spark that ignites the flame of success.”

~ Peter F. Drucker ~

The characteristics of tacit knowledge

Tacit knowledge, as an article in Gaceta Sanitaria points out, is that which is used intuitively and unconsciously. It consists of contextual and personal knowledge that’s only acquired through experience.

In his publication Knowledge Management: From tacit to explicit, Eduardo Contreras argues that knowledge is very difficult to formalize and communicate. In addition, it’s made up of technical and cognitive skills.

The sociologist Michael Polanyi coined the term in the 1960s when he was designing his postulates on personal knowledge (Sanford et al., 2020). Polanyi claims that a valuable part of knowledge derives from informal understandings and skills that precede conscious thought. Instead of direct teachings, it’s transmitted through culture and history.

This knowledge is invaluable in many areas, including art, music, sports, and intuitive decision-making. Also, in all those activities where experience and personal practice are paramount, as is the case with firefighters, police officers, pilots, or people who have risky jobs. Its characteristics are the following:

  • Contextual: To a large extent, it’s related to the context in which it was acquired. It can be customized and depends on individual experience and perspective.
  • Automatic and intuitive: It’s applied without the conscious mind. Once acquired, it becomes an intrinsic part of how a person performs tasks or makes decisions.
  • Complementary: Both tacit and explicit knowledge are complementary and combine to support understanding and the ability to act in various situations.
  • It’s gained with experience: It develops as a person interacts with their environment and acquires practice in a certain area. It arises from observation, experimentation, and direct learning.
  • It’s not easily articulated: It’s intrinsic, as it’s rooted in skills, intuitions, and personal experiences. Due to its implicit nature, it’s often complex to encode and transfer effectively through words or explicit instructions.

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Why is it difficult to communicate implicit knowledge?

Communicating this kind of knowledge is difficult due to its implicit and subjective nature. Unlike explicit knowledge, which can be shared through words and symbols, implicit knowledge manifests itself more in practice than in theory.

Most people have difficulties to identify and verbalize the skills and knowledge acquired intuitively. In addition, it’s largely contextual knowledge, which means that it’s situation-specific and further hinders its universal communication.

For example, it’s the case of a firefighter who instinctively decides whether or not to enter a burning building based on a general observation. It also corresponds to what’s known as the “clinical eye” in some doctors.

Types of tacit knowledge and its manifestations

There are various types of intuitive knowledge; one of them is technical or related to specific technical skills in a certain field, such as repairing a car. There’s also procedural knowledge, which is associated with procedures and sequences to carry out particular tasks; it could be how to ride a bike.

That of a psychosocial nature, such as the way we should behave in a formal meeting, is classified as contextual intuitive knowledge. And we speak of cognitive when it’s based merely on intuition, quick judgments, and unconscious perceptions. Proof of this is having a “knack” for business.

These insights tend to come to the surface in a variety of situations, especially when a quick and automatic response is required or when personal skills and experience are essential. Here are some situations in which this knowledge is relevant:

  • Routines and habits
  • Social interactions
  • Intuitive decision-making
  • Resolution of complex problems
  • Skillful tasks, such as playing a musical instrument, playing a sport, cooking, or driving.

Implicit knowledge becomes explicit, as long as it’s turned into information that can be expressed and communicated clearly and formally. Outsourcing, coding, and documentation techniques work for this.

There’s intuitive knowledge related to the ability to understand and manage one’s own emotions and those of others. For example, giving good advice.

Tacit knowledge and interpersonal communication

In certain contexts, implicit knowledge influences communication and mutual understanding. Let’s look at it in a scenario: When two co-workers talk, they may understand each other more easily as a result of the years they’ve spent working together.

The tacit knowledge that both workers have about their functions allows them to understand the subtleties of the technical language they use in the company. This means that it’s not necessary for them to explain how to carry out operational activities or how to perform their roles.

On the other hand, when people don’t have the same tacit knowledge, there may be misunderstandings. This is because the assumptions, intuitions, experiences, and practical knowledge aren’t in tune.

Another scenario to take a look at: If one of two firefighters has years of experience and the other none, perhaps the experienced one expects certain intuitive performances or skills that the other person hasn’t yet acquired.

In short, tacit knowledge can affect communication between people and the way in which they relate to each other in certain contexts. Because of this, it’s important that we understand that we all have different implicit knowledge and it may interfere with our interactions with others.

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People intuitively and automatically possess and use skills that are related to their store of tacit knowledge. This way of acquiring and storing information is mediated by experience and repeated practice.

Although it’s difficult knowledge to verbalize and explain, it has a huge impact on what we do and how we relate to our environment, be it professional, social, or family. Implicit knowledge is complementary to explicit knowledge and can manifest itself in decision-making, problem-solving, social interactions, routines, and habits.

We invite you to examine the abilities you have to do different things, like riding a bike, tying your shoes, or cooking. Do you think you could do them without your implicit knowledge?

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.