Question 1: If tacit knowledge is that which can't be written as declarative facts or communicated easily, then how can scientists measure how much of it someone has in a lab?

Question 2: Is it true that tacit knowledge can never be declarative or written down?

Example: Knowledge like "never tell your immediate boss in this organization what you feel about TPS reports, or you won't be able to get your complaint past upper management" seems like tacit knowledge. But yet it's written down as a declarative fact.


2 Answers 2


Short answer
Because tacit knowledge is defined as knowledge we cannot describe, researchers apparently adopt a strategy of just interviewing and listening for signs of tacit knowledge, as far as I understand it.

Tacit knowledge can be curtly defined as ‘that which we know but cannot tell’.

For example, a person may be very aware of being able to ride a bicycle and able to describe how they learned to do it. However, the person may not be able to describe critical aspects of biking, such as swift, reflex-driven adjustments due to imbalance, and subjects like the steadying effect of the gyroscopic motion of the wheels, may not be consciously realized either.

Still tacit knowledge can be made explicit by either making the knower to learn to tell, or by the researcher telling and seeking respondent. In other words, one has to facilitate the ‘telling’ of the untold. Both methods require the researcher to construct an account.

Eraut (2000) claims that tacit knowledge can be examined through regular interactions, encouraging persons to freely describe what they know. This can be facilitated by an informal relationship, where one can freely interact with the person about their knowledge.

- Eraut, Brit J Edu Psychol (2000); 70: 113–36

  • $\begingroup$ I think everyone who rode a bike realized that the slower you go the more likely you are to fall. They may not phrase it in physics terms as "the steadying effect of the gyroscopic motion of the wheels" but they know it and can relate it. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 19, 2017 at 3:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Fizz it's an everyday example to add some definition to the answer. The cause and effect of certain elements of riding a bike are quite clear. The tacit part lies often below this causal relationship. Why do I fall when I stop pedaling? $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Commented Oct 19, 2017 at 6:33

TLDR version: the authors (philosophers mostly) who use that ineffable defintion don't measure anything. The authors (psychologists, economists) who do measure "tacit knowledge" use a much more tractable operational definition, generally defined as just not-yet-codified or non-doctrinal knowledge, which is measured like any other knowledge, starting with writing it down.

Frankly, the notion isn't anywhere near as clear or uncontroversial as (say) the Wikipedia article presents it. The fact that one encounters the notion more in management publications than in psychology ones... is a fair warning given the amount of management fads known to mankind.

Now quoting from a paper by Kabir, N. (2013) (whose only merit is that it ranked high a google search), "Tacit Knowledge, its Codification and Technological Advancement":

Several prevailing views regarding conceptual notion of the term tacit knowledge exist. The first view is that tacit knowledge is part of knowledge that has not been codified as yet (Ambrosini and Bowman, 2001; Boisot, 1995; Davenport and Prusak, 1998; Leonard and Sensiper, 1998; Nonaka and Von Krogh, 2009). This epistemological dyadic perception places tacit knowledge as a phenomenon directly opposite to explicit knowledge.

The second view is tacit knowledge by very definition is tacit – ineffable. Any attempt to convert it to explicit is a futile effort. Tacit knowledge is the background or subsidiary knowledge of the focal knowledge of the act at hand. Because of this, it is not reducible to the level of explicit as it is only relevant to a specific context (Tsoukas, 2006: 410; Tsokas and Vladimirou, 2001: 973‐93; Cook and Brown, 1999; Brown and Duguid, 2000; Jones and Miller, 2007).

The third view that corresponds with our suggestion in this paper: In any context where knowledge is applied, a part of tacit knowledge, which is overlaid on top of all the knowledge being utilized, will always stay ineffable and cannot be codified. We can call this fragment of knowledge the “meta tacit”. Apart from this, most tacit knowledge, depending on the degree of difficulties in codification, its viability of codification and the availability of required resources could be codified. Collins shows eight different possible reasons or "Cannot" ranging from inconvenience to impossibility to clarify what types of tacit knowledge are not explicable. (Collins, 2010 pp. 88‐96)

So yeah, pick your poison. And measure the ineffable or some such.

Another paper which calls out some of the (obvious) issues is by Lowney, C. (2011), Ineffable, Tacit, Explicable and Explicit: Qualifying Knowledge in the Age of “Intelligent” Machines:

There would appear to be problems with any formulation of tacit knowledge, be it Collins’ or Polanyi’s. First of all, to a critical reader, the term itself can appear to be an oxymoron. Isn’t all knowledge necessarily explicit? If something is not explicit but somehow veiled in silence, can it properly be called “tacit knowledge”? There is a second problem as well. If tacit knowledge, somehow operative in the background, can be made explicit, can it then properly be called “tacit knowledge”? Isn’t the term merely a placeholder for something unknown that, we hope, will someday become known? Putting both these problems together, “tacit knowledge” seems to present a dilemma: either it is tacit or it is knowledge, but not both.

Collins begins mainly by addressing the second horn of the dilemma. He agrees with Polanyi that “tacit knowledge” is not merely a way station on the road to explicit knowledge. For Collins, the proper use of the word tacit, directly opposes the explicit—it is that which cannot in a strong sense become explicit. Background knowledge and bodily skills that can become explicit are “explicable” and therefore are not properly called “tacit” for Collins. So riding a bike or mastering a craft are not, in the end, proper examples of tacit knowledge, although the experience we have when we ride a bike, drive a car, or learn how to make a good pair of shoes can fool us into thinking those tasks are inexplicable

So yeah, according to Collins and his followers, Alice's example (bike riding) is not proper. So what is proper tacit knowledge for the purist then?

Collins [...] separates Relational Tacit Knowledge (RTK), e.g., learning the skill of a master craftsman; Somatic Tacit Knowledge (STK), e.g., riding a bike; and Collective Tacit Knowledge (CTK), e.g., knowing when it is appropriate to laugh at a joke. Collins rank-orders these phases on a scale ranging from easiest to explicate (RTK), to more difficult (STK) or impossible to explicate (CTK). But ultimately, for Collins, both STK and RTK are, in principle, explicable, so without a use for “tacit” as that which may become explicit, there would be no relational or somatic tacit knowledge per se. Only collective tacit knowledge would remain. Collins thus widens his use of “tacit” to include the explicable, but he will occasionally remind us that the proper understanding of tacit comes from its contrast with the paradigmatically explicit

This to me is reading far more like philosophy than science.

To conclude this, what's tacit knowledge in the military? Well it's

knowledge not well supported by doctrine or formal training

You can certainly measure that (first by writing it down, and then asking questions about it of others)... and they do just that. So it depends how you define it... philosophically or operationally.

And in fact, the latter definition is prevalent in economics as pointed out by Cowen et al., (2000):

Tacit knowledge thus has come to signify an absolute type, namely: “not codified” knowledge. As such, however, the label now covers the implicit complement of a category of containing a various forms of information and social knowledge, but which itself usually is left undefined and undifferentiated

So it depends who you ask.

Kabir, N. (2013). Tacit knowledge, its codification and technological advancement. Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management, 11(3).
Lowney, C. (2011). Ineffable, tacit, explicable and explicit: qualifying knowledge in the age of “intelligent” machines. Tradition and Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical, 38(1), 18-37.
Cowan, R., David, P. A., & Foray, D. (2000). The explicit economics of knowledge codification and tacitness. Industrial and corporate change, 9(2), 211-253.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer. You focus your answer on what tacit knowledge is. The question, however, seems to ask for how to identify and measure it. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Commented Oct 19, 2017 at 7:11
  • $\begingroup$ @AliceD: Actually I did touch on that briefly... for the operationally defined one. (And I see little point in elaborating, because that's all knowledge is measured) As for measuring the ineffable one, the philosophers don't bother measuring anything. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 19, 2017 at 8:22

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