It’s embodied, embedded, and enacted - but not easily made explicit
“We know more than we can tell.” – Michael Polanyi 1
When I first began helping organisations create future-fit cultures of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness back in the 1980’s, there was great interest in what could be learned from The Japanese Miracle.
In the late 1970’s, Japan had bounced back from defeat in World War II, and was producing high-quality, low-cost products, massively undermining the industrial supremacy of the US, especially in its own domestic market.
For an insightful look into the Japanese approach to innovation, agility, and adaptiveness behind the miracle, check out The Knowledge Creating Company by Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi. 2
The Knowledge Creating Company places great importance on the roles of, and distinction between, tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge.
Explicit knowledge includes information, facts, data, etc. that can be measured, captured, recorded, and readily transmitted to others.
Tacit knowledge, which is gained through actions, interactions, and lived experience in the world cannot — it is embodied, embedded, and enacted.
Nonaka and Takeuchi further distinguish two different types of tacit knowledge: technical and cognitive.
Technical tacit knowledge encompasses the habits, skills, and behaviours that constitute knowhow — the embodied, embedded, and enacted knowledge a master craftsman has literally at their fingertips.
Cognitive tacit knowledge, which is similarly embodied, embedded, and enacted, includes schemata, models, beliefs, and perceptions that have become so familiar they’re taken for granted, invisible, and incognito.
This incognito tacit knowledge implicitly shapes, colours, and constrains how we perceive the world around us.
Creating a future-fit culture involves developing new attitudinal and behavioural muscles to build iterative sense making, decision making, and action taking capacity throughout an organisation.
And one of the main things that gets in the way is the legacy tacit knowledge the organisation has accumulated in the past.
Over 60 years ago, Professor Michael Polanyi identified another important distinction within tacit knowledge, between focal awareness and subsidiary awareness, by analogy with using a hammer:
“When I use a hammer to drive in a nail, I attend to both nail and hammer, but in a different way. I watch the effect of my strokes on the nail and try to wield the hammer so as to hit the nail most effectively. I have a subsidiary awareness of the feeling of the hammer in the palm of my hand which is merged into the focal awareness of my driving in the nail.” 3
In Polanyi’s terminology, the hammer is an example of a physical tool — an instrument we pick up and use to achieve an outcome, for example:
a hammer, a saw, a pressure washer
a potato peeler, a coffee grinder, a stick blender
a piano, a saxophone, a violin
When we first pick up an unfamiliar physical tool it feels unwieldy, and our focal attention is on the tool itself.
We’re aware that we’re not very adept at using the tool — a stage sometimes referred to as conscious incompetence. 4
With persistence and practice, we become more skilled and reach the stage of conscious competence. We can now use the tool well, so long as we pay attention.
With further experience of using the tool our mastery increases, with our original incompetence becoming an increasingly distant memory.
Eventually, we rarely recall ever having been incompetent, and use the tool with little or no conscious thought.
This stage of unconscious competence is where, in Polanyi’s terms, we have a subsidiary awareness of using the tool merged within the focal awareness of what we are achieving in the world by using the tool.
This merging is what leads to embodiment — where we and the tool become as one.
A good example of this is learning to drive.
Initially we’re faced with an array of controls that we need to master. With practice over time we learn to drive without consciously thinking about shifting gears, turning the steering wheel, stepping on the brake pedal etc.
We can get in our car, drive to a destination, and when asked which route we took have to think back because we did the journey on a kind of autopilot, whilst thinking about other things.
Similarly, when skilled musicians play, they don’t focus on their instruments.
They have a subsidiary awareness of the instrument in their hands, but their focal awareness is on the music they’re making.
In fact, if you drew their focal awareness to the instrument mid-performance by asking them to describe what they’re doing at that time, they’d mess up the music.
Polanyi didn’t use Nonaka and Takeuchi’s term Cognitive tacit knowledge, but he did recognise that focal awareness and subsidiary awareness apply not only to physical or Technical tools and instruments, but also to the tacit cognitive schemata, models, and tools that have become so familiar we take them for granted in our mental processes.
The more familiar we become over time with using a formula, model, or method, the more deeply embodied and embedded it becomes as tacit knowledge in our subsidiary awareness.
As this embodiment occurs, our focal awareness gradually shifts away from the cognitive tool, until it’s 100% on the output we produce with increased skill at using the tool, eventually arriving at the stage of unconscious competence.
Which is all well and good until the context changes, and the tacit cognitive knowledge we’ve absorbed into our being is no longer appropriate.
Then what was previously unconscious competence has changed into unconscious incompetence — usually without us having noticed…
One of the biggest challenges in creating a future-fit culture is that many of our default models, methods, mindsets, attitudes, and behaviours are deeply rooted in tacit knowledge that was acquired in, and only appropriate for, the more certain and predictable world of the past.
Many of these past assets have now become future liabilities — stifling, smothering, and strangling the innovation, agility, and adaptiveness that characterise a future-fit culture.
Examples of outdated tacit knowledge commonly mistaken for self-evident and therefore unexamined ‘truths’ include:
‘Leadership’ = ‘top management’
‘Senior executive’ = ‘decision maker’
‘Decision maker’ = ‘leader’
‘Culture’ = ‘shared values’
‘Big consulting firm’ = ‘safe pair of hands’
‘Best practice’ = ‘low risk’
‘Digital transformation’ = ‘technology will save us’
‘Culture change’ = ‘complex, messy, risky’
It’s 60 years since Polanyi wrote his magnum opus Personal Knowledge but still today, far too few people pay adequate attention to tacit knowledge.
That’s a particular problem when it comes to creating a future-fit culture of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness because the current culture — ‘the way we do things round here’ — is deeply anchored in outdated tacit knowledge.
Questions for reflection
What Technical tacit knowledge do you, or others, rely on in your organisation?
What Cognitive tacit knowledge do you, or others, rely on in your organisation?
Where in the tacit knowledge within your organisation has past unconscious competence become future unconscious incompetence — without people noticing?
How is this legacy tacit knowledge preventing the emergence of a future-fit culture in which sense making, decision making, and action taking are tightly coupled, rapidly and repeatedly iterated, deeply embedded, and widely distributed throughout the organisation?
What are you and your colleagues doing to address the above?
The Tacit Dimension by Michael Polanyi, University of Chicago Press (2009) Foreword page x.
Oxford University Press (1995) - ISBN 0195092694.
From Personal Knowledge by Michael Polanyi (p55) 1998 edition by Routledge - ISBN 9780415151498.