Two ways to handle a major obstacle to change

How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

tacit knowledge

One of the reasons it’s so hard to change is because much of what we “know” is tacit. Tacit knowledge is that which cannot be easily shared verbally or in writing—as Michael Polanyi says, “…we can know more than we can tell.” A simple example of tacit knowledge is how to ride a bicycle.

Not only is tacit knowledge hard to transmit, we are often not even aware that we know it ourselves. We all possess unexamined and/or unconscious beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions that can limit our ability to see, question, or act on desirable change in our life and work.

It’s hard enough when we don’t know what we know. But what happens when some of our tacit knowledge is incorrect or inaccurate? Here’s what Chief of Confusion John Seely Brown says:

It turns out that this learning to unlearn may be a lot trickier than a lot of us at first think. Because if you look at knowledge, and look at least two different dimensions of knowledge, the explicit dimension and the tacit dimension, the explicit dimension probably represents a tiny fraction of what we really do know, the explicit being the concept, the facts, the theories, the explicit things that live in our head. And the tacit turns out to be much more the practices that we actually use to get things done with…

…Now the problem is that an awful lot of the learning that we need to do is obviously building up this body of knowledge, but even more so the unlearning that we need to do has to do with challenging the tacit. The problem is that most of us can’t easily get a grip on. It is very hard to reflect on the tacit because you don’t even know that you know. And in fact, what you do know is often just dead wrong. And it is almost impossible to change your beliefs about something that is in the tacit and is different from what you happen to think.
—John Seely Brown, Storytelling: Scientist’s Perspective

Tacit knowledge acts like an invisible force that guides and constrains our potential choices and actions. This makes unlearning incorrect or inaccurate tacit knowledge seem like a hopeless task.

Two tools for freeing ourselves from the constraints of tacit knowledge
Surprisingly, there are tools available that allow us to become aware of and work with our tacit knowledge. The key insight: we can overcome our inability to reflect on our own tacit knowledge, by working with others!

While it’s common to think of knowledge as being something an individual possesses, in reality knowledge is socially constructed with others. (Remember Socrates in ancient Greece, pursuing knowledge through dialog?) This leads us to the first tool to free ourselves from the limitations arising from what we don’t know we know: conversation with others. Other people can see our blind spots and share with us what they see. By reflecting and gently challenging the beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions that form our tacit knowledge, they can help us see what we cannot and provide us an opening to, at least, become aware of what was formerly invisible to us.

The second tool available to us is one of the most powerful ways to see and process the boundaries and consequences of our tacit knowledge: storytelling.

We can explore our tacit knowledge via storytelling in two ways:

We are not alone
Conversation and stories create frameworks that can help us transcend some of the barriers to change imposed by our tacit knowledge. I think it’s fitting that we need to connect and engage with others in order to do this important work.

Photo attribution: John Seely Brown

One thought on “Two ways to handle a major obstacle to change

  1. Great post on tacit and explicit knowledge, Adrian. On your storytelling dimension to get at tacit knowledge, I am currently exploring “creating stories together in online spaces” (in a group or team). We call this “knowledge expeditions” and it’s a fun way to dig deeper into intersubjectivity and collaborative sensemaking.

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