Businesses hire employees because of their individual expertise. And while technical skills help keep the machine going, employees with diverse talents, perspectives, and ideas give organizations a competitive edge.
More than that, each employee brings their own set of experiences and personal knowledge to the team.
Tacit knowledge, a type of unquantifiable knowledge gained through life experience, outlines the unique hard and soft skills every person learns through their life, whether they’re aware of them or not.
With the right tacit knowledge, employees need less time and money for training, are stronger communicators and leaders, and help position businesses to perform and thrive.
Let’s analyze what tacit knowledge is, how to foster it, and why it’s an asset in the workplace.
Tacit knowledge versus explicit knowledge
There are two different types of human knowledge collected throughout a lifetime: tacit and explicit knowledge.
What’s tacit knowledge?
Polymath Michael Polanyi coined the term “tacit knowledge” in the mid-20th century. He argued that there’s a certain type of knowledge that can’t be fully articulated, that we instead express it through our natural human behaviors.
Tacit knowledge, sometimes referred to as implicit knowledge, is a form of self-knowledge you gain through repeated experiences, sometimes without even realizing you’re learning.
If you know how to identify sarcasm, for example, chances are you can’t pinpoint a specific moment you learned that skill. You develop that proficiency over time through many interactions with other people.
This type of knowledge usually applies to less tangible skills, like reading body language or having an eye for design. You’ll gain these skills through the trial-and-error of highly personal, subjective experiences.
Many soft skills require tacit knowledge, which is why they’re so hard to teach. They have to be learned through experience. You can’t just tell someone how to be a good public speaker. They have to practice and learn tacit usage over time.
What is explicit knowledge?
Explicit knowledge is more concrete. It exclusively applies to tangible skills that have rules and logic, like becoming a skilled data analyst or learning a coding language.
Unlike tacit knowledge, which is hard to quantify, explicit knowledge has more structure, and you can record, store, and share it in textbooks, tutorials, and how-to guides.
Many hard skills require explicit knowledge. Like tacit knowledge, you can learn explicit skills over time and improve with experience, but the learning process follows a more linear, step-by-step structure.
For example, a social media manager who learns how to analyze algorithms, follower insights, and trends uses explicit knowledge. But when they use aesthetic instinct to design posts, they rely on tacit knowledge.
How tacit and explicit knowledge work together
Tacit and explicit knowledge often complement one another. Most explicit knowledge requires formal study, but real-life trial and error deepen the quality of that learning.
For example, a manager might finish a training course to learn how to better lead meetings. They have the explicit skills to do it, but they also gain tacit knowledge by experiencing how real people behave in meetings and respond to their leadership.
Over time, their unique management style will find a balance between both explicit and tacit knowledge.
Examples of tacit knowledge
Since tacit knowledge isn’t describable like explicit knowledge, it can be harder to grasp. Here are some more examples of tacit knowledge — some of which you might already have.
If you’ve ever tried to explain why a joke or pun is funny, you probably noticed that humor and sarcasm are hard to quantify. Humor is intuitive, and laughter often relies on social cues and norms, which doesn’t come from a textbook. A good sense of humor requires tacit knowledge and life experience.
It might not seem like a professional skill, but humor in the workplace benefits teams. In professional environments, a little laughter brings lightheartedness to stressful moments and can ease monotonous work tasks. Humor can also build workplace friendships, which improve employee wellness and morale.
Learning a new language requires a mixture of explicit and tacit knowledge creation. It takes years of study to learn language structure, like grammar and vocabulary, but you need immersion and experience to pick up on the nuances of dialect, pronunciation, and context.
Think of your native language, or the language your family spoke at home when you were growing up. As a child, you gain tacit understanding of language through that experience before you start school.
Trusting your gut, or using intuition, means following your body’s response to a situation or decision. It’s a skill that can’t be taught, instead relying on feeling and tacit thought. Although it isn’t an exact science (your gut isn’t always right) your instinct can assist both personal and professional decisions.
Organizations spend a lot of money on creating strong managers. As of 2020, the leadership training industry was valued at $358 billion globally. But many leadership development programs aren’t successful.
It’s possible to learn how to be a great leader, but the process still requires some tacit knowledge. Leadership is more than delegating tasks and making data-driven decisions. Leadership values include empathy, resilience, and patience, all of which exist through tacit knowledge.
Why is tacit knowledge important for businesses?
Diversity in the workplace is about more than having team members of different genders, ages, and cultural backgrounds. Cognitive diversity in the form of unique perspectives, educations, or mindsets has an equally important and less perceptible role in professional settings.
Diversity and inclusion foster collaboration, problem-solving, and creativity. Organizations that prioritize teams with diverse tacit knowledge open themselves to new ideas and experience more innovation.
Here are a few more benefits of creating teams with diverse tacit knowledge:
Differentiates employees: A team with varying ideas and beliefs avoids redundancies and is less likely to create an echo chamber of the same ideas.
Fosters better communication: Tacit skills like active listening, negotiation, and emotional intelligence can lead to more organized and collaborative teams.
Breeds innovation: Organizations with diverse employees have a pool of people to turn to when they need different kinds of innovative solutions.
Encourages teamwork: Encouraging team members to share their own ideas and personal experiences helps them work together.
How to harness tacit knowledge
Acknowledging and encouraging employees’ unique tacit knowledge can help organizational growth and innovation. Here are a few ways that employees and managers alike can improve tacit knowledge:
1. Practice positive behaviors
Personality and mood are linked to both effective decision-making and collaborative learning. A positive mood encourages organizational knowledge production and pushes workers to innovate and grow.
Workers who feel they’re understood and supported are more likely to deepen their skillset and share knowledge with others.
2. Create routine and practice
Scientists previously believed that the difference between average and excellent performance was a matter of genetics.
While it’s true that everyone has natural skill sets, personalities, and interests, research shows that proficiency instead comes from deliberate and consistent practice — and that applies to tacit skills, too.
Consistency and practice nurture tacit knowledge. For example, someone might be a good leader on paper and have strong organizational and decision-making skills. But they might struggle with emotional conversations and empathizing with employees.
Through practice, such as having more personal conversations and taking additional notice of emotional cues, leaders can work with their team and develop tacit empathy.
For businesses, organizational routine is equally important to knowledge management. Case studies of mergers and acquisitions show that companies that struggle to create routines for new employees are less likely to stimulate organizational knowledge sharing, which can result in decreased performance and productivity.
Routine is part of what builds a collaborative culture that encourages tacit knowledge sharing.
3. Build a supportive environment
Tacit knowledge is difficult to articulate and share with others, and this can become a problem in the workplace.
For example, it’s hard to explain the “how” and “why” you made a tacit knowledge-based decision. But putting in the effort to try to communicate your process is part of a collaborative work environment.
Create supportive workplaces that empower teams to share their instincts and ideas. For some, it can feel overwhelming to voice their intuitions or share past work experiences.
Whether you’re a manager or an employee, communicate and offer positive feedback when colleagues share their ideas. Encourage them to explain their thinking, even if it’s difficult.
4. Be inclusive
Problem-solving, product development, and strategy all benefit from the tacit knowledge of the entire organization. Every employee has unique experiences, and giving them the opportunity to share their perspective — even if it’s different — can foster innovation.
To encourage tacit knowledge sharing, don’t limit tasks to a single department. Involve people from across disciplines, and expose them to ideas they might not have considered themselves.
An inclusive all-hands meeting is a great platform to get everyone on the same page and give them the opportunity to share their thoughts on a new project or initiative.
Knowledge is power
Strengthening tacit knowledge helps organizations and workers foster communication and innovation. Sharing unique ideas and experiences offers the competitive edge they need to differentiate themselves from competitors and make well-rounded decisions.
Although it’s difficult to put into words, tacit knowledge is an asset. It’s part of what creates diverse teams and gives them the power to improve leadership and collaboration.
Every team member brings something new and different to the table. Don’t forget to use those unique perspectives to create a strong knowledge base and let every employee know they’re a valuable asset.