It seems that when asked to finger tap the beat of a song that the tapper believed would be easily recognized, in most cases the listeners were unable to identify the tapped song. What I found especially interesting about the study was that the finger tapper could not understand why the listener was unable to recognize what was “clearly” an easy song to recognize. After all, the tapper could hear it clearly in their head, so why then wouldn’t the listener also be able to readily recognize it? And so goes the problem with the capture of tacit knowledge. You never truly know what is in someone else’s head.
An interesting observation made during the study was that the ability to identify the song didn’t change much with the song complexity (easier songs didn’t make it easier to identify the song from finger tapping) nor did motivating the listener change results (a “highly motivated” listener wasn’t able to identify songs more readily than a casual listener).
The fact of the matter is that I cannot see the knowledge in your head. Nor you mine. We each have knowledge in our heads, shaped by our experiences and understandings. And because I don’t have your experiences and understandings, I can’t “see” things the way that you do.
Or another way to look at it is to say that tacit knowledge is highly personal and that this makes it difficult to express. And the difficulty in transferring tacit knowledge has been referred to as being based on the “stickiness” of tacit knowledge (Szulanski, 1995 & 2000). Expressing tacit knowledge also depends upon, for example, common language. And its also been suggested that tacit knowledge cannot be completely shared under any circumstance because it will always lose some of its original quality and context.
Many organizations turn first to IT for the transfer of knowledge. The problem though is that before you can transfer knowledge you must first capture it. In the case of not being able to recognize a song being tapped by finger, we get a true appreciation for the challenges faced when trying to capture and then transfer tacit knowledge. The very nature of tacit knowledge makes its capture extremely difficult. The degree of difficulty in articulating tacit knowledge is sometimes referred to its “tacitness” (Szulanski) and the challenge is that it sometimes becomes “time consuming, frustrating and often just not possible” to transfer the tacit knowledge.
The finger tapper simply cannot understand why the listener isn’t “hearing the song” that the finger tapper is hearing in their head.
And in the case of finger tapping the ability of the listener to identify the song is determined both by the listener’s ability to understand and their own knowledge.
For example, when both the finger tapper and the listener were professional musicians, it was more likely that the song was correctly identified. But only when both were aware that each were professional musicians. If either were unaware that the other was a professional musician, most often the listener couldn’t identify the song. They then lacked a shared context. Somehow each knowing that the other was a music professional allowed the participants to bridge whatever knowledge gap there might have been, based on shared understanding and experience.
So where does that leave us regarding the capture and transfer of tacit knowledge?
What we know is that when both the person holding the tacit knowledge and the person attempting to capture the tacit knowledge were knowledgeable and experienced with regard to that knowledge, it was easier to transfer the knowledge. In short, it will almost always be easier to transfer tacit knowledge to peers rather than to others. And this is why it is somewhat futile for organizational efforts to simply capture process information – outside of the peer network directly connected to the process itself, there is a likelihood that the tacit knowledge involved in understanding the performance of the process will not allow for the non-peer to understand and utilize the captured process information.