Tacit Knowledge and Discourse Analysis

Tacit Knowledge and Discourse Analysis

Michele Zappavigna-Lee (University of Sydney, Australia) and Jon Patrick (University of Sydney, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch583
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Abstract

The emphasis in information systems research is typically on converting tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge (Hershel, Nemati, & Steiger, 2001). Attention is also given to setting up a dichotomy of tacit and explicit knowledge in terms of articulation (can it be carried in language?), codification (can it be turned into an artifact?) or judgment (is it objective or subjective?). This article is structured to critique the dominant position in information systems research that tacit knowledge is ineffable. The background section provides an introduction to the extensive interdisciplinary literature on tacit knowledge, providing context for the subsequent section that deconstructs the assumptions that this literature makes about what it means to, in Polanyi’s (1966, p. 4) terms, “know more than we can tell.” To conclude, the role of linguistic and semiotic analysis in realising the growing trend toward theorising “community knowing,” rather than knowledge as an artifact, is suggested in the final sections.
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Introduction

Much of human experience is below-view, unattended to as we operate in the world, but integral to our performance as social creatures. The tacit knowledge involved in our practice allows us the experiential agility to be at once efficient and creative, to assimilate the novel and the familiar: in essence, to develop expertise. The possessors of skilful practice, the artisan, the witchdoctor or the physician, have occupied a position of both importance and mystery in most cultures since ancient times. Our interest over the ages in such hidden knowledge has caused us to mythologise expertise, placing it beyond the common by constructing it as unspeakable. Thus, in contemporary times it is not surprising that the dominant research perspective on tacit knowledge maintains that it is ineffable, that is, tacit knowledge cannot be understood by looking at what and how people communicate verbally. Indeed the word tacit has its origins in the Latin, tacitus, meaning silent.

As information technologies have begun to alter the way in which we think about our own processes while looking for ways to automate and retain our practices, we have been compelled to consider how the experience of the artisan mentioned above can engage with the constraints of the computational world. Capturing and sharing tacit knowledge has thus been a consistent problem in information systems and knowledge management research (Boisot, 1995; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995; Tsoukas, 2002; Wenger, 1998). Polanyi’s Theory of Tacit Knowing (TTK) is the dominant theoretical perspective in this research. In this theory, Polanyi (1958) suggests that tacit knowledge is inherently personal, underlying our ability to perform tasks we find difficult to explain, such as facial recognition. Concepts in TTK have been made available to the information systems (IS) community largely through the work of Nonaka & Takeuchi (1995) who reinterpreted the theory, precipitating research directions in information systems that are misaligned with Polanyi’s theses. A notable example is the movement in IS research to differentiate tacit and explicit knowledge (Johnson & Lundvall, 2001). In contradistinction, Polanyi asserts that explicit knowledge cannot be adequately separated from its tacit coefficient:

Now we see tacit knowledge opposed to explicit knowledge; but these two are not sharply divided. While tacit knowledge can be possessed by itself, explicit knowledge must rely on being tacitly understood and applied. Hence all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable. (Polanyi, 1969, p. 144)

The emphasis in information systems research is typically on converting tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge (Hershel, Nemati, & Steiger, 2001). Attention is also given to setting up a dichotomy of tacit and explicit knowledge in terms of articulation (can it be carried in language?), codification (can it be turned into an artifact?) or judgment (is it objective or subjective?).

This article is structured to critique the dominant position in information systems research that tacit knowledge is ineffable. The background section provides an introduction to the extensive interdisciplinary literature on tacit knowledge, providing context for the subsequent section that deconstructs the assumptions that this literature makes about what it means to, in Polanyi’s (1966, p. 4) terms, “know more than we can tell.” To conclude, the role of linguistic and semiotic analysis in realising the growing trend toward theorising “community knowing,” rather than knowledge as an artifact, is suggested in the final sections.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Tacit Knowing, Tacit Integration: Polanyi’s concept of the process of implicit integration of subsidiary and focal elements by an individual. The individual attends “from” the element in their subsidiary awareness “to” the element in their focal awareness.

Focal Awareness: Polanyi’s term for conscious perception that the individual can directly access. Contrast with subsidiary awareness .

Habitus: Bourdieu’s term for the cultural context in which an individual resides and which influences their practice.

Under-Representation: Zappavigna-Lee & Patrick’s term for a set of specific linguistic features that indicates the presence of tacit knowledge in an individual’s talk.

Tacit Knowledge: Implicit understanding of which the individual is not directly aware and which is involved in their skilful practice.

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