Transitional Learning, Part One

Have you had one of those changes where you fully invest in training and workshops because you know this is new and different only to find out that the change took longer and cost more to implement than you had planned? Okay, so a few hardened cynics and pessimists are shaking their head but for many of us that can be a source of frustration and performance robbing drain on our outcomes. 

What happens when we learn? The answer to that question could be a book and we only have a blog post so I am going to simplify. The model we are going to examine assumes two kinds of knowledge. The first is explicit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is knowledge that is context independent. It is the way it is regardless of the specific circumstances. Explicit knowledge can be transferred using words, pictures and other audio, visual or other sensory means. A skilled cook can taste a soup and tell if there is enough salt. An engineer can read a drawing and know how to proceed in constructing what is represented. A vocalist can hear a note and know if she is on pitch. 

The second is tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is context dependent. It may be grounded in explicit principles but the exercise of that knowledge depends on very specific and often unique circumstances. Tacit knowledge is tough to put into words. As an example of tacit knowledge, I love to ask questions. I have had people ask me to write down the questions I ask. I can do that but I cannot explicitly state the right sequence of questions for a particular situation. I cannot document where to press and where to back off. The use of body language, whether to lean in pull back, hold my hands apart or just be silent are all things that I know in the moment but why I know them I cannot describe explicitly. It is tacit knowledge to me. 

One of the challenges for senior executives is that a lot of what we do is based on tacit knowledge. How do fulfill our roles as leaders if we do not have a grasp on helping develop tacit knowledge in our deputies? 

So how do we take explicit knowledge and transfer so it can be explicitly applied? How is explicit knowledge converted into tacit knowledge? More challenging, how is tacit knowledge made explicit or tacit? If we fail to convey tacit knowledge do we increase the length and deepen the cost of implementation? Do we delay receiving the benefits of our changes? Do we have a plan for transferring knowledge or do we hope it happens? 

Tacit knowledge can be transferred to explicit knowledge explicitly. The methods are familiar to us. We can use training, presentation, explanation, publication and a variety of other explicit tools to help establish a base of explicit knowledge. 

Making explicit knowledge tacit can be accomplished by allowing the learners to apply with the explicit knowledge in controlled settings. Workshops, laboratory sessions and other hands on experiences can help transfer explicit knowledge into tacit knowledge. Because we have planned and organized the experiences, they are explicit in nature because we have controlled the context. 

Murphy’s Law says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. I suggest a corollary to that is that anything that can happen may happen. Some things that can happen are more improbable and some more likely. This is the context dependent realm in which the benefit of tacit knowledge resides. We may have plans and processes for dealing with the more likely events (and at times for the unlikely ones that have large impacts) but we cannot anticipate or plan for everything. 

So how do we transfer the tacit knowledge of a senior tradesman, engineer, manager, or executive? Tacit knowledge is made explicit through the use of words. Tacit knowledge is often hard to put into words, so descriptions are not literal but metaphorical, allegorical or by way of analogy. Tacit knowledge requires immersion. 

Tacit knowledge is transferred through an even less orderly transfer than the use of metaphor. Tacit knowledge is transferred as tacit knowledge by immersion. Tacit knowledge transfer requires a level of freedom. Individuals must be able to experience the consequence of their decisions to gain tacit knowledge. Over controlling may prevent any errors but it will also create dependency and fail to develop the tacit knowledge senior leaders need in order to deal with unforeseen circumstances. 

This model for learning is related to many of the other models and concepts we have discussed in previous blogs. In my next blog we will consider some of those relationships. But for now ponder some questions. 

 What is your plan for transferring tacit knowledge? Are you preparing your deputies to make good decisions or are you controlling events in a way that inhibits the learning that comes from immersion?  

Joe Thompson

© 2016 Differentiating Strategies, LLC