Cultivating Tacit Knowledge Online

This article discusses tacit knowledge, using the definition proposed by Polanyi (1967) of what we know but find hard to articulate.  I think tacit knowledge is part of becoming, or the learning that goes a step beyond knowing and doing.  Tee & Kareny argue that “although text book publishers or e-learning course producers can process formal or explicit knowledge effectively …, they are unable to help learners cultivate the kinds of tacit knowledge needed to thrive in the world we live in today….  Ultimately, the more widely available explicit knowledge becomes, the greater the importance of tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge forms a critical foundation for meaning making and developing understanding that helps learners differentiate the relevant from the irrelevant during an era of information explosion …” (p. 386).

The authors draw on the naturalistic methodology proposed by Lincoln & Guba (hey! I just learned about them a few days ago in my Evaluation course!), who feel that “the sole research instrument that can uncover tacit knowledge is the human instrument” (p. 388).  They list a few key human characteristics, which interested me as I continue to think about human- versus machine-interaction: “responsiveness, adaptability, holistic emphasis, knowledge base expansion capabilities, and processual immediacy” (p. 388).

Tee & Karney therefore did a qualitative study of the interactions of an online course, to see how tacit knowledge was shared and cultivated in the course.  They write: “Knowledge—particularly tacit knowledge—is best shared and cultivated in a climate oflove, care, trust, and commitment (resulting in a safe learning environment)” (p. 409).  They also comment that the course instructor “seemed to have inadvertently created an elementary ba, or a shared context for knowledge sharing, creation, and utilization (Nonaka & Konno 1998)…. Without an enabling ba, the knowledge acquired is decontextualized and tends to be inert and of little practical utility, because knowledge, thinking, and the context for learning are inextricably linked (Bereiter 2002; Brown and Duguid 2000; Lave and Wenger 1991; Whitehead 1929)” (p. 407-8).

In addition to creating the conditions for cultivating tacit knowledge, Tee & Karney believe that there are certain “inducing processes” for cultivating it as well.   These concepts come from Nonaka, who also writes on the concept of ba. Together these inducing processes help cultivate tacit knowledge.  They are:

  • Socialization: particularly shared experiences
  • Externalization: for example, discussion boards which require students to elaborate on a concept or explain an idea
  • Combination: synthesis, reconfiguring knowledge to form a new basis of knowledge. Requires greater organization of knowledge
  • Internalization: generally a personal process, but also happens in group context

I would have liked even more theoretical background about tacit knowledge, but this did make interesting connections between the development of tacit knowledge (becoming) and human interaction (socialization and the overarching concept of ba which they feel is vital to sharing tacit knowledge.

Tee, M. Y. & Karney, D. (2010). Sharing and cultivating tacit knowledge in an online learning environment. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 5(4): 385-413. doi:10.1007/s11412-010-9095-3.



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