What’s So Great About Tacit Knowledge?

Lynne Kiesling

Over at Organizations & Markets, Peter Klein and Nicolai Foss have been talking about tacit knowledge, distinguishing it from explicit knowledge, and asking what the big deal is. Their posts and the comments on them are a good read.

Why should tacit knowledge be any more or less important than explicit knowledge? My sense is that some of the researchers Peter and Nicolai mention emphasize tacit knowledge not because it is superior to explicit knowledge, but because it is so overlooked in social science research, and particularly in economics. Tacit knowledge defies formal modeling, and is a somewhat difficult concept to grasp: to be all Donald Rumsfeld-y about it, it’s stuff that you don’t know that you know. It’s also stuff that you know how to do that you never consciously learned. But that’s one reason why experiments are a valuable social science and policy tool: people can’t articulate their tacit knowledge, researchers can’t know in advance what tacit knowledge to look for or how it will affect outcomes, but when you observe behavior and interactions in controlled environments, tacit knowledge has an opportunity to act upon decision-making.