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Tacit Knowledge – Another Type of Locked-In Syndrome?

I just watched a TV show about a guy with locked-in syndrome. That occurs when someone is paralyzed, and can’t speak or move and is diagnosed as being in a vegetative state. We now realize that many such people are indeed conscious and aware but can’t make anyone aware of that fact. It’s a tragic state but at least we are becoming more aware of the issue and how to diagnosis and address it.

That reminded me of the subject of tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is knowledge we possess but of which we are not aware. It’s knowledge that is either difficult or even impossible to write down or codify. That’s why, when people attain it, they often are not aware of what it is because they can’t communicate it to others in formal ways, or, very often, even informally. So tacit knowledge is in effect “locked in”. We can have it but not be able to communicate it, even if we want to. How do we unlick it?

Particularly as people get older, they achieve more tacit knowledge. Of course you can also get it when you are younger. But our brains are constantly processing information without us knowing about it, and internally codifying this information into patterns of which we are generally unaware. Yet it appears that many people possess immensely more tacit knowledge than they do formal or codified knowledge.

One of the things that almost certainly separates outstanding leaders from the rest of us is their ability to call up this tacit knowledge and communicate it to others and to leverage it for leadership purposes. Such leaders are respected and looked-up to precisely because they have that certain “je ne sais quoi” which is almost impossible for others to emulate or replicate. Steve Jobs is one example.

Yet it’s clear that if there were a method to draw out this tacit knowledge from those people who possess it in great measure, it would greatly enrich those who could do it. In effect it would provide an alternative approach to leadership education. A kind of Harvard cast study for leadership utilizing techniques for extracting and eliciting tacit knowledge.

If we could develop techniques for extracting tacit knowledge, it would open up new learning and leadership opportunities and insights for us. It would also unlock the rich tacit knowledge of many people who have an idea they possess something of huge value but have no idea how to tap into this vein of knowledge and transmit it to others.

Extracting tacit knowledge is not a topic that has yet hit the big time in psychology, learning or leadership. But I am convinced that at some stage it will do so. I think that advances in neuroscience are making us aware of the extraordinary power of the brain and its pattern-building mechanisms.

Some of the work in MRI and brain-scanning, although relatively primitive given the scale of the problem it is trying to address, are also paving the way for the development of these techniques. Some of the “Big Brain” projects in the US and Europe will hopefully also lead to insights in this area, even though at the most basic level we are still woefully short in our understanding of how the brain really works.

I think that coaching is one of the areas in which tacit knowledge is particularly important. Most coaches, although very smart, experienced and with a high level of formal expertise, are not aware themselves of the extent of their tacit knowledge. So it really falls to the coachee to extract it. But in the vast majority of cases, they won’t know how to do this.

The same is true of employees who wish to learn from their bosses. They might well be able to see that the boss has a huge level of untapped tacit knowledge but have no idea how to get at it. Of course, even the boss herself will likely not know it either.

So here I am going to provide a set of techniques to extract some of the tacit knowledge from its unconscious owner, who we will call the TKO (tacit knowledge owner) for the sake of convenience. First let’s look at techniques to extract tacit knowledge from your own brain, then we will look how to extract it from someone else’s.

Extracting Your Own Tacit Knowledge

  • Take up running (but by yourself)
  • Do yoga
  • Take up mindfulness training
  • Find a (soon-to-be) long-suffering friend to tell stories to about yourself, even ones that don’t seem to mean much
  • Get a therapist
  • Go to a meditation workshop and take up mediation
  • Before you go to sleep every might, “program” your brain to look for TK patterns (this is a known technique for those of you who are wondering).

Extracting Knowledge from a TKO

  • Spend a lot of time with them and allow them to soliloquize
  • Get the TKO to tell stories; that will result in them unconsciously outing some of their TK content
  • Ask a lot of questions, including apparently unrelated ones, about those stories
  • Ask them what they learned in their childhood
  • Ask them what they know that other people don’t know
  • Ask them whether their colleagues/partners feel that they have perspectives that others don’t possess
  • Ask them about their favorite movies and books and why they like them
  • Try to talk to their colleagues and partners and ask them how the TKO’s perspectives differ from everyone lese
  • Ask them to tell you their biography.

Remember that when you do this, you aren’t only helping yourself. You are also helping a person unlock their own knowledge to get out of what is many ways to them a mental prison. You are doing your own bit to address a pervasive form of locked=in syndrome, even if it’s not recognized yet in any books.








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