In the courses we teach about knowledge management we have our students attempt to write a set of instructions about ‘how to ride a bicycle’. What they come up with are inevitably awful. And that of course, is the point. What we are really trying to do with this exercise is show the course participants the limitations of explicit knowledge. In this regard, the exercise is our own kind of Zen koan.
Once we demonstrate the inadequacy of their instructions, we then get the participants to tell us how they learned to ride a bike (or how they taught their own children to ride one. Their answers commonly involve a mix of the following elements:
They were instructed by someone who knew what they were doing
There was some modeling what to do as well as instructing
They were taken somewhere where it was safe to make mistakes
They attempted to do what they were told and shown
Mistakes were made
More instruction and modeling followed
After a number of trials, they were successful
In this example, what our course participants have done is demonstrate that it is possible to pass on tacit knowledge even though it is problematic to turn it into the kind of explicit knowledge that would fit with a knowledge repository. For organisations to be able to do this all they need to do is recreate the same kind of learning culture and environment that is present when people learn to ride a bike.
Great lesson. I find myself increasingly sceptical about complicated models that purport to explain how to lead, how to market etc according to formulae – becasue they simply cannot capture the the tacit things that underpin human experience and behaviour. I’m more for rules of thumb and a willingness to be wrong than hard rules that make bogus claims to precision about the imprecise…