Notes on Experience and the Tacit

Over the course of a year, I receive many proposals from consultants to talk to me about the services they have and how my organization will benefit from using their knowledge to better run the organization of which I am the President. I am also constantly involved with policy makers in government who seem to know as much as I do, both about my job and about my institution. 

Consultants are brilliant at proposals, but only a few ever produce reports that have real value and can be applied to the challenging problems of being a leader. Very few policy makers in government have actually had the experience of managing the educational institutions they control. 

This is because most of these people live in a theoretical world. I have nothing against theory, but there is a substantial difference between the lived experience of leading and the rather hypothetical nature of the advice offered by external parties. 

Why is this such an important issue? 

Organizations are defined by their cultures and as anyone who has ever been part of an institution for longer than a few years, knows, it takes a very long time to adjust to those cultures, to learn from them and about them. The adjustment period varies and is sometimes arduous, because so much of the knowledge about organizations is embedded and tacit.

This is even more the case in educational institutions. Aside from the fact that a significant number of professors and middle managers will have been employed for a long time, the curriculum contains within it a whole set of assumptions about values, learning and outcomes that are often more implicit than explicit. This is because the curriculum has been built up over many years and in some cases decades. It is layered by so many assumptions and points of view, that a great deal of experience is required to disengage its underlying rules and processes.

Tacit knowledge is deeply buried inside the lived experiences of individuals and communities. The best example of this are craftsmen and people who work in the trades. They learn on the job and since there are so many variables in everything they do, that learning has to be quick and effective. This is also why the apprenticeship programs that accompany trades training are generally among the most effective ways of learning. It is also why there are so many more co-op and internship programs in graduate and undergraduate programs in today's universities and colleges.

Learning while doing is often looked down upon because it appears to be decidedly less intellectual than working on problems and ideas through discussions and texts. Learning while doing is often more demanding and sometimes narrow in orientation. It is not a panacea and I am in no way trying to romanticize it's importance. 

But, tacit learning points to something even more interesting. Learning by its very nature is dominated by less than explicit factors. Teachers know that the mood of their students or even one of their students will affect the quality of the classroom experience. Students also know that one of their biggest challenges is to maintain focus while also dealing with the complex evolution of their lives. Personal experiences and the demands of institutional life are as important as the contents of curricula. 

It is not an accident that it takes four years for students to learn how to navigate the system of a school. This is on the job training that is of great significance to their potential success. Yet, it is rare for anyone on the outside to fully understand the complex layers of knowledge that students have internalized as they evolve into learners because so much of it is not visible or even that clear.

Ironically, nearly every aspect of human interaction and communication is built on tacit learning and knowledge. These range from eye contact through to hand gestures and assumptions about the meanings of words and the physical signals that humans exchange with each other, which often determine the effectiveness of the words that they use.

I am not suggesting that external analysis of institutions is impossible. In some cases, it may well be desirable and advisable. I am suggesting that the training needed to do that work requires far more time than is often assumed and that the skills required will not be developed in conventional ways. 

The challenge is to understand what is not always visible and to have the intellectual as well as practical tools needed to bring the assumptions that guide embedded cultures into the foreground. This has to be done with enough skill to credibly engage not only with institutions as a whole, but also with the people who inhabit them. The routines that define everyday life in institutions and the structures that have been created to support those routines, cannot be disengaged from their roots. A more profound recognition is needed of the lived experiences of employees and learners. 

The usual response to this challenge is to have focus groups or interviews with key members of the community. Some of the information gathered this way can be useful. But, most of it will not strip away the underlying rituals that are so important to the successes and failures of institutional life. 

The problem and the challenge is that understanding institutional life with depth requires an understanding of ethnography and the methods needed to explore and examine complex systems that are in constant evolution.