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Tacit and Explicit Knowledge

Tomorrow's Research

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This distinction between tacit and explicit has a number of important implications for the evidence-based practitioner.



The posting below looks at the distinctions between tacit and explicit knowledge.  It is from Chapter 4: Systematically Searching for and Retrieving Evidence, in the book, Evidence-Based School Leadership and Management: A Practical Guide, by Gary Jones. Published by SAGE Publications Ltd, 1 Oliver’s Yard , 55 City Road , London EC1Y 1SP, © Gary Jones 2018. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Research


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Tacit and Explicit Knowledge


Having briefly examined the role of both practitioner and stakeholder evidence in the process of evidence-based decision-making, it is timely to discuss the concepts of tacit and explicit knowledge. This discussion will provide some initial insights as to how to go about accessing the tacit and explicit knowledge of both practitioners and stakeholders. 


The concept of tacit knowledge has its origins in the work of Polanyi (1966) who sums up the concept in the succinct and pithy phrase ‘We know much more than we can tell’ (p. 4). Tacit knowledge is personally and socially embedded, and is linked to hunches, intuitions, feelings, and images and is context-specific. Accordingly, tacit knowledge can be broken down into two components. One component involves technical skills or ‘know-how’. When dealing with difficult situations, an experienced school leader will have a pool of expertise on which they can draw, but may not necessarily be able to express the underpinning principles behind what he or she knows. A second component consists of the mental models, assumptions and the things we take as a given, and are often particularly challenging to express. (Chapter 7 will look at the implications of this in more detail when examining the role of the ladder of inference in appraising evidence.)


On the other hand, explicit knowledge is much more precise and codified and sometimes described as ‘declarative knowledge’ and ‘knowing that’. Explicit knowledge includes tangible information, which is codified and accessible. It can be captured in formal documentation and can easily be shared with others through the use of a range of technologies and media. 


As evidence-based practice involves ‘making decisions through the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of the best available evidence from multiple sources’ (Barends et al., 2014:2), then as part of the process of acquiring evidence, it is necessary to look at the interaction between tacit and explicit knowledge. Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) identify four different modes of knowledge conversion: 

1.    From tacit to tacit: ‘[Socialization] is a process of sharing experiences and thereby creating tacit knowledge, such as shared mental models and technical skills’ (p. 62).

2.    From tacit to explicit: ‘[Externalization] is a process of articulating tacit knowledge into explicit concepts. It is a quintessential knowledge-creation process in that tacit knowledge becomes explicit, taking the shape of metaphors, analogies, concepts, hypotheses or models’ (p. 64).

3.    From explicit to explicit: ‘[Combination] is a process of systemizing concepts into a knowledge system. This mode of knowledge conversion involves combining different bodies of explicit knowledge. Individuals exchange and combine knowledge through such media as documents, meetings, telephone conversations or computerized communication networks’ (p. 67).

4.    From explicit to tacit: ‘[Internalization] is a process of embodying explicit knowledge into tacit knowledge. It is closely related to “learning by doing”. When experiences through socialization, externalization, and combination are internalized into individuals’ tacit knowledge bases in the form of shared mental models or technical know-how’ (p. 69).


This distinction between tacit and explicit has a number of important implications for the evidence-based practitioner. First, when attempting to acquire ‘knowledge’ to assist in the decision-making it is important to be aware of what type of knowledge is being acquired. Second, the very process of acquiring knowledge (and evidence) may lead to that knowledge changing form, for example, from tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge. Third, acquiring evidence cannot be seen just as a desk-exercise and will involve engaging in a range of social interactions, from discussion to observation. Fourth, the very process of engaging in evidence-based practice will, if done well, create new ‘local knowledge’ for use in your setting. Fifth, aggregating the best available evidence will involve a process of combining both tacit and explicit knowledge.




Barends, E., Rousseau, D. and Briner, R. (2014) Evidence-Based Management: The Basic Principles. Amsterdam: Center for Evidence-Based Management.

Nonaka, I. and Takeuchi, H. (1995) The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Polanyi, M. (1966) The Tacit Dimension. New York: Doubleday.