The tacit dimension of knowledge

In his seminal book Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi presented his notion of a tacit dimension of knowledge (1958; 1962). This was followed by Knowing and Being (1964; 1969) and The Tacit Dimension (1966; 1983). Polanyi addresses the notion that a tacit dimension cannot fully be articulated in words or images: ‘knowing’ is seen as the outcome of a learning process, often characterized as ‘learning by doing’.

For Polanyi, all kinds of knowledge contain implicit and explicit dimensions that are interwoven and coexist: ‘all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable’. (1969: 144) His work has spurred a more recent interest in collaborative work practices where ‘human presence’ in close and informal interaction enables the sharing of the tacit dimension of knowledge beyond the mere ‘transmission of information’ (Collins 1974). Polanyi’s concept of tacit knowing has been applied to a variety of practices, and researchers from many disciplines have shown that knowledge sharing is fostered through personal communication, interaction and the development of trust over an extended period of time, which is likely to occur, for example, in a master–apprentice relationship.[25] With time, a form of knowledge that consists both of habits and skill may evolve within a professional culture, which is shared amongst the members of a practice. This was reflected in my own study, written in the early 1990s, on the role that tacit knowledge sharing played within architectural discourse, as it was transmitted between generations of architects in early-twentieth-century Stockholm (Gullström 1994).[26] I have observed the close work and learning relationships that evolved within a group of architects as they combined the roles of leading practitioners and professors. It is important to note that while a master–apprentice relationship facilitates knowledge sharing (notably its tacit dimension), it also conserves and preserves other values embedded in practice, some of which would otherwise have disappeared as other societal developments took place. Thus, professional skill may be acquired and a professional identity strengthened while this conservative role produces a resistance to change.[27] In the extreme, a professional discourse may be ‘out of step’ with other developments in society, such as suggested earlier in terms of the current era of digitalization and its limited impact on work practices. My argument that the presence-in-person paradigm in workplace design is partly maintained by professional discourse may be seen in this light.

Note 25: First applied by scientists within the SSK tradition (Sociology of Scientific Knowledge), Kuhn’s pioneering work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), was followed by Collins (1974). Scientific work has since developed in e.g. the areas of knowledge production, management, and innovation (e.g. Nonaka 1994); and in ‘evolutionary economics’ (e.g. Nelson and Winter 1982). As already mentioned, a Swedish focus on professional skill emerged from a social science perspective, with a critical perspective on the effects of computerization in work-life contexts, and which led to the formation of the Skill & Technology research area (e.g. Göranzon et al. 2006).
Note 26: As previously mentioned, my thesis for an intermediate doctoral degree (Technical Licentiate), ‘The Paradox of Mastery’ (Gullström 1994), was written under the guidance of the Skill and Technology programme at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm 1990–1994, headed by Göranzon.
Note 27: My study observed the professionalization process of the architect in Sweden, which, as elsewhere, is characterized by master-apprentice relationships. I identified the conflicting ideals between what remained of a ‘Beaux Arts tradition’ and what was introduced as a ‘polytechnical ideal’ in late-nineteenth-century institutions, noting such a resistance to change.