Tacit Knowledge: Significance, Advantages, and Examples

We all have skills and abilities we struggle to put into words. Discover how you can share your tacit knowledge at work to everyone's benefit.

You know that feeling when someone asks you how you’re so good at something, and you don’t quite have the words for it? Maybe you say it’s hard to explain or that it just comes with time, but this answer isn’t satisfying. You might feel frustrated that the cat’s got your tongue, and the person asking you about this might feel like they’ve hit a wall. Rest assured, though, that neither of you is the first to face this challenge—something called tacit knowledge. Below, learn how to capture tacit knowledge and share this seemingly intangible skill in the workplace for improved communication.

What is tacit knowledge? 

Tacit knowledge is the skills, insights, and abilities you have but can’t easily explain or put into words. It’s the knowledge you’ve gained over time just by continuously doing what you do, so chances are it’s not documented or explicitly acknowledged. When you’ve built up a skill through experience and can’t think of how someone could learn this skill without similar experience, it’s probably tacit knowledge. 

Talk about the right things and build tacit knowledge

Say goodbye to awkward silences and status updates. Fellow’s library of 200+ suggested questions and pre-built templates will help you maintain consistency and spark engaging conversations.

Tacit vs. explicit knowledge 

Tacit knowledge mostly lives in your head, and explicit knowledge comprises what you’ve learned from books, instruction manuals, databases, and standard operating procedures. Going deeper into this distinction, you can separate tacit and explicit knowledge based on their:

Transferability

Explicit knowledge is highly transferable because it lives on the page. Tacit knowledge is less transferable because it comes largely from personal experience—but that doesn’t mean it can’t be shared.

Accessibility and acquisition

Learning explicit knowledge requires eyes or ears (or both) and a positive attitude. Tacit knowledge requires access to someone who has mastered the skills, abilities, or insights in question. You learn it from watching the experts in action, working alongside them in real-time, and then trying it out yourself.

Application

You’ll use explicit knowledge when there’s a clear outcome to achieve along an equally clear path. However, things are rarely that simple in the workplace—and that’s where tacit knowledge comes in. When you need to make challenging or complex decisions involving in-depth problem-solving, tacit knowledge is your best friend.

Tacit knowledge benefits in the workplace 

Getting the key information that lives in team members’ heads out into the world improves your workplace in the following ways.

Learning from collective experiences

Tacit knowledge is the “you had to be there” of learning—only people who have worked with the skill or ability in question might understand it. This might initially seem like a problem, but there’s a positive way to consider it. Namely, sharing tacit knowledge is a key way for your team to learn from collective experiences. The more often your team members share their specialized, hands-on knowledge, the more everyone learns together and builds the strong bonds behind success.

Improving your communication

Suppose a team leader expects deliverables to hit certain quality marks, but the new team members’ final work barely scratches the surface. This comes down to poor communication rooted in equally poor knowledge management. How can the team lead expect such strong results when the team doesn’t have the years of experience and hands-on learned skills to get there? 

After some discussion, the team and the lead can realize that the knowledge gap is based entirely on tacit skills. The problem is that the team lead never took the time to share their tacit knowledge, which could be for various reasons. Maybe the team lead truly thought the team already had the knowledge in question; maybe they didn’t consider the possibility of a knowledge gap. 

In either case, the lead now realizes they need to impart new knowledge the team couldn’t get from anyone else. Doing this regularly leads to better communication between the lead and the team. This top-notch communication happens while teaching the skills, and it’s also behind team members being unafraid to say they need to be taught.

Appreciating diverse perspectives

Tacit knowledge often comes from more than one team member. After all, no two brains are the same, and everyone learns skills and abilities in their own ways. This means that the more you get your team’s tacit knowledge out and in the open, the more diverse the perspectives shared. With this diversity of ideas and approaches come new and exciting ways for everyone to do their best at work.

As Erin Thomas, VP Head of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Upwork, shared on the Supermanagers podcast, welcoming different perspectives in the workplace benefits you as an individual manager, your team, and the larger organization.

Setting your company apart from competitors

Almost every job application requires potential candidates to have many years of experience—this is a testament to organizations taking tacit knowledge seriously.  By hiring someone whose experience has led them to grow uniquely strong skills, your organization secures a competitive edge by gaining this unique knowledge. Your team achieves better outcomes, your customers get better products or services, and your stakeholders are happier with your results. You’ll wind up leading your market. 

6 examples of tacit knowledge

Here are the six biggest tacit knowledge areas.

Innovation

How do you regularly make changes that keep your product or service competitive? This is the question behind innovation, which requires understanding what people find valuable and how to provide it. A great innovator has built a feel for this over the years. After all, no textbook or instruction manual can keep you updated on market trends.

Leadership

There are all kinds of helpful guides to growing great leaders out there. However, they’re only part of what great leadership requires. Certain instincts, especially when it comes to people, matter too. These are the kinds of instincts that take years of working with people to cultivate. That’s why leadership is so often tacit knowledge. Think about it like this: If you throw someone into leadership who hasn’t shown the innate ability to guide people, they might not succeed. 

Sales and pitches

Some people dislike networking, and that might be because they’re not comfortable selling themselves. It might be because they haven’t had enough chances to get used to selling themselves. This speaks to the tacit nature of sales and pitching skills—they start to come naturally the more often you use them. 

Body language

It’s one thing to read a guide to body language and learn about the three types of gestures; it’s another thing entirely to put this advice into practice without it coming off as forced or looking robotic. You need experience feeling at ease in social and work settings for your body language to naturally appear inviting. Body language is thus a clear form of tacit knowledge.

Intuition

Perhaps the most tacit skill of them all, intuition is your native instinct about something that comes into being right from the get-go. It may be the hardest thing to teach someone, but it can be gained from spending ample time with a topic or skill set. It’s unwritten, unspoken, and incredibly valuable.

Language and communication

There’s a reason that college professors teaching foreign language classes often don’t let students speak English. Fully immersing oneself in a new language is key to learning it well, so learning a language is pretty obviously a tacit skill. That’s also true about communicating clearly in English or your native language. You learn what does and doesn’t work in speech and writing by failing and succeeding.

3 ways to capture and codify tacit knowledge for your employees 

Although tacit knowledge is among the hardest skills, abilities, and insights to record and share, doing so is totally possible. Here’s how to make it happen. 

Get people talking and collaborating

Encourage your team members to share their approaches with others or ask people how they do what they do. Find ways to get your team members to collaborate so they see each other in action. This will create a natural flow of information among your team members.

With Fellow, your team can easily contribute to collaborative meeting agendas ahead of time, transforming meetings into productive work sessions where everyone shows up prepared.

Show skills and tasks in action

For many people, it’s easiest to learn how to do something when they see it happen. Guided videos on how to take the steps involved in a skill are thus great ways to break down knowledge silos. So are professional mentorship programs, shadowing sessions, and training meetings.

Set up knowledge management tools

There’s a whole field of work technologies that capture and organize information. These technologies are called knowledge management tools, and they can be your digital home for sales call recordings, meeting minutes, and everything in between. 

Anything your team members with extensive tacit knowledge create to share these skills can live within your knowledge management platform. Your team members can then easily access these resources. You’ll lower your barriers to team-wide learning and guide everyone toward success.

Unlocking potential with Fellow 

You can use Fellow’s hundreds of meeting agenda templates to structure your team member and manager conversations focusing on strengths and concerns. From there, you can set objectives and key results for team members’ learnings and review them in every meeting. Plus, as you build tacit knowledge, you can store it in private notes and share it when you feel ready to teach it. Use Fellow to easily capture and share the knowledge you thought you could never explain until now!


Sharing is caring

About the author

Max Freedman

Max Freedman writes and edits web content for leading business publications and blogs. In his writing for Fellow, he leverages his experience in team management to educate leaders on guiding both themselves and their team members to success.

Run delightful meetings with Fellow

See why leaders in 100+ countries are using it today.

Already using Fellow? Log in

Wait! Before you go!

You might also be interested in these posts

You might also be interested in these templates