Knowledge technologies in context
Knowledge technologies in context

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Knowledge technologies in context

4.5 Technologies and the tacit dimension

In this unit we have discussed the intriguing notion of tacit knowledge, or perhaps better, knowing as a situated process. What might it mean to provide technological support which exploits the tacit dimension? If ‘tacit’ can mean ‘not yet codified, but could be’ in Nonaka and Takeuchi's (1995) sense, then we can devise computer systems that assist in formalising information and ‘transforming’ it into explicit, shared knowledge to feed the knowledge spiral. However, if ‘tacit’ means ‘intrinsically uncodifiable’ in Polanyi's (1966) sense, what is the role of digital technology which depends on a symbolic codification scheme?

The answers lie in the level of abstraction at which we strive for symbolic coding. At the lowest level, everything is digital: a 1 or a 0. However, few people think at this level. As we layer abstractions on to this base layer, we enter into the symbolic codification process described earlier. The question is when to stop: when does it no longer make sense to codify information chunks into abstract categories?

One approach is simply to switch from trying to formally model the world (such as taxonomic categorisation of information, or trying to recognise classes of behaviour such as writing a letter of a particular sort in order to offer ‘intelligent’ help), and focus instead on augmenting people's ability to use and share their own tacit knowledge while engaging in their work. The emphasis here is on the computer as communication and collaboration medium. By focusing on augmenting knowledge-intensive communities with richer forms of communication, we certainly sidestep the problem of ‘codifying the uncodifiable’, but also the lesser problem of ‘codifying the hard to codify’.

The objective of virtual collaboration tools is to link people separated in time and space by appropriate communication systems, enabling them to continue drawing on their tacit knowledge with minimum disruption. Often, these systems are termed groupware, computer-mediated communication (CMC) or computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW) systems. Lotus Notes and The Open University's Lyceum system are two rather different examples. Lotus Notes ( [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ) is one of the most widespread groupware systems. Notes provides integrated facilities for email, discussion groups, scheduling and web intranet services, integrated with databases and other systems.

Another approach to the challenge of augmenting tacit knowledge with technological support is to assume that tacit knowledge is brought to bear as and when it is required. We will look at systems that seek to help users record information as it comes to mind while engaged in a task.Simulations are yet another strategy for fostering tacit knowledge and skills. Consider flight emulators (embodied games) and management games (decision-making / team skills).

Stories are a common and enjoyable way in which we communicate experiences to friends and colleagues, so it would be surprising if they did not have an important role to play in the sharing of tacit, informal knowledge within and between organisations. How might we use technologies to recognise and support storytelling?

Finally, at the end of this section we shall return to the theme of communities of practice introduced earlier as a core concept, and consider some technological implications of locating these workplace communities at the centre of how we understand knowledge generation and sharing.


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