Implicit Knowledge

The Definition of Implicit (embedded) Knowledge

Implicit Knowledge can be defined simply as knowledge that is not explicit. However, there is a subtle difference between Implicit Knowledge and Tacit Knowledge in that it is presumed that Implicit Knowledge hasn’t yet been codified but that it likely can be codified, while Tacit knowledge may well be impossible to codify. It could be said that Implicit Knowledge is that which hasn’t yet been “put together” either by expression, concept development, assumptions that lead to principles, or through analysis of facts or theory.

In Knowledge Management much has been written since Polanyi (1969) about both Tacit Knowledge and Explicit Knowledge and the distinct differences between the two, but less has been written about the potential importance of Implicit Knowledge as a probable “shade of gray” between the two.

Implicit Knowledge is very much about “knowing how” to do something (which explains to some degree why the terms Implicit Knowledge and Tacit Knowledge are sometimes used interchangeably) but it is something that we may not be able to explain or describe explicitly. Implicit Knowledge is often tapped into indirectly and unintentionally.

A good example of Implicit Knowledge in an organization could be found in asking a worker how a task is to be performed and to ask what the range of outcomes might be for the task or even portions of the task. At the onset of the discussion the range of outcomes described may well be significantly different than the actual performed or observed range of outcomes. At the onset of a discussion about a task to be performed a worker may describe the many approaches that could be taken based on any number of perceived or potential constraints. But the worker may need to make this implicit knowledge explicit in order to choose a particular approach, and explicit rules and procedures learned over time may lead to implicit actions or habits that can’t easily be identified or described ("I don't know how I knew to do that, but I did."). And to any other worker the explicit knowledge that there is perhaps one “best” approach to take is useless if they lack necessary implicit knowledge.

Embedded knowledge refers to the knowledge that is locked in processes, products, culture, routines, artifacts, or structures (Horvath 2000, Gamble & Blackwell 2001). Knowledge is embedded either formally, such as through a management initiative to formalize a certain beneficial routine, or informally as the organization uses and applies the other two knowledge types.

The challenges in managing embedded knowledge vary considerably and will often differ from embodied tacit knowledge. Culture and routines can be both difficult to understand and hard to change. Formalized routines on the other hand may be easier to implement and management can actively try to embed the fruits of lessons learned directly into procedures, routines, and products.

IT's role in this context is somewhat limited but it does have some useful applications. Broadly speaking, IT can be used to help map organizational knowledge areas; as a tool in reverse engineering of products (thus trying to uncover hidden embedded knowledge); or as a supporting mechanism for processes and cultures. However, it has also been argued that IT can have a disruptive influence on culture and processes, particularly if implemented improperly.

Due to the difficulty in effectively managing embedded knowledge, firms that succeed may enjoy a significant competitive advantage.

Embedded knowledge is found in: rules, processes, manuals, organizational culture, codes of conduct, ethics, products, etc. It is important to note, that while embedded knowledge can exist in explicit sources (i.e. a rule can be written in a manual), the knowledge itself is not explicit, i.e. it is not immediately apparent why doing something this way is beneficial to the organization.