Mapping Tacit

An article for Knowledge Mapping Magazine on ways to map indicators of tacit knowledge. Started by DenhamGrey 09/03/2000

Knowledge is paradoxical, the more we seek it, the more escapes us, the more we contain it the more it evaporates, the more we render it sophisticated, the more it simplifies itself. It's study returns us to the question of our own awareness. Baumard, 2000 (p111)

The range of what we think and do, is limited by what we fail to notice, and because we fail to notice, that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change, until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and needs. R.D. Lang's Knots

What then is tacit knowledge?

By most estimates, the largest part of organizational knowledge escapes awareness, notice and conversation, it slips beneath the collective radar, avoids codification, validation and remains undiscovered by traditional knowledge mapping activities. In standardizing knowledge, processes and language, firms may strive for a strategy that is superficial and achieve a shallow security.

Many times key knowledge which imparts competitive advantage does not come from formal explicit, codified stuff such as patents, trade secrets, documented industrial processes or insightful leadership memos, rather the key knowledge comes from socialization and collective practice. This highly useful competitive knowledge is situated, distributed, largely unarticulated and born in social practice. It is acquired by doing, practicing together and through belonging to a group. It is recognized in the mantra 'do not break a winning team'. Tacit knowledge helps us to formulate problems, act without conscious reasoning, recognize subtle signs, associate interventions and activities with a high probability of success. It is difficult to poach, steal or copy tacit knowledge, which requires a group and an understanding to be realized.

Looking at knowledge with another perspective:

Too many times we look for the positive instances, the tangible artifacts, the obvious connections when mapping 'knowledge' and end up with information stores, meta-data and well-codified insights (and insufficient context!). Consider the downsides, the constraints, the unspoken stuff, the barriers and obstructions that meld into the background and become accepted as just the way things are around here!, think about the all the non-expressed, or supressed stuff?. Mapping tacit knowledge is entering uncharted territory, it is certainly not as easy as parsing electronic text messages using a black-box algorithm, as some KM tool vendors will have you believe. It requires understanding and appreciating knowledge qualities which are very different from what we usually work with.

Mapping through immersion

We all place great store on objective data collection, unbiased observations, and the 'value' contained in measurement and numbers. If you wish to discover tacit knowledge however you will have to adopt a different paradigm, become immersed in the work, participate in the practice, engage in the production and learn via osmosis. A period of 4- 10 months has been advocated by Baumard (p98) as the time required for capturing the language and dissapearing into the background, becoming an accepted colleague and situated member of the group. Mapping tacit knowledge requires watching people in their own territory, practicing, engaging and talking to them in their own terms, using their unique ontology which captures their beliefs and values. Baumard calls this adventurous research, entering the terrain having deliberately discarded the map, leaving (or trying to) all personal mental models, conjectures and hypotheses behind. There is risk from peer critique, of uncontrolled bias, of lack of experimental (and verifiable?) rigor, but if you have your own map you will surely miss the most significant tacit landmarks!.

Arian Ward, 1999 has a useful approach to mapping which he calls ethnovention, combining action research wwith ethnographics and traditional knowledge mapping.

A double-edged blindness

When working in the tacit realm, the observer / mapper is dealing with (a)personal 'bindness', a lack of awareness, articulation or perception or a deliberate passing over, i.e. personal forgetting of (brutal) facts, and (b) stuff that the actor may well know, but which is never raised or surfaced by the tacit mapper, a form of observer 'blindness'. Actors may not be able to express facts that they have hidden from themselves.

The agentic state

Engaging in reflection activities, beliefs and values changes the dynamics from doing and being in an autonomuous or unconsciuos manner to becoming an agent of others or the collective ideal. Clearly this changes mindsets and may result in telling things as they should be rather than as they realy are or were. Tacit mappers should never lower their guard for this and need to corroborate their findings with team members and with the actor at another time.


Cross-referencing and reflexive practice

At the heart of tacit knowledge, is the key issue of a lack of awareness. Reflexive practice is encouraging actors to think back on the knowledge they think they may have used. Here it is necessary for the mapper to guard against leading the conversation and allowing actors to borrow explanations from the mapper. A useful technique is to capture commentary on others reflections and to return to prior reflections after moving elsewhere or allowing time for new thoughts and perspectives to surface in a changed context.

Baumard's ''action perimeters table here p103 tables 104 & 105

Questions to ask!

What hinders knowledge flows?

  • What constraints are placed on experimentation, investigation, diffusion and reception within the group, firm and industry?.
  • How do topics and discourses become sanctioned, constructed, regulated, supervised or subverted?.
  • What models, stories, company paradigms, perspectives and viewpoints dominate around here?
  • Who exactly is in and what is out, who are the bad guys and what are the bogeymen?
  • Is it easy and acceptible to question established processes, decisions and leaders?
  • Can you experiment and 'play' with language or is the terminology (and meaning?) set and rigid?
  • What type of knowledge is favoured explicit, well-documented, internally validated, marketable material or team spirt, second guessing, and informal stories?.

At the individual level

  • How do you manage your knowledge?
  • How do you interact with your environment and workplace?
  • Where and what form do you draw your important knowledge?
  • Which knowledge sources do you value most & why?
  • What helps you to know things others do not know?


Identification of important knowledge modes, their nature, sequence and realtionships are plotted to produce a trajectory.


Mapping tacit knowledge is a paradox of sorts, it requires immersion in the workplace, raising actor awareness, careful observation, team validation and attention to subtle investigator bias and subversion. Many KM tools claim to map tacit knowledge but it seems this is one task that will always require human skills, intution and inventiveness.





Denham, can you map 'tacit knowledge' or just the paths it travels? IMHO, you cannot map the knowledge itself just the trails it leaves -- like mapping electrons, neutrinos, and other atomic particles in a bubble chamber. / ValdisKrebs This is a subtle distinction methinks. You can map behaviors, results of applying tacit knowledge, perceptions from others of where tacit knowledge resides, its forms, manafestations and values. In some ways this may be closer to tacit knowledge than we realize as true / pure tacit knowledge is hidden at the personal level DCG