Tacit knowledge and knowing at the core of individual and collective expertise and professional action


Tacit knowledge and knowing as manifold, challenging, and fascinating research phenomena has occupied researchers’ minds in many disciplines. In this chapter, we review the diversity, essentiality, and significance of tacit knowledge in the construction of expertise as well as in experts’ thinking and actions. Expertise and tacit knowledge are often considered together in various fields and professions, because they have several characteristics that are closely intertwined with each other. This chapter examines the relationships between tacit knowledge and expertise, especially taking into account the complexity of tacit knowledge aiming to understand the core of expertise. While professorial expertise is often viewed through individual facets, it is equally important to incorporate interactive and object-oriented collaborative aspects to its tacit dimensions (Hakkarainen & Paavola, 2008; Paavola & Hakkarainen, 2005). We elaborate tacit knowledge in relation to skills and competences as well as in relation to the questions of explication and argumentation that are central when thinking about the essence of expertise (cf. Fenstermacher, 1994; Hakkarainen & Paavola, 2008). We elaborate the process and product aspects of tacit knowledge as well as its individual and collective aspects, which are critical when thinking about the core of expertise. We hope to provide a basis upon which dialogue on the issue can progress.

After analysing the aspects of tacit knowledge, we present a model in which the characteristics of tacit knowledge and expertise are intertwined into four different perspectives. First, tacit knowledge can be understood as a gradually accumulated knowledge base which an individual expert can access. Secondly, the tacit expert knowledge base lies in communities, networks, and organisations. Thirdly, tacit knowledge is perceived as individual expert action including accumulated experiences in the form of scripts and agendas of action. Fourth, we conclude by viewing tacit knowledge as active and situationally emerging practices in expert communities’ action. Along with these four perspectives, we touch upon current research in which the development of expertise is understood to be a collective process (Sawyer, 2007) that combines individuals, communities, and the objects of their activities (Knorr Cetina, 2001; Paavola & Hakkarainen, 2005; Sfard, 1998). Tacit knowledge is thus understood as being situational and intertwined with a particular social and material context of action. Although it is challenging to explicate tacit knowledge and knowing, they are closely intertwined with cognitive and emotional aspects in experts’ thinking and action — and it may be analytically possible to examine them in greater detail.

Characteristics of tacit knowledge

Tacit knowledge and knowing have triggered heated discussions among philosophers (Niiniluoto, 1996; Polanyi, 1966; Rolf, 1995), theologians (Sanders, 1988), social scientists (Gourlay, 2004; Sveiby, 1994), nursing (Nurminen, 2008), as well as among educational scientists (Fenstermacher, 1994; Hager, 2000; Orton, 1993). For example, Fenstermacher (1994), Hager (2000), and Niiniluoto (1996) analyse the complicated characteristics and define tacit knowledge as one form of knowledge. Tacit knowledge has been elaborated from the psychological perspective (Argyris & Schon, 1974; Orton, 1993) as it comes close to routines and automated strategies. Tacit knowledge is analysed in detail in studies investigating apprenticeship settings (Jemstrom, 2000). Tacit knowledge has also been identified in the business world, and in that context its collective and organisational aspects have been emphasised (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). Even though there is no consensus about the definition of the concept of tacit knowledge, there is general agreement about its complexity among researchers.

Michael Polanyi’s (1958, 1966) well-known theory of tacit knowledge is an epistemological theory, in which (tacit) knowledge is understood broadly, and Polanyi uses alternately the concepts of tacit knowing and knowledge. Polanyi (1966) defines it broadly in a sense that it covers both intellectual knowledge and other aspects, for example skills and abilities. Polanyi’s often-cited observation regarding tacit knowledge is: we know more than we can tell (Polanyi, 1966, p. 4). The phrase has become a fascinating label, but it is difficult to define what it actually means. Regarding Polanyi, Rolf’s (1995) understanding is helpful as he states about tacit knowledge: “As humans orientate themselves to real world, they consider and steer their behaviours by tacitly functioning knowledge in which the conventions and personal aspects are integrated. Integration allows them to orientate towards reality”. Polanyi elaborates the “tacit dimension” of knowledge and behaviour, in which cultures and individuals are integrated. There he has identified “tacit knowing” or “knowledge” resource (Rolf, 1995, pp. 20-21).

Despite the multiple perspectives, the majority of discussions and criticisms concerning tacit knowledge seems to date back to the following philosophical-epistemological questions (Toom, 2006, 2012): how is the content of knowledge defined? Does knowledge cover almost all the conscious and unconscious human actions, or does it cover only some of the human actions defined in a certain way? Also, is the demand for explication always linked up with definition and pursuit of knowledge? What about the need for argumentation? Does the focus of interest lie on tacit knowledge substance, or tacit knowledge in action, tacit knowing? In addition, is tacit knowledge situation-specific, and to what extent? We analyse tacit knowledge by leaning on certain key scholars. Our aim is to untangle the shared core questions of tacit knowledge that emerge from different bases, not to juxtapose them (see of expertise, Chapter 10).

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