Contextuality of tacit knowledge

Interestingly, at the moment, Polanyi may be the most modern advocate when it comes to his views of the social and cultural origins of tacit expert knowledge (Rolf, 1995, p. 15). This notion is largely accepted, and it has been explored in many fields e.g., in arts and crafts (Jernström, 2000; Tynjälä, 2008), theology (Sanders, 1988), business (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995), the social sciences (Gourlay, 2002, 2004), nursing (Nurminen, 2008), and education (Burbules, 2008; Fenster-macher, 1994; Toom, 2006, 2008, 2012, 2017; van Manen, 1995). In various contexts, tacit knowledge often emerges when immediate actions to demanding situations are needed, and the actions have to be justified in reasonable ways (Toom, 2017; Westera, 2001). Theologians describe various pastoral care situations that call for tacit knowledge. Researchers on nursing refer to demanding caring encounters between patients and nurses, where tacit knowing has played a crucial role in completing them successfully. In teacher research, it has been found that teachers’ tacit knowledge is perceived to be especially necessary in surprising pedagogical moments in classroom interactions (van Manen, 1991b, 1995). In these situations, teachers need to act - or not to act - appropriately in relation to their pupils and their learning (Burbules, 2008).

Some situations often require experts to perceive their actions from multiple perspectives: carefully evaluate the situation, know participants, and think about the consequences, also for future actions (see Chapter 2). All the intended and performed actions should be executed in the best interest of all involved. It is certainly impossible to learn this kind of knowledge by simply reading books. Instead, this kind of expertise can only be acquired through action and reflection on action during long periods of time.

Tacit knowledge as individual and collective phenomena

As tacit knowledge contains both skilful, individual, and cumulative expert knowledge and the processes of knowing, some researchers (e.g., Baltes, Staudinger, & Lindenberger, 1999; Krampe & Baltes, 2003) speak about an expert’s crystallized intelligence when describing competent expert action. Also, Argyris and Schön (1974), through their theory-in-use views, perceive professional knowledge from an individualistic perspective. They all elaborate on tacit knowledge and expertise from individual sources, through which experts e.g., in master-apprentice relationships build up their skills and knowledge for action (Jemström, 2000; Rolf, 1995). Besides individual sources, tacit knowledge also emerges from co-operation with others, both explicitly and implicitly.

Organizational knowledge creation (Nonaka, 1994; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995) makes available and strenghtens knowledge created by individuals together as well as connecting it to an organization’s knowledge system. Tacit knowledge is a cornerstone in this shared creation and transforms unarticulated knowledge and skills, senses, and implicit rules of thumb into collective professional practices. Understanding the knowledge conversion between tacit and explicit (Nonaka & von Krogh, 2009) is focal in learning through an organization’s knowledge system. This kind of learning process demands social skills, abilities, a willingness to engage in reciprocity, and a sense of belonging to an expert community (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). Tacit knowledge in expert communities can be seen as a web of places and a net of people seamlessly working together (Hakkarainen, Lonka, & Lipponen, 2004).

Recent research (Hakkarainen & Paavola, 2008; Lakkala, Toom, Ilomäki, & Muukkonen, 2015) has shown that creative expertise requires well-functioning work groups and networks across various disciplines in order to be able to solve problems and innovate (John-Steiner, 2000; Scardamalia, 2002). Hakkarainen et al. (2004) have put forward a collective intelligence that emerges in joint actions with experts. They argue that the highly complex problems that experts have to resolve in work require greater reliance on socially distributed intelligence and competence. Viewing individual expertise within a social collectivity is crucial to overcoming and exceeding individual resources and capabilities (Sawyer, 2007). Thus, caution is required if we focus only on key experts: tacit knowledge is enrichened by everyone working in an organisation.

Tacit knowledge as a product and process

As we have emphasized, tacit knowledge is closely connected with skilful expert action and it serves both as a knowledge base for action and as continuously shaping the process of knowing. In theory, the two perspectives can be separated. As an accumulated knowledge base, tacit knowledge covers practical experiences and beliefs across many individual and communal contexts and traditions and develops continuously through action and reflection (Hakkarai-nen & Paavola, 2008). The formation of this kind of expertise happens not only through clarifying skills, beliefs, and attitudes (Rolf, 1995), but also through knowledge conversion between tacit and non-tacit knowledge bases (Collin, Paloniemi, Rasku-Puttonen, & Tynjala, 2010; Etelapelto & Tynjala, 1999). This conversation from intuitive and automatic actions towards more conscious ones, and vice versa, can be seen as an essential condition for becoming an expert (Eraut, 1994; Leinhardt, McCarthy, Young, & Merriman, 1995).

When emphasising the process characteristics of tacit knowledge, tacit knowing is often favoured as a concept (Rolf, 1995; Toom, 2012). This shifts the focus to immediate situations where expert practices and decision-making take place in quick and intuitive actualisations of knowledge and skills in various contexts. Experts’ capabilities to utilise tacit knowledge emerge in situations when they are able to activate knowledge processes in action. In line with Polanyi (1958, 1966), Rolf (1995) states that experts utilise knowledge like an invisible tool and is thus called tacit. Its broad canvas of competencies is seen as a key to expertise and it relies on the users’ understanding and sensitivity of what to do or undo in demanding professional situations.

It is important to note that the product and process aspects of tacit knowledge are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are compelementary as tacit knowledge is developed through practical knowing whenever experts consciously organise, classify, clarifify, and anticipate their practical actions. Thus, it resonates with the current understanding of experts’ competence covering the knowledge base, situational observation, and decision-making as well as actual behaviour in order to solve any challenge at hand (Blomeke & Kaiser, 2017; Toom, 2017; Westera, 2001). Next, we will examine the structure and the dimensions of tacit knowing by following Polanyi (1966).

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