Tacit Knowledge: Lessons Learned

Recently, I came up with a list of five lessons I had learned from an earlier project that I had run (see Creating Your Own Product). It is always a good idea, at the end of a project to think about the lessons learned. But then, when subsequently reviewing those lessons, I thought to myself: none of these lessons are rocket science and I am sure I knew some of these things before the project. Yet, I had still chosen to list those things as lessons learned. It started me thinking as to why.

The thing is, there is a difference between tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge. It is relatively easy to acquire explicit knowledge (head knowledge) but much more difficult to acquire tacit knowledge (know-how); and, although you can certainly acquire know-how from other people sometimes it is the experience you need in order to really take the lessons on board.

For example, I remember when I was a computer specialist in the early days of mass computerisation. We could tell our users how important it is to backup their data, we could show them how to do it, we could tell them what would happen if they failed to backup and then suffered a hard disk failure and they would take on the explicit knowledge – the head knowledge. But, a good number of them actually needed to experience the pain caused by a loss of their data before they really learned the lesson.

Going back to my project, which was about creating a product, the actual lessons I identified were:

  • You need to identify people with a specific problem, or problems
  • They should be prepared to part with money for the solution
  • They should be in a market/niche that you understand how you can serve
  • They should be repeat buyers
  • Your solution(s) need to be much better than the competition

All of these things, I could say that I actually knew before the project that created this list as ‘lessons learned’. You see, I already had the head-knowledge, but that knowledge did not result in any difference in my approach when it came to me actually creating products. So the reason they appeared in my list is not that I didn’t know this information beforehand, it was because it had not really sunk in; in other words, it had not become know-how, or tacit knowledge. That is the difference between ‘lessons identified’ and ‘lessons learned’.

It is very difficult to pass on tacit knowledge. For example, today I was speaking with someone, advising that person how they could setup a blog, create an income stream using Adsense and then retire on the profit in about two years. And none of the information is rocket science. But here is the piece of tacit knowledge I was attempting to pass on: I told this person that after they had written 1000 words per day for a period of about six months (quite an effort, I am sure you will agree), when they were feeling like all the effort had been in vain because the revenue was so little, when they were thinking that they should give up because it just was not working (so much work for so little return) the thing that separates the successes from the failures is that the successes do not give up.

Now that is tacit knowledge. It is easy to understand what was said, it is easy to recognise there is some truth there, but it is also very easy to underestimate the value of this advice. It is a bit like the backing up example. You can be told, over and over, but until you actually lose some data yourself, perhaps the value of the advice does not fully sink in. Exactly the same is true with my list of lessons learned from my product creation project. It’s tacit knowledge. You can understand it, but there is much more to it than meets the eye.

You probably know the phrase, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. There is nothing perhaps too spectacular about the teacher who delivers the message when the penny finally drops, even though we may be inclined to think otherwise. The fact is that sometimes we are ready to learn something. We are in the right place in our personal journey for the information that we may have heard before to hit us at a different level of understanding. That’s what it takes to acquire know-how from another person.

So when you read the success stories of others and they tell you what factors, in their opinion were responsible for their success, remember that you may have heard the same things elsewhere. You may think that such people are not being honest with you, that there really is some secret technique that they are not prepared to divulge. But the truth may be that you are not ready to hear the message. You may simply not be in the right place at that time.

To learn how to profit from the experiences of others, without having to repeat their mistakes, is one of the fastest routes to success. But you need to learn that this type of know-how is often difficult to obtain from others. In my example above, I don’t know if the person I advised will be prepared to put six months of solid effort into a project knowing that there will be little return on the time invested; and I also don’t know if that person, should they get to that point be able to break away from the disillusionment and disappointment they are likely to feel at that time, but that is what tacit knowledge tells me separates the winners from the losers.

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