Tacit Knowledge: Nudging the Limits of Knowledge Translation?

For knowledge translation professionals, knowledge may be the business, but not all the wares are alike. We must make a distinction between explicit and tacit knowledge (TK). The former refers to formal knowledge such as data published in peer-reviewed studies and evidence-based practice guidelines. The latter is informal: unwritten practices or ‘tricks of the trade’ generally acquired through lived experience. It also encompasses less conscious knowledge such as intuition or ‘going with one’s gut’ (Welsh & Lyons, 2001). Yale anthropologist James Scott (1998) makes a strong case for the importance of TK, arguing that it central to the functioning of modern day corporations and states. In its absence, productivity falls and these entities cease to function efficiently. This is well illustrated by work-to-rule strikes: in performing only those responsibilities formally detailed in their job descriptions, employees can reduce an organization’s productivity, which is dependent on informal practices (Scott, 1998, p. 310).

Unsurprisingly, TK also plays a central role in clinical and public health practice. Yoshioka-Maeda et al. (2006) found that public health nurses working in Japan relied on tacit knowledge to plan and coordinate services for clients with complex needs. In doing so, the nurses departed from traditional planning processes that begin with a community assessment, instead allowing problems to emerge from their everyday interactions with clients. Likewise, Kothari et al. (2012) point to an important role for TK in creating or adapting an intervention so that it attends to the local context. Tacit knowledge provides not only contextual information but is vital to accomplishing everyday activities when time and resources are at a premium. Practitioners will rely on past experience to make decisions about personnel (“Is this person reliable?”) and methods (Kothari et al., 2012). Gabbay and le May reported that practitioners in the UK infrequently used evidence-based practice guidelines in their daily interactions with patients, relying instead on ‘mindlines’: “collectively reinforced, internalised tacit guidelines” developed through experience (2004, pp. 1014-1015). However, these engrained habits may also be a barrier to change; it may be hard to convince practitioners to modify engrained habits (Kothari et al., 2012, p. 30).

If TK plays such an important role, how can we manage it to our benefit? Gabbay and le May’s (2004) observed that tacit knowledge exchange took place primarily through interpersonal interactions; the same story emerged from Kothari et al.’s (2012) interviews with practitioners in Ontario. We can encourage such exchanges through promoting and assisting in the development of communities of practice. For a model we might look to Ontario’s Seniors Health Research Transfer Network; there, dedicated knowledge brokers have worked to establish new connections with- and facilitate meetings between practitioners working in the field of seniors’ health (Conklin et al., 2013). We might also take a cue from work done outside of public health. NASA (2013) compiled and published a collection of interviews with individuals who had worked on the space shuttle program. Such an initiative allows individuals to benefit from TK when face-to-face contact is not possible. While these are promising practices, some TK may not be well suited to transfer, as it is often context-specific. Furthermore, there may be certain affective dimensions of TK that we cannot package; lived experience may be essential to knowing or understanding certain phenomena (e.g. managing traumatic experiences).

The lesson for researchers and practitioners is that we must reorient the way in which we evaluate evidence. As the aforementioned studies demonstrate, qualitative inquiry is much better placed to capture the nuances of TK in a given context. In research and practice many accept a specific hierarchy of evidence that privileges formal or explicit knowledge. This hierarchy places randomized, ostensibly generalizable studies (e.g. systematic reviews and meta-analyses) over case studies and those employing non-random samples. If TK plays an essential role in oiling the gears of program planning and implementation, then perhaps the hierarchy of evidence needs reconsidering. While individual case studies are at the bottom of the evidence hierarchy, such a study might provide the crucial “how” or “why” that Riley et al. (2008) find lacking in many program evaluations.


Conklin, J., Lusk, E., Harris, M., & Stolee, P. (2013). Knowledge brokers in a knowledge network: the case of Seniors Health Research Transfer Network knowledge brokers. Implementation Science, 8(1), 7.

Gabbay, J., & May, A. L. (2004). Evidence based guidelines or collectively constructed “mindlines?” Ethnographic study of knowledge management in primary care. BMJ, 329(7473), 1013.

Kothari, A., Rudman, D., Dobbins, M., Rouse, M., Sibbald, S., & Edwards, N. (2012). The use of tacit and explicit knowledge in public health: a qualitative study. Implementation Science, 7(1), 20.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (2013). NASA JSC Space Shuttle Program Tacit Knowledge Capture Project. Retrieved from http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/ssp.htm.

Riley, B. L., MacDonald, J., Mansi, O., Kothari, A., Kurtz, D., von Tettenborn, L. I., & Edwards, N. C. (2008). Is reporting on interventions a weak link in understanding how and why they work? A preliminary exploration using community heart health exemplars. Implementation Science, 3(1), 27.

Scott, J. C. (1998). Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Yale University Press.

Welsh, I., & Lyons, C. M. (2001). Evidence‐based care and the case for intuition and tacit knowledge in clinical assessment and decision making in mental health nursing practice: An empirical contribution to the debate. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 8(4), 299-305.

Yoshioka-Maeda, K., Murashima, S., & Asahara, K. (2006). Tacit knowledge of public health nurses in identifying community health problems and need for new services: a case study. International journal of nursing studies, 43(7), 819-826.


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2 responses to “Tacit Knowledge: Nudging the Limits of Knowledge Translation?”

  1. aislinr says :

    I agree that this question of what to do with tacit knowledge is really interesting in thinking about KT. It’s obviously not something that can just be dismissed as not being scientific since it is so ingrained in how people and organizations operate. I like that you concluded by talking about how we evaluate evidence. I have been thinking quite a bit lately about this and about what kind of evidence is valued and by whom.

  2. lili891 says :

    The role of tacit knowledge in the research process and its potential to contribute significantly to research and policy decisions certainly warrants further thought and discussion. While the existence of a hierarchy of evidence favours and promotes the use of explicit knowledge, as mentioned, tacit forms of knowledge, although increasingly considered, has yet to find a formal place in the research process. Without guidelines on how tacit knowledge may be used to improve the quality of the process and evidence, research findings will continue to be limited to an extent. Interestingly, increasing attention has been paid to the role that tacit knowledge may assume in the research process, particularly with the rise in focus on CBPR. Undoubtedly, involvement of partners and stakeholders in the research will only serve to benefit the process as they may be able to provide the tacit knowledge that is needed for successful program development and implementation.

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