Tacit Knowledge Essay, Research Paper
To a greater or lesser degree, tacit knowledge affects nearly every interaction people have with automated systems or interactive software. The experience an individual brings to their interactions guides their goals and expectations – and experience and goals are unique from person to person. Some of the guiding questions for system designers are:
? To what extent does tacit knowledge and embedded skill affect the process for which we?re designing?
? To what extent do people collaborate in this process today – how do they cooperate, and what is the nature of their interactions?
? Do the explicit components of the work process and tasks lend themselves to designed artifacts, and what will we be missing if we only design to the explicit functions?
? And, in this case – what are the tacit responses to managing large amounts of information? How do people intuitively deal with information overload from automated systems?
These questions address several of the tasks affected by tacit knowledge:
? Complex work involving multiple and rapid decisions by individuals, such as management and supervision,
? Knowledge-based tasks characterized by individual process and control decisions, such as engineering and process tasks,
? Group-based tasks involving shared understanding of common work processes, such as in design, construction, engineering, system work, etc.
In these types of work, decisions and interactions are made on a continual basis in which multiple threads of communication with others occur and multiple interaction with data sources are involved. To the extent that we design systems that require knowledge and to reliable data sources are inherently compromised. Plus, users are uncomfortable or depersonalized in their work tasks when asked to use processes that disable the contribution of their knowledge. People will often use workarounds to the formal system, will use alternative representations (paper, personal interaction) and other means to bypass the official channels of a poorly designed system that neglects the importance of tacit knowledge. Finally, people forced to use systems requiring “unnatural” interaction will often defeat the purpose of the system, and supply only the minimum required information.
System design responses to this problem must evaluate both the information required to run a process versus the information reflecting knowledge and effective collaboration. Most systems design can accommodate the former – it is quite difficult to do the latter, even when tacit knowledge is elicited. User interfaces are too often designed to force workers to use systems that support management goals for information, and users are usually not provided interfaces that support their way of thinking about the problem.
As systems designers, we must develop and communicate techniques for dealing with tacit knowledge, not just to elicit the knowledge and internalized processes to develop better systems, but to understand those parts of the process/task which can never be and should never be automated. The problem is not just one of system and user interface design, but of total work process and creating a humane, harmonious environment conducive to appropriate collaboration.
One of the key areas of breakdown observed in the workplace is in handling large amounts of information. Outside of on-the-floor stock trading and database engineering, most jobs never involved handling large amounts of data. With the common use of computer tools, high-speed networks, and the Internet, people now encounter an extraordinary amount of information on a daily basis, with a high rate of increase that will not likely revert. The flood of data results in information overload, information fatigue syndrome, and missing important facts in the sea of useless ones.
People use tacit knowledge to deal efficiently with tasks in which they are expert or highly familiar, and in communicating with others to make requests, commands, or to coordinate actions for (typically) work processes. When faced with information flooding, many resort to using ineffective tools to bring short-term relief to the problem. So many information and communication convenience tools – email, voice mail, fax, computer-based information services – are disregarded, delayed, or misused. Work processes that rely on these intermediary channels are then susceptible to breakdown. In an overload environment, people often stop interacting with information sources “rationally”.
One problem that has emerged is that of individuals reacting inappropriately to perceived threats based on low-validity information. At Lexis-Nexis, we recently dealt with the alarm of an Internet “spam” or mass-emailing of misinformation sent worldwide that continues to spread through the Internet. The message warned recipients of a system they called “P-Trax” they claimed contained numerous amounts of personal information on everyone in America. The contents were false, but were acted on by thousands as if true.
When people have massive amounts of information to deal with, they often attend only partially to the information they receive. Because of the overload, messages can sometimes assume an equal value of non-importance. When an apparent alarm is raised, it is compared to the baseline flow of messages, and is not looked at in context. Misinformation can be treated as emergency; the tacit impression is of risk and anxiety, and people act upon their fear and do not seek validity. A reaction of anger covers up the fear and anxiety; and inappropriate actions are taken to remedy the “problem”.
A similar problem can be found in collaborative systems, where tracking is made of individual contributions to a group system. Productive interaction with Notes, Collabra, and similar systems assumes the collaborative sharing of information toward common goals and agendas. The typical organizational turf agendas are ignored in the design of these systems, and if conflicts do emerge, it is assumed the introduction of “groupware” tools will force a new paradigm of empowered interaction on the old regime. The tacit knowledge problem is one of understanding how knowledge is shared or held for personal or organizational gain.