Project Management Institute

Uncovering tacit knowledge in projects


A project is unquestionably a source of knowledge. Every project offers several learning opportunities to generate knowledge and increase both individual competencies and organizational assets.

Knowledge Management models divide knowledge into two components: Explicit Knowledge, formal and gained through codified frameworks; Tacit Knowledge, informal and gained through joint activities among individuals. Explicit and Tacit Knowledge should be strongly linked, enriching each other to form the so-called “spiral of knowledge”. Unfortunately the spiral is often broken….

Usually Explicit Knowledge holds a place of predominance in Project Management while Tacit Knowledge is not knowingly taken into consideration and enhanced. For example, most of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) processes emphasize in-depth solutions to increase Explicit Knowledge, for example most of Planning Processes produce explicit Knowledge Objects like Project Charter, Project Scope Statement, WBS, Management Plans, Baselines; while Tacit Knowledge is left mostly “unmanaged”.

Based on Nonaka-Takeuchi's model and the PMBOK® Guide, this presentation aims to discuss effective ways of creating Tacit Knowledge in project management and of developing a knowledge context which is suitable to expand Tacit Knowledge in projects. The presentation defines Tacit Knowledge and its relevance in projects, it illustrates the SECI Knowledge Creation model developed by Nonaka &Takeuchi and outlines general guidelines and specific actions aimed at enabling Tacit Knowledge during the entire project life cycle and the Critical Success Factors for enabling Tacit Knowledge within the project environment.

Tacit Knowledge and Projects

Polanyi stated that “we can know more than we can tell” (Polanyi, 1966, p. 4). This simple statement implies that what we normally call “knowledge” can and should be divided into different categories. One of the ways to categorize knowledge is to divide it into Explicit and Tacit Knowledge. Explicit Knowledge can be articulated in formal language, while Tacit Knowledge is based on the experience of individuals. Explicit and Tacit Knowledge are the “basic building blocks of a complementary relationship” (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995, p. ix), both are essential to creating and fostering knowledge within any organization. In particular Tacit Knowledge can be defined as:

  • Subjective and based on experience: what we know is strongly linked to what we are and to our personal history and cultural heritage. At the same time, it is related to our experience, the practical “know-how” we acquire through our activities and endeavours. Nonaka defines these two aspects of Tacit Knowledge as including “cognitive and technical elements” (Nonaka &Takeuchi, 1995, p. 60). Cognitive elements can be summarised as “mental models”, perspectives, beliefs and viewpoints that help us to perceive and define our world. Technical elements refer to personal competencies, concrete skills, habits, practices and crafts;
  • Simultaneous and context sensitive: “Knowledge is often in the eye of the beholder and you give meaning to a concept through the way you use it” (Wittgenstein, 1958, p. 15). Tacit Knowledge requires self-involvement (often physical involvement) and commitment, and it is created “here and now” in a “caring” context where knowledge can be nurtured and shared. It blooms in groups where the members recognize “common interests, individual needs and different areas of expertise”;
  • Analogical and not easily transferred: “Because Tacit Knowledge is bound to the senses, personal experiences and bodily movement, it cannot easily be passed on to others. In fact, it requires close physical proximity while the work is being done” (Von Krogh, Ichijo &Nonaka, 2000, p. 83). We often find it difficult to express Tacit Knowledge in words and we resort to metaphors, drawings, showing how we do it and other different methods of expression not requiring a formal use of language. Similarly we often learn through observation, imitation, and face to face interaction.

The experimental dimension of Tacit Knowledge as described above is strongly related to the project environment, and it is typical of any innovative enterprise and project. Indeed the PMBOK® Guide defines knowledge as

“knowing something with familiarity gained through experience, education, observation or investigation”. (PMI, 2004, p. 363).

However, Explicit Knowledge holds a place of predominance in Project Management while Tacit Knowledge is not sufficiently recognized and knowingly enhanced. For example, most of the PMBOK® Guide processes emphasize in depth solutions to increase Explicit Knowledge while Tacit Knowledge is left substantially “unmanaged”. Recent studies have shown that only a few of the 44 PMBOK® Guide processes directly addresses Tacit Knowledge Creation activities: “Other than mentioning mentoring and coaching the PMBOK® Guide contains no direct reference to the transfer of Tacit Knowledge between individuals. We could not find any direct reference in the PMBOK® Guide to the conversion of Explicit to Tacit Knowledge” (Reich & Wee, 2006, p.19). Although the PMBOK® Guide concentrates on Explicit Knowledge and makes only a few direct references to Tacit Knowledge, there are various pointers to that dimension: expert judgement, training, group meetings, different communication methods and, last but not least, lessons learned sessions are among the tools and techniques suggested for several processes.

We can say that in practice Project Managers are dealing with Tacit Knowledge in many and diverse ways in order to achieve the success of their project:

  • Tacit Knowledge represent judgement par excellence” (Von Krogh, Ichijo & Nonaka, 2000, p. 84): in all processes dedicated to estimating project time and costs, expert judgement, if adequately sought and used, will go far beyond providing simple data;
  • “(To foster knowledge creation) Teams should be cross-functional, involving members from a broad cross-section of different organizational activities” (Nonaka &Takeuchi, 1995, p. 76): this statement does not need to be commented to point out the similarity between knowledge and project management!
  • Knowledge enabling includes facilitating relationships and conversations as well as sharing local knowledge across the organization or beyond geographical and cultural boundaries” (Von Krogh, Ichijo & Nonaka, 2000, p. 4): the PMBOK® Guide recommends exactly the same approach for many processes i.e. Creating the WBS, Risk Identification, Manage Stakeholders, etc.;
  • Members face a breakdown of routines, habit and cognitive frameworks.” (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995, p. 78): the temporary nature of projects always requires a change of paradigm which is considered an opportunity to create knowledge because it pushes people to question their basic attitudes and stimulates new kinds of relationships.

We believe Tacit Knowledge to be an intrinsic element of Project Management and its best practices. Uncovering Tacit Knowledge may prove practicable and most of all useful to Project Managers who are willing to explore this hidden dimension and become a “Knowledge Manager” who: “helps establish the right enabling context – the essential space and relationship that allow Tacit Knowledge to be unleashed” (Von Krogh – Ichijo & Nonaka, 2000, p. 148). Such “role” requires that best practices of project management are merged with different forms of commitment that Nonaka calls “Knowledge Intention” (Nonaka &Takeuchi, 1995, p. 74), and are essential in order to give direction to knowledge creation efforts and provide a clear vision of what knowledge should and will be developed and made available for an organization, a specific business or a single project.
“The ability to sustain success and significant improvement over a long period of time depens mainly on the capability to learn for experience” (Schindler & Eppler, 2003, p. 219)
Recent researches have shown that a fuller understanding of knowledge management practices might strongly influence project success (Reich & Wee, 2006, p. 12). Other studies have indicated a correlation between the type of project (i.e. R&D projects) and the knowledge environment required to achieve the desired results (K.U. Kolskinen, 2004 p. 17).

Finally projects have also been considered a consistent and organized effort to fill the so called “knowledge gap” (the existing knowledge vs. the target knowledge) in the development and implementation of new technologies (Regev, Shtub & Ben-Haim, 2006, p. 17).

By uncovering the Tacit Knowledge hidden in their projects, Project Managers will be able to use that knowledge to improve the performance of their project, as well as to develop new knowledge to be reused for similar projects and within the performing organization. Last but not least, Project Managers will enrich their personal expertise and competences and develop the openness of mind, the capability to “expect the unexpected” which is a fundamental trait for any individual working in a project environment.

The SECI Model of Knowledge Creation

The SECI Model created by Nonaka and Takeuchi in the mid-Nineties, and later enriched by the same and other authors, is a de-facto standard for Knowledge Creation.

SECI is the acronym of Socialization, Externalization, Combination and Internalization. Each of these four terms represents a particular mode of Knowledge conversion:

  • Socialization is the process of sharing Tacit Knowledge among individuals. It happens through face-to face interactions. Tacit Knowledge passes from one individual to another thanks to physical closeness. Observation, imitation, joint practices are the main vehicles for sharing mental models and technical skills. Much time must be spent by newcomers to empathize with others and capture their way of acting, thinking, feeling. On the other hand, masters must be willing to be observed as role-models. Sharing Tacit Knowledge is much more than the simple transfer of information using language: it entails the willingness and the capability to live specific common situations together.
  • Externalization is the process of translating Tacit Knowledge into Explicit Knowledge. It happens through dialogue and collective reflection. The individual becomes part of a group and works closely with others in order to openly express his/her insights and to actively listen to others' intentions. Figurative language (metaphors, analogies, narratives, images) is the main vehicle to convert Tacit Knowledge into explicit models. Following a creative method the group increasingly refines new concepts by exploiting differences, contradictions and imbalances which emerge in progress. A high level of tuning inside the group is essential for carrying out the Externalization process effectively.
  • Combination is the process of merging different explicit objects into a more complex Explicit Knowledge system. It happens through such media as documents, databases, IT communication infrastructures and organizational networks. Existing Explicit Knowledge is spread within the entire organization according to the different targets of users. At the same time, new Explicit Knowledge is created by collecting, sorting and linking existing codified information. An orderly interaction among stakeholders inside the company (business units, central staff, headquarters, subsidiaries, etc.) and outside the company (customers, suppliers, partners, institutions, etc.) is strongly required to justify the costs and reap the benefits of the Combination process.
  • Internalization is the process of transforming Explicit Knowledge into Tacit Knowledge. It happens through personal “learning by doing”. An individual needs to internalize new knowledge either by re-experiencing the new skills, behaviours and codified practices, or by using simulations, such as, for example, enacting virtual situations and reading or listening to case studies and success stories. The possibility of trial and error allows individuals to follow a process of creative adjustment and a bodily engagement is often essential in order to overcome the difficulties connected with this necessary personal redefinition. Internalization, like Socialization places the individual with his/her self-image at the centre of the process.. Gregory Batenson has defined the changes associated with any learning process as going from little changes to large changes which influence the behaviour of the individual. Through Internalization individuals not only acquire new knowledge, they also discovers how to interpret new stimuli, create contingent alternatives, thus expanding their personal boundaries and forming new habits.

It is obvious that Knowledge Creation is an ongoing interchange between Tacit and Explicit Knowledge. Tacit and Explicit Knowledge are complementary elements interacting with each other in a dynamic mode. The image used by Nonaka and Takeuchi to depict this endless Knowledge conversion is a spiral that starts and ends with the “spiral”. The Spiral links the four modes of Knowledge conversion in an iterative and endless way: Socialization feeds Externalization that in turn supplies Combination that in turn fosters Internalization. From the spiral perspective Individual Tacit Knowledge is the real engine of the SECI Model.

The concept of “Ba”

Ba is a Japanese term whose general meaning is “a shared space of interaction”. Referring to Knowledge, ba is the right context for Knowledge Creation and fosters relationships between individuals, inside groups, within and among organizations. Ba can be physical (e.g., office), virtual (e.g., group-ware) and mental (e.g., mindset). With reference to the SECI Model, each of the four processes of Knowledge conversion implies its own ba. Each ba supports a specific process and its distinctive features. The four types of ba are:

  • Originating ba supports the Socialization process and is the space where individuals can share Tacit Knowledge to the highest degree. Originating ba enhances face-to face relationships and indicates a context where individuals can enjoy a deep interchange of experiences, mindsets, emotions with a clear intention but without a short-term performance evaluation. In summary Originating ba should be “a reserved space for a synchronizing behaviour”.
  • Interacting ba (also named Conversing ba) supports the Externalization process and is the place where a group can transform Tacit Knowledge into Explicit Knowledge. Interacting ba enhances a Dialogue within the group and indicates a context where the group can exchange insights through peer-to-peer interactions, using a figurative language without the obligation of directly producing rational outcomes (e.g. written documents). In summary Interacting ba should be “a joint space for a collective meaning”.
  • Cyber ba (also named Documenting ba) supports the Combination process and is the space where organizations can systematize and spread Organizational Explicit Knowledge. Cyber ba enhances the effective use of IT solutions and indicates a context where the different stakeholders, inside and outside the organization, through group-to-group interactions, can link codified Knowledge objects and communicate them to the different targets in the best manner. In summary Cyber ba should be “a virtual space for a collaborative environment”.
  • Exercising ba (also named Internalizing ba) supports the Internalization process and is the space where the individual embodies Explicit Knowledge, making it into a personal Tacit asset. Exercising ba enhances bodily experiences for acquisition of new Knowledge and indicates a context where single individuals, through on-site activities, can “learn by doing” according to their own personal profile and without worrying about time, mistakes and other people's judgements. In summary Exercising ba should be “a private space for self-refinement”.

Tacit Knowledge Enablers

A “Knowledge enabler” is a set of specific conditions that, if correctly defined and managed, can effectively promote Knowledge Creation. Various Knowledge enablers have been defined by various authors. We have selected those we consider relevant to enabling Tacit Knowledge processes in the project environment:

  1. Redundancy is a wilful overlapping of information that exceeds for amount and variety the immediate needs referred to a specific operational situation. Redundancy may have a negative connotation, it could recall repetition, disorder, overload. From a Knowledge Creation perspective the opposite is true: sharing redundant information fosters the sharing of Tacit Knowledge. Nonaka calls it “learning by intrusion”, that is to say, relying on more cues, points of view, suggestions. An intentional redundancy enables individuals to better understand the “big picture” and consequently to be more proactive in developing informal non-hierarchical communication channels where Tacit Knowledge can move around easily.
  2. Autonomy is the level of self-organization, individually allowed according to the circumstances. Autonomy increases the possibility that individuals will motivate themselves to create new knowledge and this enabler refers to the unexpected insights produced by acting in a self-adjusting way. The individual capability to effectively manage one's own autonomy is the basis for a wider effective self-organizing group. Nonaka quotes rugby as a metaphor of autonomy, from the viewpoint of Knowledge Creation, Autonomy fosters the holographic model: the whole (organization) and its parts (individuals, teams) share the same knowledge.
  3. Catalyst of Knowledge Creation: Knowledge Activists are major players in establishing the essential space and relationships that allow Tacit Knowledge to be unleashed (Von Krogh, Ichijo & Nonaka, 2000, p.148). Catalyst of Knowledge Creation is one of the roles of the Knowledge Activist. A Catalyst acts as a facilitator of knowledge sharing, particularly when the individuals that must create knowledge together are many, physically distributed and differ in culture and organizational placement. A Catalyst collects insights, experiences, issues, ideas, problems and opportunities to be used as inputs to foster knowledge creation. He/She also helps individuals to launch and maintain effective relationships focused on Knowledge Creation.
  4. Manage Conversations: Through conversations people exchange first of all viewpoints, ideas, beliefs and insights. Therefore conversations enhance a day-by-day Tacit Knowledge Creation. However conversations are usually aimed at “confirming knowledge” rather than “creating knowledge”. In order to create knowledge, conversations should be focused on the future and uncover what is mainly hidden, implied and tacit. Conversations for Knowledge Creation prove to be effective only if well-managed.

Enabling Tacit Knowledge in the Project Environment

To apply Tacit Knowledge Enablers within the project environment, we related the SECI Knowledge Enablers described in the previous section to the PMBOK® Guide process groups, as shown in Exhibit 1.

Tacit Knowledge Creation and Project Life Cycle

Exhibit 1: Tacit Knowledge Creation and Project Life Cycle

In general we can state that Knowledge Creation in the project environment is strongly related to the Socialization process, in particular for the PMBOK® Guide Planning and Monitoring and Controlling Process Groups. This shouldn't come as surprise, since the activities included in these groups require the active involvement of the Project Management Team members and various stakeholders. Such involvement should be directed also towards the socialization of Tacit Knowledge. For example, when creating the WBS or identifying lesson learned, sufficient time should be allowed in order to launch and manage effective knowledge relationships, riding over physical, cultural and organizational barriers. In particular, sources of Tacit Knowledge should be identified and involved in the project from an early stage and brought together: the choice of a specific physical location as well as the absence of judgement will also foster the opportunity to obtain a deeper interchange of experiences, mindsets, emotions.

Icebreakers, simulations, creating metaphors, sharing “project tales”, are all means of applying Redundancy and Manage Conversation to group activities. “Approches like visualizing, brainstilling and gestalting help unleash tacit knowledge”, while “project tales” are natural and attractive ways of bypassing normal defence mechanisms and hierarchical barriers and of engaging our feeling. “Storytelling is natural and easy and entertaining and energizing. Stories help us to understand complexity. Stories can enhance or change perceptions.” (Denning, 2001, p.xv). Stories are easy to remember and help the re-enacting process that characterizes the Internalization.

Since any learning process is associated with positive and negative emotions, stories also help to tackle the emotional issues. The emotional dimension, often suppressed in the workplace, should instead be used as a trigger for Knowledge creation: “Sometimes the power of Tacit Knowledge can be found in airing feelings and thoughts that may seem negative. The key for managers is to acknowledge such feelings. At the very least, the feelings themselves will lose their power to distract or overwhelm employees. At most, an emotional struggle, once validated and understood, may lead to an innovative solution.” (Von Krogh, Ichijo & Nonaka, 2000, p. 51)

From the Knowledge Creating point of view, Change Requests could be effectively used to develop new knowledge: in fact any unexpected event may offer the opportunity to stimulate the Internalization of Tacit Knowledge and encourage individuals to take direct responsibility for finding their “best way” to embody and put into action new knowledge. With tight time constraints, the physical and mental space required to experiment with new ideas might seem a luxury that the project cannot often afford. On the other hand the sudden intuitions that often mark the Internalization process may very often prove to be turning point towards the success of the project. Intuitions are rapid, holistic judgements to which we arrive without the apparent intrusion of rational thought. Combined with creativity and personal know-how they lead to improvisation and innovative solutions.

The Autonomy enabler acts on an individual level as a strong motivating factor, increasing the possibility that individuals (i.e. team members) will create new knowledge, either researching on their own or sharing their Tacit Knowledge. It also refers to self directed groups, that “integrate the knowledge and wisdom of ordinary people instead of relying on a few heroes.” (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995, p. 77).

Furthermore the knowledge acquired by any individual within the project should be made available also by taking the responsibility to help others: “Expertise should be equated with social responsibility” (Von Krogh, Ichijo & Nonaka, 2000, p. 52). In the project environment, experts and members of the project management team should be helped to increase their awareness and reach a good level of personal mastery in Explicit and Tacit Knowledge and then encouraged or given the opportunity to become mentors and tutors.

Cooperation is the hallmark of both the project environment and the knowledge creation context. This similarity should be used to take advantage of Tacit Knowledge and the Project Manager should encourage team members and/or other stakeholders to become Catalysts of Knowledge Creation, pursuing to uncover and use whatever Tacit Knowledge is available within the project environment, actively counteracting the common tendency to consider one's project experience as unique and not replicable. Although separating differences from similarities may be difficult, this enabler helps to integrate Tacit Knowledge into the heart of every project management process. This is particularly true for large and complex projects, where the lessons learned process will record the lessons already learned so that they may be disseminated but may not be sufficient to create new insight into the working of the project.

The Project Manager is also called to participate to an Internalization process and could greatly benefit from Managing Conversation to encourage and support him/her during the challenging task of embodying and putting in action new Knowledge, for instance during the risk identification process, when sharing knowledge “allows distinction–making in observation made of events and situations that are both internal and external to the project” (K.U. Kolskinen, 2004 p. 16). The guiding principles for effective Conversations are the following: “1-Actively Encourage Participation by making the knowledge-creating purpose clear, and by making sure that entry rituals are fair and relatively easy to understand. 2-Establish Conversational Etiquette by clearing rules based on mutual respect and mental openness. 3-Edit Conversations Appropriately by allowing to call things in a different way and by gradually converging to a common understanding and agreement. 4-Foster Innovative Language by speaking not only freely and honestly but allow the words they use to be playful, vivid, silly and not always correct”. (Von Krogh, Ichijo & Nonaka, 2000, p. 130).

Critical Success Factors for Tacit Knowledge Enabling in Projects

There are a number of definitions of Critical Success Factors, but all agree that these are the factors which need to exist and be monitored in order to guarantee the success of any initiative: “Key success factors are the things that you need to do or the capabilities you need to have to achieve your goals and vision.” (Graham Brown, 1996, p. 164).

By defining the Critical Success Factors we will in fact summarize most of the concepts declared in this paper:

  • Physical proximity: Tacit Knowledge is not easily transferred and is acquired by sharing experiences, by observation, imitation and face to face interaction. It requires physical and time co-location. Although these requirements could be met in many projects, virtual teams are also very common and could represent another field of study;
  • Innovation: Tacit Knowledge acquires a strategic value when the knowledge gap to be closed is significant, such as in R&D projects: more standardized projects, such as building, focus mainly on the transfer of Explicit Knowledge;
  • Context: Tacit Knowledge, as strongly related to individual learning, is context-sensitive and will best flourish in a caring and directed context. The four ba represent the ideal contexts that should inspire Project Managers in their Knowledge enabling efforts.
  • Commitment: Tacit Knowledge requires Intention and personal or, even better, organizational commitment. Without a clear knowledge intention (i.e. standards, values, vision) it would be impossible to evaluate the information or knowledge perceived or created in a single project and within an organization and justify the effort. As Polanyi notes “commitment underlies the human knowledge–creating activity” (Polanyi, 1966, p. 27).


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© 2007, Giusi Meloni, PMP® - Tiziano Villa, PMP® CMC®
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Budapest, Hungary



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