The tacit knowledge of (not in) organizations

When addressing the idea of tacit knowledge in respect to knowledge management, most descriptions focus on the tacit knowledge in organizations – that is, the tacit knowledge of the individual members of the organization – and how to capture and share that tacit knowledge. While I believe it is important to understand this tacit knowledge, I’ve always been more attracted to try to understand the tacit knowledge of an organization, what it is the organization as a whole ‘knows.’

As with individuals, organizations operate based on the tacit knowledge they possess and their ability to act on that knowledge when needed. Unfortunately, up until now I’ve never really been able to point to an example of what I mean, but in a recent post on the Anecdote blog, Shawn Callahan posted an excerpt from a paper that provides what I think is the perfect example of what I mean. It is the story of how the US Federal Aviation Authority successfully landed all the planes in US airspace on September 11 (emphasis is mine):

On September 11th, as we all know, every plane was grounded. It took four hours for them to clear the skies, and during that time, they had to continue to assess whether terrorists were controlling any other plane. There was one incident in Alaska where the pilot was Korean and was giving the wrong code, so they thought he was in trouble, but he wasn’t. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had to land 5,000 planes. Never been done before. No preparation, no simulations, no training. The person who was head of the FAA, was new to the job; it was his first day on the job, and I remember that he said, “In the interview for this job I asked, ”Will I have complete authority to make decisions?” and they said, “Yes.” He never thought that his very first day would be one where he was going to buy the farm on if it didn’t work. He gave the order. Several airlines, like Delta, had already asked all their planes to land. Many of the planes had to land at small airports. Small airports have air traffic controllers, rulebooks, and well-trained people, but there was no rulebook that covered this kind of circumstance, so they had to invent or disregard procedures. Everyone was being asked to be courageous by going against the book. And they all did it very well. It was a monumental task.

Later, they realized that the reason they succeeded was the strength of their relationships. They trusted each other as they were communicating across the country. There was a real esprit décor; they were smart. They could make new policies. They could make up rules that worked in the moment. So after Sept. 11, as any good organization would do, the FAA wanted to learn why this had worked so well. But of course, being a federal agency, they wanted to learn what worked so they could put it into a rulebook. After its research, the FAA did something extraordinarily brave. They decided not to write a rulebook about the incident; they understood that what had made it work was people’s intelligence, dedication, and relationships. That’s a lesson we all need to learn right now. The only way through an uncertain time is to have a certainty about your values, your purpose, and a certainty about each other. We call it trust, but it’s even more than that. It’s knowing, as my friend’s daughter who plays rugby says, “When you’re moving a ball down the field, you can’t see the people right behind you, but you may need to pass the ball to them, so they just keep signaling to you and they just keep staying with you, with you, with you.”

In the human brain it is the connections between neurons – and the ability of the brain to reorganize those connections to meet the situation – that makes up the intelligence and tacit knowledge of the individual. In organizations, it is the connections between people. And as the FAA learned, I’m not sure that is something that can just be written down (made explicit) and be expected to work again.

One thought on “The tacit knowledge of (not in) organizations

  1. This comes up again and again. At MeshForum 2005, several members of the NYC disaster task force talked about how important it is to know that the people taking on the various roles are competent and can be trusted. Much of that is done by rehearsals and drills. But, as the note above says, you can never drill for the real thing as you can never imagine all the details of the real thing. The ActKM mailing list has been discussing this in relation to a global flu (or other disease) pandemic.


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