How to reconfigure the SECI model, if you don’t use the terms Tacit and Explicit

The SECI model relies on the terms Explicit and Tacit. If these terms are poorly understood, does the model still hold? I suggest an alternative model here. 

 I blogged recently about the terms Tacit and Explicit, and how the understanding and interpretation of what these terms mean varies significantly across the knowledge management industry. I argued that this variety of interpretation makes these terms unhelpful when communicating widely about KM. Although  communication works within a group of people using the same interpretation of the terms, it falls apart when the group has different interpretations. I suggested that we should probably avoid these terms, given the prevalent differences in understanding, and instead use more common terms with standard definitions.

So what does this mean for the SECI model, beloved of many KM practitioners around the world, and disliked by many as well. The standard SECI model is shown below.

How you interpret this model depends on how you define Tacit and Explicit. In my previous blog post I described how about half of KMers use “Explicit” as synonymous with “Documented”, and the rest as synonymous with “Documentable, but not necessarily Documented”.

People in the first camp will see the Externalisation box of the SECI model as meaning “Knowledge Documentation”, and the Combination box as “combination of documented knowledge”. They will see the Socialisation box as meaning “discussion of undocumented knowledge”.

People in the second camp will see the Externalisation box of the SECI model as meaning “Exposition of previously tacit knowledge, either verbally or through documents”, and the Combination box as “combination of knowledge through discussion, and/or documented knowledge”. They will see the Socialisation box as meaning “development of shared tacit understanding”.

So these two camps of people will populate the SECI model in different ways, and may gloss over certain aspects. People in the first camp will gloss over the issues of making knowledge conscious, and people in the second camp may lump too many things into the Combination box. My guess is that Nonaka and Takeuchi were in the second camp, but unfortunately all the examples of Externalisation and Combination they gave referred to documented knowledge. 

So what can we do about this? Short of persuading half the world to use a different definition?

Well, we could acknowledge a few things – 

  • Firstly that there is a clear distinction between a piece of knowledge that is documented, and one that isn’t. OK, any one TOPIC can be partly documented, but there will be increments of knowledge that are documented, and others that are undocumented, so if we look at a close enough granularity then there is a clear distinction.
  • Secondly there is a (less clear) distinction between the things we know unconsciously, and the things we know consciously. The former is “I don’t know how I do that” or “I have never really thought through how I do that”, while the latter is “I know how I do that, and can explain it to you”. 
  • A piece of knowledge can pass from one stage to another. You can become conscious of how you do something, and you can document how you do it. You can read and understand something, and you can internalise something enough that it becomes unconscious. What you CAN’T do is document something that you know unconsciously – you have to become conscious of it first. 
So we can draw a matrix like this.

Knowledge can move from one person’s unconscious to another person’s unconscious by emulation. This is a slow process. It’s how babies learn to talk, for example – by emulating their parents. I don’t think the baby is consciously trying different tongue, mouth and larynx combinations, they are just trying sounds which become closer and closer to mummy and daddy’s sounds, and which elicit a response. 

Knowledge can move from unconscious to conscious through reflection and self-analysis. This is often guided or social reflection, with a learner, a facilitator, an interviewer or a coach guiding the individual to analyse what they do or did, maybe as part of a team process, maybe accompanied with video analysis. “Why did you do that? What were you thinking when you made that decision”? As this story illustrates, guided refection and self-analysis can make even deeply unconscious knowledge conscious.

Conscious knowledge can be shared with others through conversation, and we can, through conversation, compare our knowledge with others, and combine knowledge from many people. Thus we create new knowledge, and eliminate some old knowledge that is shown to be wrong.  The knowledge exchanged through this conversation has not yet been codified.

We can codify conscious knowledge, in words, documents, video demonstrations etc. We can codify conscious knowledge from one person, or knowledge from many people combined socially through conversation, for example in a Knowledge Exchange or a Retrospect

Documented knowledge from many sources can be synthesised and combined in written form, keeping the body of documented knowledge as an up-to-date, coherent single source of truth.

People can read written knowledge and internalise it, combine it with the knowledge they already have, and therefore become more knowledgeable.

Over time, that internalised knowledge can become so embedded that is becomes habituated and unconscious. 

This model shown here is more complex than the SECI model, but robust against the multiple interpretations of Tacit and Explicit (although several of the objections posed to the SECI model may still be valid). It also allows us to see multiple ways that knowledge can flow around this model.

The solid arrows in the example above shows unconscious knowledge which becomes conscious through reflection, is codified, synthesised, internalised and habituated. This is a model for an individual interaction with a body of documented knowledge. Or maybe the knowledge is discussed socially before it is codified, as per the dashed arrows.

Green arrows above show a flow of knowledge that is never documented. It becomes conscious through reflection and is shared socially and verbally; for example as a fire crew learns and improves its practice through multiple After Action Reviews without ever documenting their process.

Or maybe the knowledge always remains conscious, per the purple arrows above; for example procedural knowledge, where even the most experienced practitioner is consciously aware of the correct procedure. 

There are many ways in which knowledge can move around this matrix, rather than following one circle or spiral path.

This model is more complex than SECI, but that is one of it’s strengths. It should also be less easy to misinterpret.

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