What Do The Australian Fires Illuminate About The Future Of Work?

The devastating Australian wildfires that have burned 27 million acres (an area as big as Maine and New Hampshire combined), killed nearly one billion animals, and produced as much man-made...

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February 27, 2020
Team Engagement

If it was not already clear that climate change is a central consideration of work and our economy, it became so when the CEO of Blackrock, the world’s largest asset management company with $7 trillion under management, declared that “climate risk is investment risk” and vowed to exit investments with “high sustainability risk.” Climate change could have profound implications for economies worldwide from Australia to America. 

Undeniably we will need to adapt to a changing climate and modify our behaviors to mitigate our risks. Climate risk is inextricably linked to the future of work and the future of our lives, and we are reminded of something else, as well, by this devastation: our undeveloped potential to tap into the secret weapon that is tacit knowledge. 

The longest-surviving culture in the world is the Australian aboriginal people. Aboriginal people have adapted to climate changes and managed their relationship with their environment using skills and methods that date back 50,000 years. These methods include cool fire burning—proactively lighting small areas of low-intensity fire in cooler months to remove dry underbrush in order to prevent more intense fires later—and creating wildlife corridors—continuous pathways of natural habitat that allow wildlife to escape when fires rage in the summer. 

What makes these methods unique? Aboriginal wildfire management comprises tacit skills and knowledge, accumulated over thousands of years, that made Australia habitable in the summer months when lightning strikes on dry land would have otherwise caused widespread fire devastation. This tacit knowledge is comprised of competence skills, such as the details of how to burn; background knowledge of and awareness about environmental conditions and the appropriate timing and duration of burning; and heuristics (rules of thumb) for how to manage proactive controlled burns.

What do the tragic, heartbreaking conditions in Australia have to do with the future of work? A great deal, it turns out, because as the world speeds up and technology consumes more and more explicit knowledge work, tacit knowledge increasingly becomes not only at a premium but the true competitive advantage. In fact, one could argue—as I am, here—that the focus of work has become finding new tacit knowledge and, wherever possible, translating it to explicit knowledge for the purpose of transferring it to other humans or storing it technologically. As John Hagel and John Seely Brown share in the Harvard Business Review article “Help Employees Create Knowledge — Not Just Share It.”

Tacit knowledge evolves as we confront new situations, and it is often extremely valuable because it reflects our first-hand experience with the changes that are occurring around us but it is much harder to access and spread. It typically can’t be written down and shared with others.

As Dr. Sean Gallagher, executive director of the Swinburne Centre for the New Workforce (I was appointed to the faculty in 2019), observed in conversation with me about insights derived from aboriginal environmental management:

“This might be the oldest known example of tacit knowledge. When you think about it, tacit knowledge is the original human knowledge that has helped us adapt, survive, and thrive through uncertainty over millennia. This has led to humans being able to develop explicit knowledge, which has supercharged production-based work, allowing us to create enormous value, vast prosperity, and improvements to quality of life. The rise of digital technologies creates at least two major challenges or opportunities for humans. Firstly, digital technologies are now encroaching on productive work—the vast majority of work done today—so what will humans increasingly do for “work”? Secondly, how can we continue to develop the new explicit knowledge required to drive ongoing tech advancement that leads to creating even more value, prosperity, and quality of life? The answer to both is a greater focus on tacit knowledge. So, as we move into the digital era, it becomes back to the future.” 

What Is Tacit Knowledge?

To get a simple definition of “tacit knowledge,” I reached out to an expert on organizational learning, Professor Eva Kyndt of both Swinburne University and the University of Antwerp. She told me that “explicit knowledge is anything that is or can be codified. Tacit knowledge cannot be codified.” By that definition, tasks steeped in tacit knowledge are unlikely to be automated because anything automated must first be codified. To gain an even more textured understanding of tacit knowledge, I turned to the book Methodological Cognitivism: Vol. 2: Cognition, Science, and Innovation, in which Dr. Riccardo Viale breaks down tacit knowledge into three forms—competencebackground knowledge, and implicit cognitive rules—and explains them simply as follows:

  • Competence is all the physical skills and abilities needed to complete a task. It is gained through imitation and apprenticeship. An example is the knowledge of how to start and manage cool fire burning. 
  • Background knowledge includes situational awareness and familiarity with behavioral cues, which are primarily gained through a social process. A company’s culture, it could be argued, is a type of tacit knowledge. Another example is the ability to read the environment to know when and where the conditions are right for starting a preventative fire. 
  • Implicit cognitive rules are also known as rules of thumb and heuristics. This type of knowledge is required for planning preventative fire burning and developing strategies for creating wildlife corridors. 

Tacit knowledge is uncovered through experience. We build new tacit knowledge through hypotheses and hunches. Because of this pathway to knowledge formation, tacit knowledge is often subjective and open to interpretation (whereas explicit knowledge is objective and often comprised of agreed-upon facts). Neuroscientist David Eagleman describes the process of new knowledge formation with an exploration analogy: “We leap to a new island of information and build a bridge back to what we know.” Dr. Nancy Dixon, an expert in organizational learning, observes that “the interesting thing about tacit knowledge is how it is stored in our brain. We don’t store it as answers. We store it as bits and pieces that we actually construct. We construct tacit knowledge from the bits and pieces that we have put together over many, sometimes many years of experience. The important word there is that we construct it [tacit knowledge].”

Tacit Knowledge And The Worker

Tacit knowledge exists in humans and nowhere else. Read that again. In a rapidly digitizing world where anything mentally routine or predictable can and soon will be automated, what will remain for human beings to do is tacit knowledge work. Since tacit knowledge grows from exposure and expands with experience, our older workers tend to be superior vessels for it. The aboriginal people of Australia passed their vital knowledge of fire management down from generation to generation. They have honed tacit knowledge skills over time, they have more life experience in which they have built up background knowledge and contextual references, and they have run through more simulations and thus developed a bigger repository of heuristics. As waves of digitization flood organizations, the urge is to lunge at younger, born-digital workers. But while digital fluency is essential, organizations are unknowingly hemorrhaging tacit knowledge. The “spill and fill” or “fire and hire” method of acquiring talent is ineffective when the explicit knowledge gained is not complemented by sufficient tacit knowledge about the market, customers, and company culture. Horst Schulze, cofounder and former CEO of Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, wrote the following in his book Excellence Wins: A No Nonsense Guide to Becoming the Best In a World of Compromise:

“There is no business. There are only people. . . . Reading the economic forecasts and the indicators and the ratios and the rates of this or that, someone from another planet might actually believe that there are really invisible hands at work in the marketplace.”

All work then is humans navigating knowledge. Tension is created by knowledge—tacit or explicit—when an outdated process outlives its relevance. In this regard, we all, regardless of age or experience, need to become adept at adapting; that is, unlearning.

Tacit Knowledge And Your Organization

What is the role of tacit knowledge in your organization, and how is it valued? While explicit knowledge is often described as “know-what” (Brown and Duguid 1998), tacit knowledge is characterized as “know-how” (Brown and Duguid 1998). Know-how is a large portion of what the world’s expanding technological capability doesn’t have. In this article, I am proposing that the focus of all work in the future will be to uncover new tacit knowledge and translate it, wherever possible, into explicit knowledge. The purpose of this endeavor will be to transfer it to other people or convert it for storage in or use by technology. If this prediction is even partly right, every organization needs a plan for understanding tacit knowledge. What is yours? I believe Peter Senge’s wise observation is more relevant now than ever: “The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization’s ability to learn faster than the competition.” Or as Graham Durant-Law wrote in his seminal 2003 paper “The Tacit Knowledge Advantage”:

“Most businesses do not understand the knowledge conduit and hence focus on data or information rather than knowledge. This means their focal point is on the past or the present, rather than the future. An advantage accrues when a company learns to tap its tacit knowledge and metamorphose it into explicit knowledge that remains as proprietary intelligence. It is then operating on a higher plane, which allows it to predict outcomes, adapt to changing circumstances, and above all to be innovative. A company’s ability to utilise tacit knowledge will always give it a leading edge in the marketplace.” 

I welcome comments from folks exploring the emerging issue of tacit knowledge in their organizations. 

Note About the Series

This is part one of a three-part series. Part two will cover the tacit knowledge imperative in business and part three will cover the importance of tacit knowledge in education and workforce preparation. 

This piece first appeared on Forbes.

Guest contributor Heather E. Mc Gowan
Guest contributor Heather E. Mc Gowan
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February 27, 2020
Team Engagement