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Part Two: Tacit Knowledge

Anonymous on July 21, 2010 Source: e360 Blog

This is the second in a two part series in which Gary Schoeniger discusses entrepreneurship education. Below is Part Two: Tacit Knowledge

In his book, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, author Gary Klein examines human strengths and capabilities that have traditionally been downplayed or ignored. Using examples such as firefighters, battlefield commanders and critical care nurses, Klein explores the decision making process of humans acting under real-life constraints such as time pressure, high stakes, personal responsibility, and shifting conditions.

In one example, he describes the ability of an experienced fire commander to know precisely when to evacuate his men from a burning building - moments before it collapses. When asked why, the fire commander shrugs, describing his ability as a sixth sense, “something every good fire commander has.” Yet, under closer scrutiny, the experienced commander reveals something very different; he reveals a decision making process that draws on knowledge, he does not know he has. This type of experienced based knowledge is known as tacit knowledge - knowledge we have, but are unable to articulate or convey.

In the field of knowledge management, the concept of tacit knowledge refers to knowledge which is only known by an individual and that is difficult to communicate to others. Tacit knowledge often consists of habits and culture that are unfamiliar and, those who have it are often unaware of the knowledge they possess or how it can be of value to others. While tacit knowledge appears to be simple, it has far reaching consequences and is not widely understood. The most effective way to transfer tacit knowledge is through frequent personal contact and trust.

Like an experienced fire commander, much of what entrepreneurs know they are unable to articulate or convey. They have valuable knowledge and insight drawn from their experience, yet their decision making process and other vital aspects of what they know are tacit, and therefore difficult, if not impossible to convey in a textbook. And, like the experienced fire commander, entrepreneurs develop habits and abilities that, to an outsider, may seem unfamiliar and are therefore easily mistaken for a rare talent, rather than an informed process.

The roadmap is not the terrain

Entrepreneurship is as much an art as it is a science and there is more to it than business plans, financial projections and market research. And, as Klein points out, the decisions we make in a classroom may be very different from the decisions we make under high stakes, rapidly changing, real-life circumstances.

Behind every successful startup there is a story; a story that contains knowledge and insight, a story that provides valuable clues. Beneath the business plans and the balance sheets there is a story of innovation and initiative, of curiosity and creativity, self-reliance and resourcefulness. There is a story of perseverance and determination, a story of empathy and insight, social intelligence and self-awareness. There is a story of self-doubt and uncertainty, a story fraught with challenges and setbacks as well as unexpected opportunity and occasional good fortune.

Entrepreneurship is about solving problems and pushing limits. It is a story of hope and possibility, one that sparks our imagination, ignites our ambition and provides access to our innate untapped potential. It is a story that must inspire as well as inform. Unfortunately it is a story that cannot be conveyed in a business plan.

Every entrepreneur has a story to tell

What was once described as a “scientifically unfathomable mystery,” has now become a global imperative. As the economic landscape continues to shift, it has become essential for educators and policymakers to understand that there are vital aspects of entrepreneurship that cannot be conveyed in a textbook. And while business planning and financial literacy are important, the essence of entrepreneurship is a story – one that is best conveyed by an experienced entrepreneur.

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