Tacit Knowledge: What and How?

written by Matt Andrews

Tacit knowledge is an important focal point of my work. I think that many reforms fail because they try to transfer formal, codified knowledge only; when the key knowledge we need in governments and in the development process is tacit–knowledge that cannot be easily communicated in writing or even in words but that resides in our heads and organizations and helps us adapt to the unexpected and navigate the un-navigable.

The Problem Driven Iterative Adaption (PDIA) approach is designed to expand tacit knowledge as part of the development process. “But,” someone recently asked me, “what is tacit knowledge and how do you build it?”

Great question. And this weekend I read a fantastic article that helps me describe what tacit knowledge is and how it is built. The article centered on ‘The Knowledge: London’s Legendary Test for Taxi Drivers” (written by Jody Rosen in the New York Times Magazine). It starts with the following (a bit long for this blog but please read it…it’s great):

At 10 past 6 on a January morning a couple of winters ago, a 35-year-old man named Matt McCabe stepped out of his house in the town of Kenley, England, got on his Piaggio X8 motor scooter, and started driving north. McCabe’s destination was Stour Road, a small street in a desolate patch of East London, 20 miles from his suburban home. He began his journey by following the A23, a major thruway connecting London with its southern outskirts, whose origins are thought to be ancient: For several miles the road follows the straight line of the Roman causeway that stretched from London to Brighton. McCabe exited the A23 in the South London neighborhood of Streatham and made his way through the streets, arriving, about 20 minutes after he set out, at an intersection officially called Windrush Square but still referred to by locals, and on most maps, as Brixton Oval. There, McCabe faced a decision: how to plot his route across the River Thames. Should he proceed more or less straight north and take London Bridge, or bear right into Coldharbour Lane and head for “the pipe,” the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which snakes under the Thames two miles downriver?

“At first I thought I’d go for London Bridge,” McCabe said later. “Go straight up Brixton Road to Kennington Park Road and then work my line over. I knew that I could make my life a lot easier, to not have to waste brainpower thinking about little roads — doing left-rights, left-rights. And then once I’d get over London Bridge, it’d be a quick trip: I’d work it up to Bethnal Green Road, Old Ford Road, and boom-boom-boom, I’m there. It’s a no-brainer. But no. I was thinking about the traffic, about everyone going to the City at that hour of the morning. I thought, ‘What can I do to skirt central London?’ That was my key decision point. I didn’t want to sit in the traffic lights. So I decided to take Coldharbour Lane and head for the pipe.”

McCabe turned east on Coldharbour Lane, wending through the neighborhoods of Peckham and Bermondsey before reaching the tunnel. He emerged on the far side of the Thames in Limehouse, and from there his three-mile-long trip followed a zigzagging path northeast. “I came out of the tunnel and went forward into Yorkshire Road,” he told me. “I went right into Salmon Lane. Left into Rhodeswell Road, right into Turners Road. I went right into St. Paul’s Way, left into Burdett Road, right into Mile End Road. Left Tredegar Square. I went right Morgan Street, left Coborn Road, right into Tredegar Road. That gave me a forward into Wick Lane, a right into Monier Road, right into Smeed Road — and we’re there. Left into Stour Road.”

I liked this description of a man managing his way around London because it shows the blend of tacit knowledge and other, more formal, knowledge. The formal knowledge is what McCabe refers to when thinking about the map of London. He can look at it and see multiple routes from his start to his end point. But this knowledge has its limits. It doesn’t extend to know-how about when streets are most busy, or if locals call a street one thing when the map calls it another, or where the best fish and chips shop is en route… These things are tacit, things one learns by taking multiple routes multiple times and getting an imprint on one’s mind about what to expect, when and where… and what to do about what to expect… because one has been there before.

This kind of tacit knowledge is what London taxi drivers are apparently taught in ‘The Knowledge’–a multi-year testing process that requires drivers learning how to navigate the formal map and real-world grit and granularity of London. The tacit knowledge these drivers must build–where I use ‘tacit knowledge’ given Michael Polanyi’s work  in Personal Knowledge, 1958–is attained not by sitting in a room learning from someone. No: It cannot be learned this way, given that it is hard to verbalize, or to codify.

Instead, it must be earned, through actually going and seeing and touching and riding and engaging the streets of London…again and again and again. The ‘Knowledge Boys and Girls’ build this tacit knowledge over many years by riding around London on bicycles and motorbikes in a process called ‘pointing’–where they observe granular details of everything, memorizing details that most would take for granted but that are key to any adaptation they might need to make if a London rain storm starts unexpectedly, or if a lorry jams a key road, or if a passenger finds they urgently need to stop en route to see a doctor or buy flowers for a jilted lover!

The details are hard to pass onto others partly because they are so voluminous, partly because they might seem mundane, and partly because they become taken-for-granted in the taxi drivers head. But these details are the kind of knowledge that separate the taxi drivers who can adapt from those who cannot… the ones who know how to zig and zag past obstacles or towards uncertain destinations.

PDIA processes work much like the Knowledge Tests, and require that folks in governments undergoing reform work actively together doing the mundane and repetitive things that make up most days of work and life; stopping regularly to make mental notes of the unspoken lessons they are learning; doing similar things again…learning again….and storing the information about what they did. The process is arduous to some, and unnecessary to others who think that change should never involve recreating the wheel and is best done by getting external consultants to introduce a tried-and-tested external best practice and train locals in how to use such. As I wrote a few weeks ago, however, I think one always needs the process of doing, learning and adapting even if one does not reproduce the wheel… because those who use the wheel need the tacit knowledge built from finding and fitting to make it work. 

I believe that doing this kind of learning in groups is a possible way of inculcating the tacit knowledge in the DNA of organizations and not just the heads of individuals. It is a challenging prospect indeed, but I have seen enough of this learning in practice to think–with no hesitation–that it is key to development…the fundamental way of making sense of the complexity, uncertainty and senselessness of much we encounter in governments and societies struggling to progress. Consider the following from the New York Times article…where I replace mention of ‘London’ or ‘town’ with ‘development’…and which emphasizes the role of ‘The Knowledge’ (or process of acquiring both formal and tacit know-how):

[Development] bewilders even its lifelong residents. [Those in developing countries] are “a population lost in [their] own [system].” [Development’s] labyrinthine roadways are a symbol — and, perhaps, a cause — of the fatalism that hangs like a pea-soup fog over [development’s] consciousness. Facing the dizzying infinitude of streets, your mind turns darkly to thoughts of finitude: to the time that is flying, the minutes you are running late for your doctor’s appointment, the hours ticking by, never to be retrieved, on the proverbial Big Clock, the one even bigger than Big Ben. You can see it every day in Primrose Hill and Clapham, in Golders Green and Kentish Town, in Deptford and Dalston. A nervous man, an anxious woman, scanning the horizon for a recognizable landmark, searching for a street sign, silently wondering “Where am I?” — a geographical question that grades gloomily into an existential one. Which is where the Knowledge [and tacit knoweldge learning processes] comes in. It is [Development’s] weird solution to the riddle of itself, a training program whose graduates are both transit workers and Gnostics: chauffeurs taught by the government to know the unknowable.”

How often do development interventions provide such a training program?

Development is like London… “a mess: a preposterously complex tangle of veins and capillaries, the cardiovascular system of a monster.” You need to build tacit knowledge to navigate such system… by doing and learning and doing again…

Londonmessymap

The DDD Manifesto finds a new home

written by Salimah Samji

Since we published The DDD Manifesto on November 21, it has been viewed over 5,000 times all around the world (in 100+ countries). It currently has over 400 signatories from 60 countries. It is an eclectic community with people from bilateral organizations, multilaterals, governments, academia, NGOs, private sector, as well as independent development practitioners. These are the founding members of The DDD Manifesto Community.

Today, we are delighted to launch the online platform of the DDD Manifesto Community which is the new home of the manifesto. We hope that this will be a place where you can come to share ideas, have conversations, question your assumptions, learn from others, offer support and be inspired. It includes a forum for discussion, blog posts written by community members and features video presentations from the recent DDD workshop (#differentdev).

To sign the manifesto and to participate in the forum, you can register here. Please contribute actively – this is a community website and you are the community. 

If you want to Do Development Differently but it sounds too hard…

written by Matt Andrews

Arnaldo Pellini recently wrote an interesting personal blog post about the Doing Development Differently workshop and manifesto. He concludes with, “I agree with these ideas and  I can share and discuss these ideas with the team with whom I work  but what difference can it make if the systems around us due to organizational culture, history, circumstances, and traditions struggle to embrace flexibility, uncertainty,  untested experimentation, and slow incremental changes?”

This is an honest reflection from a practitioner in the field; and one that I hear often–from folks working in multilateral and bilateral agencies, as contractors, and beyond. It captures a concern that the development machinery (organizations, monitoring and reporting devices, profession-alliances, government counterparts, etc.) is structurally opposed to doing the kind of work one might call DDD or PDIA.

It’s like this cartoon…where our organizations say “let’s innovate but stay the same.”

Change-is-hard-430x332

I have been thinking about this a lot in the last few years, ever since I wrote chapter ten of my book…which asked whether the development community was capable of changing. In that chapter I was not especially confident but (I hope) I was still hopeful.

Since then, I think I’m more hopeful. Partly because,

  • we have found many folks in the multilaterals, bilaterals, contractors etc. who are doing development in this more flexible way. We invited a range of them to the DDD Workshop and over 330 signed on to the DDD Manifesto. One of the goals of our work in the next while is to learn from these folks about HOW they do development differently even with the constraints they face. How do they get funders to embrace uncertainty? How do they get ministers in-country to buy-into flexibility and give up on straight isomorphism?
  • I am also working on research projects that tackle this question; doing PDIA in real time, in places where development is predominantly done through the incumbent mechanisms. It is hard work, but I am finding various strategies to get buy-in to a new approach (including showing how problematic the old approach is, by working in the hardest areas where one has a counterfactual of failed past attempts, and more). I am also finding strategies to keep the process alive and buy more and more space for flexibility (by iterating tightly at first, for instance, and showing quick wins…and telling the story of learning and of increased engagement and empowerment). So far, I have not experienced complete success with what I have done, but I have certainly not struggled in getting support from the practitioners and authorisers we work with. (In my world it is harder to get support from academics, who think action research on implementation is a hobby and consultancy work… indeed, anything that does not say ‘RCT’ is considered less than academic. Sigh.)

All this is to say that I think Arnaldo is emphasizing a really important constraint on those working in development agencies. But a constraint that we should work through if we really do agree that these more problem driven, flexible approaches are what is needed. To Arnaldo and others I would suggest the following:

  • Separate the conversation about which way we should do development from the conversation about how much our organizational realities ALLOW us to do it. The first conversation is: “Should we do DDD/PDIA?” The second conversation is: “How do we DDD/PDIA?” If we conflate the conversations we never move ahead. If we separate them then we can develop strategies to gradually introduce PDIA/DDD into what we do (in essence, I’m suggesting doing PDIA ourselves, to help change the way we do development…see an earlier blog).
  • I also constantly remind myself that we (external folks in development organizations) are not the only ones facing a challenge of doing new stuff in existing contexts–with all the constraints of such. This is what we are asking of our counterparts and colleagues in the developing countries where we work. Dramatic and uncomfortable and impossible change is in the air every time we are introducing and facilitating and supporting and sponsoring work in developing countries. I always tell myself: “If we can’t work it out in our own organizations–when we think that our own organizational missions depend on such change–then we have no place asking folks in developing countries to work it out.”
  • So, it’s a challenge. But a worthy one. And if we care about doing development with impact, I think it behooves us to face up to this challenge.

Good luck, Arnaldo, thanks for your honesty and for the obvious commitment that causes you to share your reality. It is really appreciated!

The PDIA Anthem

Need help decoding the acronym PDIA? Check out the PDIA anthem.

 

This Anthem uses the Instrumental from Mos Def – Mathematics. It was made by a very talented student as part of an assignment for Matt Andrews course entitled Getting Things Done in Development. We had never imagined that we could write a song about PDIA, let alone a rap. Thank you.

Let me hear you say P. D. I. A.

Introducing The DDD Manifesto

We are delighted to release The DDD Manifesto as an outcome of the 2014 Doing Development Differently (DDD) workshop.

In late October, a group of about 40 development professionals, implementers and funders from around the world attended the DDD workshop, to share examples where real change has been achieved. These examples employ different tools but generally hold to some of the same core principles: being problem driven, iterative with lots of learning, and engaging teams and coalitions, often producing hybrid solutions that are ‘fit to context’ and politically smart.

The two-day workshop was an opportunity to share practical lessons and insights, country experience, and to experiment first hand with selected methodologies and design thinking. In order to maximize the opportunity to hear from as many people as possible, all presenters were asked to prepare a 7:30 minute talk — with no powerpoints or visual accompaniments. The workshop alone generated a rich set of cases and examples of what doing development differently looks like, available on both Harvard and ODI websites (where you can watch individual talks, see the posters or link to related reports).

The aim of the event was to build a shared community of practice, and to crystallize what we are learning about doing development differently from practical experience. The workshop ended with a strong call for developing a manifesto reflecting the common principles that cut across the cases that were presented. Watch the closing remarks here.

DDD Closing Session

These common principles have been synthesized into The DDD Manifesto. We recognize that many of these principles are not new, but we do feel the need to clearly identify principles and to state that we believe that development initiatives will have more impact if these are followed.

As an emerging community of practice, we welcome you to join us by adding your name in the comment box of the manifesto.

Contexts and Policy Implementation: 4 factors to think about

written by Matt Andrews

I recently blogged about what matters about the context. Here’s a video of a class I taught on the topic at the University of Cape Town over the summer (their winter). It is a short clip where I try to flesh out the 4 factors that I look at when thinking about new policy: 1. Disruption; 2. Strength of incumbents; 3. Legitimacy of alternatives; and 4. Agent alignment (who is behind change and who is not).

How can we learn when we don’t understand the problem?

written by Salimah Samji

Most development practitioners think that they are working on problems. However, what they often mean by the word ‘problem’ is the ‘lack of a solution’. This leads to designing typical, business as usual interventions, without addressing the actual problem. Essentially, they sell solutions to specific problems they have identified and prioritized instead of solving real and distinct problems.

If the problem identification is flawed, then it does not matter whether you do a gold standard RCT or not, you will neither solve the problem nor learn about what works. Here’s a great example. A recent paper entitled, The permanent input hypothesis: the case of textbooks and (no) student learning in Sierra Leone found that a public program providing textbooks to primary schools had no impact on student performance because the majority of books were stored rather than distributed.

Could they not have learned that the textbooks were being locked up, cheaper and faster, through some routine monitoring or audit process (which could have led to understanding why they were locked up and then perhaps trying to find other ways to improve access to the textbooks – assuming that was their goal)? Was an RCT really necessary? More importantly, what was the problem they were trying to solve? What was their causal model or theory of change? If you provide textbooks to children then learning outcomes will improve?

Interestingly, the context section of the paper mentions that “the civil war severely impacted the country’s education system leading to large-scale devastation of school infrastructure, severe shortages of teachers and teaching materials, overcrowding in many classrooms in safer areas, displacement of teachers, frequent disruptions of schooling, psychological trauma among children, poor learning outcomes, weakened institutional capacity to manage the system, and a serious lack of information and data to plan service provision.” In addition, they also found variance between regions and in one remote council, “less than 50 percent of all schools were considered to be in good condition, with almost 20 percent falling under the category “no roof, walls are heavily damaged, needs complete rehabilitation.”

Honestly, in a complex context like this, it isn’t clear or obvious that providing textbooks would make much difference even if they were handed out to the children, especially since they are written in English. Apparently, the teachers teach in Krio in the early years and then switch to English in Grade 4 and 5. Based on the context above, that sounds more like fiction than fact.

In environments like these, real problems are complex and scary, and it is easier to ignore them than to address them. A possible way forward could be to break the problem down into smaller more manageable pieces using tools like problem trees, the ishikawa diagram and the ‘5 whys.’ Then design an intervention, try, learn, iterate and adapt.

For more watch BSC video deconstructing sticky problems and problem driven sequencing.