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…


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).

Why many development initiatives have achievement gaps…and what to do about this

written by Matt Andrews

Yesterday I blogged about Hirschman’s Hiding Hand. As I interpret it, a central part of his idea is that many development projects:

  • focus on solving complex problems, and
  • only once they have started does a ‘hiding hand’ lift to show how hard the problem is to solve,
  • but because policy-makers and reformers are already en route to solving the problem they don’t turn away from the challenges, and
  • so they start getting creative and finding ways to really solve the problem. Initial plans and designs are shelved in favor of experiments with new ideas, and after much muddling the problem is solved (albeit with unforeseen or hybrid end products).

I like the argument. But why do I see so many development projects that don’t look like this?

I see projects where solutions or projects are introduced and don’t have much impact, but then they are tried again and again–with processes that don’t allow one to recognize the unforeseen challenges, and rigid designs that don’t allow one to change or experiment or pivot around constraints and limits. Instead of adjusting when the going gets tough, many development projects carry on with the proposed solution and produce whatever limited form is possible.

I think this is because many reforms are not focused on solving problems; they are rather focused on gaining short-run legitimacy (money and support) which comes through simple promises of quick solutions. This is the most rank form of isomorphism one can imagine; where one mimics purely for show… so you get a ‘fake’ that lacks the functionality of the real thing…

Let me use Public Financial Management (PFM) reforms as an example.

What problems do these reforms try to solve? Quite a few, potentially. They could try to solve problems of governments overspending, or problems of governments not using money in the most efficient and effective manner (and ensuring services are delivered), or of governments using money in ways that erode trust between the state and citizens (and more).

Now, let me ask how many reforms actually examine whether they solve these problems? Very few, actually. Mostly, reforms ask about whether a government has introduced a new multi-year budget or an integrated financial management system. Or a new law on fiscal rules, or a new procurement system.

Sometimes the reforms will ask questions about whether fiscal discipline is improved (largely because this is something outsiders like the IMF focus on) but I seldom see any reforms–or any PFM assessments (like PEFA or even the assessments of transparency) asking if services are better delivered after reforms, or if reforms enhance trust between citizens and the state. I don’t even see efforts to systematically capture information about intermediate products that might lead to these ‘solved problems’. For instance:

  • Do we have evidence that goods are procured and delivered more efficiently (time and money-wise) after reform?
  • Do we have any systematic data to show that our new human resource management systems are helping ensure that civil servants are present and working well, and that our new payment systems pay them on time (and do a better job of limiting payments to ghost workers)?
  • Do we have any consistent evidence to show that suppliers are paid more promptly after reforms?
  • Is there any effort to see if IT systems are used as we assume they will be used, after reforms?
  • Does anyone look to see if infrastructure projects are more likely to start on time and reach completion after costly project management interventions?
  • Do we have records to show that infrastructure receives proper maintenance after reform?
  • Is there any effort to see if taxpayers trust government more with their money?

This is a long list of questions (but there are many more), and I am sure that some reforms do try to capture data on some of them (if you’ve measured these in a reform, please comment as such…it would be interesting and important to know). Most reforms I have observed don’t try to do it at all, however, which was the focus of a recent discussion on the role of PFM and service delivery Time to Care About Service Delivery? Specialists from around the world were asked whether PFM reforms improve service delivery and the answer was “we think so…we expect so…we hope so…BUT WE CAN’T TELL YOU BECAUSE WE DON’T ACTUALLY ASK EXPLICIT QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS.”

My concern with this is manifold: (i) Does the failure to ask if we are solving the problems suggest that we as a community of reformers don’t really care about the problems in the first place? (ii) Does it mean that we will not be sensitive to the situations Hirschman speaks about when he discusses unforeseen challenges that undermine our ability to address problems (simply because we don’t focus on the problems)?  (iii) Does this also mean that we will not have any moments where we explore alternatives and experiment with real solutions that help to overcome hurdles en route to solving problems?

Unfortunately, I think the observations of gaps after reforms speak to all of these interpretations. And this is why many reforms and interventions do not end up solving problems. In these cases, we get the half-baked versions of the pre-planned solution…with no adjustment and no ‘solved problem’. PFM systems look better but still don’t function–so payments remain late, wages are unpaid to some and overpaid to many, services are not delivered better, and trust actually declines. Most worrying: we have spent years doing the reforms, and now need to pretend they work..and have no learning about why the problems still fester.

The solution (maybe): In my mind this can be rectified–and we can move towards producing more projects like those Hirschman observed–by

  • focusing reforms on problems, explicitly, aggressively, from the start;
  • measuring progress by looking at indicators of ‘problem solved’ (like improved levels of trust after PFM reforms) and intermediate indicators we think will get us there (better payment of contracts, more efficient procurement, etc;
  • regularly monitoring this progress;
  • being on the lookout for expected unexpecteds (things that we didn’t know about that make our initial solutions less impactful); and
  • being willing to adjust what we started with to ensure we produce real solutions to real problems–functional improvements and not just changes in form.

For more, read This is PFM which advocates a functional approach to thinking about and doing PFM reform.

Hirschman’s Hiding Hand and Problem Driven Change

written by Matt Andrews

I referred to Albert Hirschman’s work on the “Principle of the Hiding Hand” in my class today. It is a great principle, and has real application when thinking about PDIA and problem driven change.

In his essay, “The Principle of the Hiding Hand” Hirschman argues that creative solutions most frequently come from adapting to tasks that turn out to be more challenging than we expect.

In Hirschman’s words, “men engage successfully in problem-solving [when] they take up problems which they think they can solve, find them more difficult than expected, but then, being stuck with them, attack willy-nilly the unsuspected difficulties – and sometimes even succeed.”

It’s really beautiful, because it takes as a given some facts that we often think stand in the way of doing flexible, PDIA-type development. Hirschman expects that decision makers will tackle problems, often adopt solutions that look attractive but are hard to pull off (perhaps like big best practice type initiatives), and will overestimate the potential results.

He argues that they wouldn’t try to do the challenging things that development demands if they didn’t think this way. So, he advises to ‘go with it’ …. but then wait for the unexpected… in the form of complexities, constraints, hidden difficulties, etc.

When these unforseen difficulties emerge, Hirschman argues, we have the opportunity to become creative–and to iterate and experiment and find and fit ways to solve the problems that initiated the work in the first place … building on the sunk costs already incurred in pursuing the big, best practice, perfect solution. (saying something like “we’ve come so far…let’s now iterate to ensure we actually solve the problem we set out to solve.”)

Beautiful: Start where you are, focus on solving problems, try the big best practice (but hard to actually do) solution, and become creative when you hit the challenges…

What he assumes is that you have space for flexible change and PDIA-type innovation because of the sunk costs associated with past (or current) reform. An interesting assumption, that I think we can look at academically and reflect on practically.

Required and fundamentally vital reading for anyone in development.

Doing Development Differently: Day 2 Summary

Yesterday was the last day of Doing Development Differently (#differentdev). A group of about 40 development professionals from around the world met to discuss positive cases where development initiatives (call them projects, interventions, activities or whatever) have led to real results and impact. It was another full day with two DDD Exchange Sessions, a PDIA example and another wind tunnel meeting. View the storify to see all the content, including videos, tweets, photos and blogs (Duncan Green, Alan Hudson).

We are delighted to share the rest of 7:30 presentations.

You can also watch Matt Andrews closing remarks below. Stay tuned for the upcoming Manifesto from the workshop!

Hello Organization Man: the importance of old (and boring) administration in a new (and exciting) world

written by Matt Andrews

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran the following great Op-ed on the lack of administrative focus in governance systems. This is an important article. We need to be saying ‘Hello’ when it comes to learning about organization… no matter how mundane it seems. This inspires me to spend even more time teaching about bureaucracy. For more see my blog on mundane and my course entitled Getting things done in development.

Here’s an excerpt from the Op-ed entitled Goodbye organization man.

Imagine two cities. In City A, town leaders notice that every few weeks a house catches on fire. So they create a fire department — a group of professionals with prepositioned firefighting equipment and special expertise. In City B, town leaders don’t create a fire department. When there’s a fire, they hurriedly cobble together some people and equipment to fight it.

We are City B. We are particularly slow to build institutions to combat long-running problems. …

A few generations ago, people grew up in and were comfortable with big organizations — the army, corporations and agencies. They organized huge construction projects in the 1930s, gigantic industrial mobilization during World War II, highway construction and corporate growth during the 1950s. Institutional stewardship, the care and reform of big organizations, was more prestigious.

Now nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disrupters and rebels. Creativity is honored more than the administrative execution. Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs.

The Ebola crisis is another example that shows that this is misguided. The big, stolid agencies — the health ministries, the infrastructure builders, the procurement agencies — are the bulwarks of the civil and global order. Public and nonprofit management, the stuff that gets derided as “overhead,” really matters. It’s as important to attract talent to health ministries as it is to spend money on specific medicines.

As recent books by Francis Fukuyama and Philip Howard (the rule of nobody) have detailed, this is an era of general institutional decay. New, mobile institutions languish on the drawing board, while old ones are not reformed and tended. Executives at public agencies are robbed of discretionary power. Their hands are bound by court judgments and regulations.

When the boring tasks of governance are not performed, infrastructures don’t get built. Then, when epidemics strike, people die.

The boring bureuacrat

What is Action Learning?

written by Matt Andrews

Action learning is a key part of PDIA. It is “a hybrid technique that allows participants to use what they learn to tackle priority problems within their companies under actual work conditions. Action learning is a social process for resolving the difficulties managers increasingly confront, where history offers no solution.

At its heart, action learning is a systematic process that increases participants’ organizational learning in order to help them respond more effectively to change. Originated by Reg Revans (1983), action learning is based on the underlying premise that there is no learning without action and no action without learning. Action learning is inextricably linked with action science. Action science (Argyris, Putnam, and Smith, 1985) provides a conceptual framework and a methodology for facilitating action learning, while Revan’s work establishes the actual form. The following processes of action science are implicit in action learning:

  • Critical reflection: bringing underlying assumptions to consciousness; testing those assumptions to determine if they are appropriate for attaining the desired goal
  • Reframing: altering assumptions that don’t accomplish desired goals
  • Unlearning and relearning: developing new sets of learned skills based on reframed assumptions; replacing old with new skills until new ones are automatic.

Action learning methodology has three main elements:

  1. Problems that people identify;
  2. People who accept responsibility for taking action on a particular issue; and
  3. Colleagues who support and challenge one another in the process of resolving the problems.

Using real tasks as the vehicle for learning, individuals, groups, or teams develop management and leadership skills while working on organizational problems and testing their assumptions against real consequences. By taking a real problem, analyzing it, and implementing solutions derived with colleagues, individuals monitor results and can be held accountable for their actions. Revans believes that if we are to cope with accelerating and turbulent change, then we must place our confidence in the lived experiences and insights of others in order to be successful.” from Experiential Learning, Past and Present  Lewis, L.H. and Williams, C.J. (1994).

Reflection Graphic

Follow “Getting Things Done” at the Harvard Kennedy School

Matt Andrews teaches a course entitled “Getting Things Done: Management in the Development Context,” at the Harvard Kennedy School. He often gets asked about what he teaches in his course. So, he has decided to experiment with blogging about his course after every class. Each blog entry will include his powerpoint presentation, his syllabus, required readings/videos as well as a summary of what happened in class.

He already has two blogs up. The first class was about the need to understand the bureaucracy better, and second class was on classical management theory, bureaucracy and scientific management. You can see the entire syllabus here. This is your opportunity to follow the class and learn more about “getting things done in development.” Let us know what you think.


BSC video 35: Functional indicators as a way to build capacity

Data is an important part of state functionality. If states want to be capable they need to know where people are, how many people there are, etc. in order to deliver basic services. They need to measure functionality and ends rather than forms.

In this video, Matt Andrews, uses child registration to illustrate what a functional indicator means and how it has the potential to build the capacity to deliver services to its people. You can watch this video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, read Getting real about governance and governance indicators and measuring success: means or ends?

BSC video 34: Measuring success – means or ends?

Do appearances matter as much as action does? We often forget that governments exist to do and not just to be. We thus focus on the means of being rather than the product of doing. This bias leads to governance indicators and reforms that emphasize perfection of means, often failing to make a connection to the ends or even clarifying which ends matter.
To address the fact that different ends might matter in different places at different times, and different ends might warrant different means, Matt Andrews, offers an ends-means approach, which begins by asking what governments do rather than how they do them. This approach of looking at the multi-dimensional nature of governance could be very useful in the current discussions about including a governance indicator in the post 2015 development goals. You can watch this video below or on YouTube.