I enjoy eating high-quality baked goods. When visiting a new place, I often spend many hours walking around town, scouting out the best bakeries. In London, where I live, I have explored the whole city, trying to find the best pain au chocolat (Jolene), seeded sourdough loaf (E5), babka (Margot), banana bread (Violet), cheese pretzel (Sourdough Sophia), and many other specific things. By now, I can take one glance at a bakery or cafe, in person or online, and be confident whether or not their baked goods will be to my taste before trying them. However, I'm not good at explaining my flash judgments on bakeries or helping others improve at bakery quality prediction - why?

This is an example of the more general problem of communicating tacit knowledge and intuitions. Whether explaining what makes good writing, teaching someone to cook well, or describing how to look for mathematical proofs, it is challenging to articulate the many heuristics and automatic thought processes that build up after sufficient experience and deliberate practice. 

However, it's not worth abandoning attempts to communicate such things altogether - succeeding can significantly accelerate another's skill development, reducing the need for time-consuming trial-and-error approaches. To this end, the first stage is acknowledging why you're having trouble articulating some knowledge. Then, once you have identified why you cannot easily verbalize your tacit knowledge, there are various strategies you can use to overcome the barrier, that is, if you decide you want to do so. 

I broadly break down why sharing tacit knowledge is hard into six categories: ComplexityLinguistic ConstraintsThe Curse of KnowledgePersonal Context-DependenceFear of Criticism, and Automaticity

Complexity

Tacit knowledge often involves a complex combination of heuristics, variables, and computations that may be challenging to convey succinctly. For instance, a seasoned paramedic responding to a critical situation will rely on many cues, such as the patient's breathing patterns, skin color, heart rate, and subjective symptoms, to quickly diagnose the problem and provide immediate care. This paramedic's ability to rapidly assess and react to the situation comes from years of hands-on experience and intuition developed over countless emergencies. Conveying this intricate skill set to a novice paramedic is challenging due to the many variables involved.

To overcome the challenge of complexity, it can be effective to break down the knowledge into smaller sub-components. This approach could involve narrating specific instances where you used your intuition or skill to decide, providing concrete examples of how the process works. For example, the experienced paramedic could start by sharing basic cues they look for in common emergencies such as heart attacks or strokes. They could describe the specific indicators they observe, like facial drooping, arm weakness, and speech difficulties in stroke victims, or chest pain, shortness of breath, and nausea in heart attack victims. They could also detail how they gather these observations quickly and systematically when arriving on the scene of an emergency.

Linguistic Constraints

Some forms of tacit knowledge are nearly impossible to articulate in language. For example, describing how to ride a bicycle to someone else in words is problematic because this knowledge is deeply ingrained in our motor skills rather than simply expressed in words.

To overcome linguistic constraints, one must often "show, not tell" via demonstrations, visuals, and hands-on experience. For instance, teaching someone to ride a bicycle requires less talk and more physical demonstration and guided practice. 

The Curse of Knowledge

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual assumes other individuals have similar backgrounds and depth of knowledge to understand what they are trying to communicate. For instance, a physics professor might struggle to explain quantum mechanics to a layperson as they may start explaining concepts in terms of other concepts the person still doesn't understand.  

Overcoming the curse of knowledge requires a conscious effort to simplify the explanation and to place oneself in the learner's shoes. Communicators should employ simple language, metaphors, and analogies to which the learner can relate. Remembering what it was like to first learn about something can also help you empathize with the learner.

Personal Context-Dependence

Some forms of tacit knowledge are highly dependent on personal properties. For example, a salesperson might have a unique way of engaging customers that works brilliantly due to their charisma and capacity for empathy. Even if they accurately describe their approach to another salesperson, someone else could struggle to use this knowledge due to the lack of particular personal qualities. 

Addressing personal context-dependence requires extracting the core principles that are universally applicable, independent of interpersonal differences. In the case of the salesperson, they can emphasize the importance of robustly good things such as listening to customers, being polite, and showing enthusiasm.

Fear of Criticism

A person might use uncomplicated heuristics to solve a problem but hesitate to share them out of fear of criticism or that others may view the approach negatively. For example, suppose an HR manager uses cues like body language, speech patterns, or attire to assess potential employees beyond their formal credentials. They may fear sharing this tacit knowledge, even if the approach achieves good results, as others could perceive it as superficial or discriminatory. 

Ensuring a high-trust, open environment can help overcome the fear of criticism. Thinking about why you expect a decision-making strategy to be criticized and how to describe it in a way less likely to offend could also enable you to transmit the knowledge more safely. 

Automaticity

Repeated practice can cause some reasoning processes to become automatic to the extent that we are unaware of all the steps we follow to achieve a goal. For example, consider the process of driving a car. Experienced drivers navigate numerous tasks like steering, shifting gears, using indicators, checking mirrors, and responding to traffic signals almost instinctively. This ability involves a network of reflexive, interconnected knowledge that may be difficult to communicate verbally, especially to someone who has never driven before. 

Automaticity can be particularly challenging to deconstruct due to the unconscious nature of our automatic reasoning processes. However, we often identify influences on our decision-making process through introspection. Furthermore, employing counterfactual thinking - imagining alternate scenarios and our potential responses to them - can assist us in deciphering the heuristics or mental shortcuts we deploy without conscious deliberation. For example, a basketball player's free throw appears automatic but involves several subconscious calculations like distance gauging, power application, and angle determination. However, introspection with mindful practice and focus on each component can help players identify influential habits that affect their performance. 


So, back to bakeries - why do I struggle to convey the intuitions that enable me to pass accurate judgment on the quality of bakeries quickly?

Complexity - When I assess the storefront or website of a bakery, I use a bunch of heuristics related to their decor, use of fonts, design style, etc., to decide whether the establishment looks promising. These heuristics are difficult to convey succinctly because they involve many conditions. For example, first, I roughly bucket the bakery into an approximate category - {international specialty, local rustic French, high-end French, scandi modern, hipster, Jewish bakery …} - each resulting in different aesthetic expectations. This is further augmented by location. For example, I expect good bakeries in central London to have much more well-thought-out branding than those in rural France (which I expect to look quite generic). 

Linguistic Constraints - I use my sense of smell a lot when assessing bakeries in person, and this is particularly difficult to convey with language as we generally lack good words for describing smells. 

The Curse of Knowledge - I can sometimes forget that most people don't have a basic understanding of relevant terms such as "sourdough," "laminated pastry," "stoneground," or "viennoiserie." 

Personal Context-Dependence - My "training data" on baked goods is a map from bakery to how-the-product-tasted, where the latter is very personal. People have different tastes, and it just happens that my preferences in baked goods match quite closely with those of traditional food critics. For instance, I appreciate fancier artisanal sourdough bread much more than cheap supermarket sliced loaves, whereas some people have the opposite preference. I also prefer high-quality cake ingredients like natural vanilla, good-quality butter, etc.

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4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:49 PM

Good post, I hope to read more from you

This post really hits the nail on a recent situation I found myself, mentoring some of my Jr colleagues on game design and project management.

I have had trouble for more than a year trying to teach my approach to my Jr colleagues. I'll articulate them following your categories, as they helped me now to map better the problem:

1) [Complexity] A lot of situations while preparing a game design are based on the subject to design for. Theory teaches you some "design rules", but then you have to mix the "ideal game mechanic" with the kind of user target, the time at disposal for them, and foreseeing problems that could occour.

2) [Curse of Knowledge] This happens a lot because I have computer science skills, so I am able to quickly visualize "complexity" of what I am thinking, hence my design choices are driven also by this.

3) [Personal Context-Dependence] Last but not least, I am a very intuitive person, and lot of the knowledge I have and that I apply on the job is not even "formalized". The hard part on this is to try find how your "intuitive skills" are named and explained. If you even can isolate those intuitive skills.

To work on 1) and 3) I recently found that a possible solution was easier than expected: use the person you're trying to teach to, to observe you and "deconstruct" you. A person craving to learn from you this tacit knowledge will be very happy to "study you" and try to write down what you do and how you reason, finding a way to explain your tacit knowledge and map it.

This is a really good post and articulates a lot of the challenges well, and I like and can relate to the bakery example. 

From my POV the hard-to-transmit tacit skill of transmitting tacit knowledge benefits greatly from a couple of things:

1) For a given learner, first learn enough background to know some basic terminology and be able to ask basic questions to prepare yourself to dive deeper, then get direct, hands-on coaching and ongoing mentoring from multiple experienced practitioners. 

2) For a given teacher, develop enough broad understanding of fields outside your own, and enough understanding about how humans-in-general think and reason, to be able to efficiently figure out how a given audience thinks, what they know, and what avenues and metaphors and examples are likely to lead to learning. Listen mindfully, and be ready and willing to change course mid-conversation (or other live modality) as needed.

Good post, I hope to hear more of those London bakery recs !