(2020-06-09) Chin Why Tacit Knowledge Is More Important Than Deliberate Practice

Cedric Chin: Why Tacit Knowledge is More Important Than Deliberate Practice. inevitably someone will pop up on Twitter or Hacker News or Reddit or email and protest that tacit knowledge doesn’t exist. See his 2022 series on Ill-structured domains.

Once you understand that tacit knowledge exists, you will begin to see that big parts of any skill tree is tacit in nature, which means that you can go hunting for it

Tacit knowledge is knowledge that cannot be captured through words alone.

how much of your success is due to the bike rider figuring it out on their own? And how much of it is due to your verbal instructions?

This explanation bit deserves some attention. In pedagogy, this is known as ‘transmissionism’, and it is regarded amongst serious educators with the same sort of derision you and I might have about flat-earth theories today. It goes something like this: some people believe that it is possible to teach technique by explaining things to others.

tacit knowledge instruction happens through things like imitation, emulation, and apprenticeship. You learn by copying what the master does, blindly, until you internalise the principles behind the actions.

In my previous job, my technical lead, Hieu, had an uncanny ability to sit in on requirements meetings and, within minutes, sketch out a program structure that would be the simplest possible solution with the fewest moving parts.

I asked him how he knew, within five seconds, that it was bad. He gave me a long explanation about software engineering principles. I waved him away and asked how he did it in five seconds. He said “Well, it just felt right.

their explanations would not lead me to the same ability that they had.

they would try to explain in terms of principles or heuristics. But the more I pushed, the more exceptions and caveats and potential gotchas I unearthed.

if you ever hear someone explaining things in terms of a long list of caveats, the odds are good that you’re looking at tacit knowledge in action

this instantaneous solution selection that happens to balance dozens of considerations against each other

Could it — in principle — be possible to externalise tacit knowledge into a list of instructions?

The consensus answer to that question seems to be: “Yes, in principle it is possible to do so. In practice it is very difficult.” My take on this is that it is so difficult that we shouldn’t even bother; assuming that you are reading this because you want to get good in your career, you should give up on turning tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge and just go after tacit knowledge itself.

In the 1970s, a bunch of organisations — amongst them the US military — commissioned a number of studies to look into the possibility of building out all sorts of expert systems to augment or replace human agents

Wikipedia calls this problem the ‘knowledge acquisition problem’, which is a nice way of putting it; it was what ultimately caused expert systems to decline in popularity

Klein — now considered one of the pioneers of the Naturalistic Decision Making (NDM) branch of psychology — likes to say that over-reliance on procedures makes human operators fragile.

You may say “actually, since all tacit knowledge can be made explicit, there is no such thing as tacit knowledge” — but that is a pedantic exercise that is uninteresting to me. It is not reasonable to wait for an expert systems revival, nor is it fruitful to expect CDM to be applied to your field, or for a John-Boyd-like genius to appear. We should act as if tacit knowledge were a fact, because it is more useful to think about ways to gain that tacit knowledge directly, instead of hoping for some breakthrough to make tacit knowledge explicit.

What does this mean for us? It means that we should start looking into the published research on tacit knowledge if we want to pursue expertise in our fields.

In my review of Ericssons’ Peak, and in my summary of The Problems with Deliberate Practice, I explained that deliberate practice is defined as possible only in domains with a long history of well-established pedagogy. In other words, deliberate practice can only exist in fields like music and math and chess. (finite game)

K. Anders Ericsson lays out this narrow definition in Peak, and then does a cop-out, arguing that while he hasn’t studied practice outside of such domains, the ideas from deliberate practice may be applied to pedagogically less established fields. But Ericsson is well aware that NDM methods exist — he was one of the editors, alongside many names from the NDM community — who worked on the Cambridge Handbook for Expertise and Expert Performance.

if you are a programmer, or designer, or businessperson, an investor or a writer... the field of NDM is a lot more useful if you find yourself in one of these fields.

The process of learning tacit knowledge looks something like the following: you find a master, you work under them for a few years, and you learn the ropes through emulation, feedback, and osmosis (apprenticeship) — not through deliberate practice. (Think: Warren Buffett and the years he spent under Benjamin Graham, for instance). The field of NDM is focused on ways to make this practice more effective. And I think much of the world pays too much attention to deliberate practice and to cognitive bias research, and not enough to tacit knowledge acquisition.

Late last year, the NDM community got together and published The Oxford Handbook of Expertise. It is the single most comprehensive overview of the field that we know today.

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