Thursday, 29 September 2011

Extract on the transmission of tacit knowledge

Collins on the capriciousness of tacit knowledge

In order to consider the transmission of tacit knowledge we will begin by drawing on two discussions from Harry Collins whose work we discussed in chapter 3. In both cases, we will highlight how assumptions Collins makes about the nature and transmission of forms of tacit knowledge put the idea that it can be communicated under threat. One virtue of the analysis offered in preceding chapters is that it does not, implausibly, suggest that tacit knowledge is particularly difficult to share.

First then, the empirical findings. In Changing Order, Harry Collins summarises a piece of sociological inquiry he carried out in the 1970s. He visited six of seven UK laboratories who were attempting to build a working laser which, although of a new design (a Transversely Excited Atmospheric pressure CO2, or TEA, laser), had already been successfully built in other laboratories in the US, five of which he also visited. In one case, a scientist – Bob Harrison – who had already built one working model aimed to replicate it so as to have two working models. Despite this limited problem – a clear case of Kuhnian  ‘normal science ‘ – and despite the availability of explicit instructions, Collins discovered a surprising difficulty.

[N]o scientist succeeded in building a laser by using only information found in published or other written sources. Thus every scientist who managed to copy the laser obtained a crucial component of the requisite knowledge from personal contact and discussion. A second point is that no scientist succeeded in building a TEA-laser where the informant was a ‘middle man’ who had not built a device himself. The third point is that even where the informant had built a successful device, and where information flowed freely as far as could be seen, the learner would be unlikely to succeed without some extended period of contact with the informant and, in some cases, would not succeed at all. [Collins 1985: 55-6]

Collins concludes that because it has three significant features or properties, the knowledge involved in laser construction is tacit knowledge.

In sum, the flow of knowledge was such that, first, it travelled only where there was personal contact with an accomplished practitioner; second, its passage was invisible so that scientists did not know whether they had the relevant expertise to build a laser until they tried it; and, third, it was so capricious that similar relationships between teacher and learner might or might not result in the transfer of knowledge. These characteristics of the flow of knowledge make sense if a crucial component in laser building ability is ‘tacit knowledge’. [Collins 1985: 56]

On Collins’ view, tacit knowledge is mysterious. Although, on this early view, it can only be passed on by accomplished practitioners, that is necessary but not sufficient for its transfer. It is capricious in that similar relationships between teacher and learner are sometimes sufficient and sometimes not. And it is invisible in its flow. Even the scientist whose ongoing attempts to build a laser Collins particularly studied, Bob Harrison, is unaware of the details of his own knowledge how to build the laser.

Harrison would not have been a lot of use as an informant at the beginning of his attempt to build Jumbo [his first working laser]; there is no way that he could have informed anyone about the necessity of having the leads from the capacitor to the electrodes as short as possible, for example, since he did not realise the importance of this himself. But, he did not know that he did not know. [ibid: 73]

Whilst much of the time Collins suggests that the knowledge involved in laser construction is practical, skill-like knowledge, it is clear, from the descriptions he gives, that it also includes elements that appear more like matters of fact or knowledge-that. Summarising this early empirical work more recently, Collins explicitly connects the ineffability of the scientists’ knowledge to Polanyi’s slogan.

[Y]ou may not know what you need to know and I may not know what I know. Thus, in the early days of TEA lasers scientists did not necessarily know that the inductance of the top lead was important but by copying existing designs they built in successful short top leads without knowing why. [NS]

Collins summarises his early view of tacit knowledge in a number of propositions which begin:

Proposition One: Transfer of skill-like knowledge is capricious.
Proposition Two: Skill-like knowledge travels best (or only) through accomplished practitioners...
Proposition Three: experimental ability has the character of a skill that can be acquired and developed with practice. Like a skill, it cannot be fully explicated or absolutely established.
From the three studies it seems firmly established that laser-building is something you do not know whether you possess until you have built a laser. Thus, laser building is invisible in its passage...
Proposition Four: Experimental ability is invisible in its passage and in those who possess it.
[ibid: 73-4]

This presents a picture of the sharing of tacit knowledge which looks to be particularly difficult. Perhaps influenced by his view of Wittgenstein’s regress argument according to which it is not possible fully to specify a rule and thus there must be something more to a rule than its specifiability to underpin our mysterious ability to know what accords with it, Collins suggests that empirical tacit knowledge is similarly invisible to those involved.

If this account were true, it would suggest that teaching or sharing such tacit knowledge is, of necessity, fraught with difficulty. If such knowledge is invisible, even to those who possess it, then it cannot be demonstrated. As Wittgenstein puts it, the student has to guess the essential drift of the teacher’s practical demonstration. No wonder then that ‘ it cannot be fully explicated or absolutely established’. But if that is the case, the prospects for improving teaching methods are also dim. There will be no way to compare the results or potentially more and potentially less successful forms of demonstration and pedagogy.

But as we have argued in preceding chapters, there is no reason to think of tacit knowledge in this pessimistic way. If, for those with eyes to see at least, context-specific but still conceptually structured practical knowledge can be articulated and demonstrated in practice, there is no need to think of it as essentially invisible or essentially silent, to change sensory modality.

Collins’ account generalises from what seem to have been particularly difficult cases to all cases of tacit knowledge. Even thought as a matter of physical theory a piece of Kuhnian normal science, the actual construction of a complex laser from basic components was clearly a difficult and challenging task. Further, unlike everyday structured abilities, such as the ability to swim front crawl or butterfly, there seem to be difficulties in testing the component abilities. This is a particular feature of the context in which Harrison works and merits a separate summarising proposition.

Proposition Five: Proper working of the apparatus, of parts of the apparatus and of the experimenter, are defined by the ability to take part in producing the proper experimental outcome. Other indicators cannot be found. [ibid: 74]

In other cases, this is not true. One might have long-standing knowledge of how to make Yorkshire pudding: a structured capacity to assemble, mix and cook the basic ingredients. If so, a run of failures given a change of oven (the puddings fail to rise or are over cooked, for example) is evidence, at least, for one of a range of failures. Perhaps it is the oven or the particular ingredients which will also change from time to time. But if the same ingredients are, in the same period, yielding fine pancakes, that is evidence, at least, against a problem with the ingredients. If cognitive and practical knowledge, basic ingredients and methods all change or are introduced simultaneously then the predicament may be as Collins describes in proposition five. But that is not an essential feature of tacit knowledge.

Just because it is sometimes difficult to test whether someone has a practical ability does not mean that it is always (any more than parallel claims apply to knowledge-that). The transfer of skill-like knowledge need not be capricious. Practical teaching – such as of bike riding, or instrument playing – can be quite predictable. And in such cases, there is no reason to think that mastery is invisible.