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How stories embody tacit knowledge

Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance

For information managers or looking at knowledge from an analytical or engineering perspective, explicit knowledge is the only knowledge that is visible and so it is tempting to focus on it. And yet we know that most of our real knowledge is tacit.

How does one get a handle on tacit knowledge? The standard analytical dance – beginning with definitions, followed by premises, evidence, ending with linear inferences – is not a possibility. Without this sort of discourse, the masters of Aristotelian logic see no easy way to insert the sharp point of their dialectic, and exercise the requisite leverage on it. Traditional analysts know how to cope with abstractions that are visible. They have little idea of how to cope with the unseen. They lack the necessary equipment to deal with what remains unarticulated.

Accustomed as they are to dealing with hard arguments that satisfy the intellect alone, they tend to be perplexed when confronted with stories that generate meaning and feeling and tacit knowledge from every sentence, spilling messily from the narrative, florid and evocative. One facet of the storyteller’s art has always been to reveal potent meanings and implications behind the apparently random occurrences of happenstance.

Storytelling relinquishes a straightforward journey from A to B, and in the end provides a vehicle for unveiling unseen tacit knowledge. Storytelling draws on deep-flowing streams of meaning, and on patterns of primal narratives of which the listeners are barely aware, and so catalyzes visions of a different and renewed future.

See The Springboard: chapter 11.

And see also the wonderful railroad analogy in

"In my mind now is an image of a huge, long railroad train, of those 120-boxcar jobs that cross the prairies all the time with lumber and vegetables going east and with automobiles and other manufactured goods going west. I want to call this railroad train, “knowledge” and subdivide it into two parts: Classic Knowledge and Romantic Knowledge.

In terms of the analogy, Classic Knowledge, the knowledge taught by the Church of Reason, is the engine and all the boxcars. All of them and everything that’s in them. If you subdivide the train into parts you will find no Romantic Knowledge anywhere. And unless you’re careful it’s easy to make the presumption that’s all the train there is. This isn’t because Romantic Knowledge is non-existent or even unimportant. It’s just that so far the definition of the train is static and purposeless...

Romantic Quality, in terms of this analogy, isn’t any “part” of the train. It’s the leading edge of the engine, a two-dimensional surface of no real significance unless you understand that the train isn’t a static entity at all. A train really isn’t a train if it can’t go anywhere. In the process of examining the train and subdividing it into parts we’ve inadvertently stopped it, so that it really isn’t a train we are examining. That’s why we get stuck....

Romantic reality is the cutting edge of experience. It’s the leading edge of the train of knowledge that keeps the whole train on the track. Traditional knowledge is only the collective memory of where that leading edge has been. At the leading edge, there are no subjects, no objects, only the track of Quality ahead, and if you have no formal way of evaluating, no way of acknowledging this Quality, then the entire train has no way of knowing where to go. You don’t have pure reason – you have pure confusion. The leading edge is where absolutely all the action is. The leading edge contains all the infinite possibilities of the future. It contains all the history of the past. Where else could they be contained?...

Value, the leading edge of reality, is no longer an irrelevant offshoot of structure. Value is the predecessor of structure. It’s the pre-intellectual awareness that gives rise to it. Our structured reality is pre-selected on the basis of value, and really to understand structured reality requires an understanding of the value source from which it’s derived".


See Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000,

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Bantam, New York, 1974.

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