When I had dinner recently with InfoWorld Contributing Editor Phil Windley, he put his finger on something I've been trying to nail down for years. Like me, Phil works mainly in a home office, is married to a nongeek, and is often called on to deliver spousal tech support.
From his wife's perspective, Phil said, it looks like he knows how to do everything. But his own, subjective experience is very different. He doesn't really have detailed procedural knowledge of most tasks. He's just very good at discovering that knowledge.
"What I'm actually doing is figuring things out on the fly," Phil said. That's what all IT adepts do, all the time. We do it in such a rapid, fluid, and automatic way that we don't seem to be constantly learning or relearning. But we are, and Phil's insight prompted me to recalibrate my thinking on this matter.
At issue here are two forms of tacit knowledge, which the philosopher of science Michael Polanyi once defined as knowing more than we can tell. For example, it's quite possible someone who uses Microsoft Word regularly can't tell you how to turn off Smart Quotes but can still perform the task.
I'd argue that muscle memory plays a crucial role here. The hand that guides the mouse to the Tools menu, and then to the AutoCorrect submenu, and then to the AutoFormat tab, has been there before and can find its way back.
I'm not a regular user of Microsoft Word, however, and when I was recently asked how to turn off Smart Quotes, I found that my reservoir of unconscious procedural knowledge had gone dry. So I Googled the phrase "turn off smart quotes in microsoft word" and found the answer straightaway.
Tacit knowledge was at work here, too, albeit tacit knowledge of another kind. I knew unconsciously that "smart quotes" was the right search term.
In addition, I knew that instructions for the procedure that I'd forgotten how to do could be found more easily by searching Google than by searching Word's help file or by wandering around in its GUI menu tree.
The clash of these cognitive styles -- knowing how to do things versus knowing how to find out how to do things -- is a source of friction between IT folk and our clientele. From our perspective, it's annoying to be asked constantly to write down detailed step-by-step procedures. If we don't rely on them, why should anyone else need to?
From the perspective of the folks we support, on the other hand, it's equally annoying to have to figure things out. Why aren't things like turning off Smart Quotes just obvious?
Of course, everybody relies on both kinds of tacit knowledge. When either kind fails us, we have to dredge up what was unconscious, examine it, and reassimilate it. That's a hard problem that we'll need to attack in several ways.
For tasks we've done before, our systems should help us access the mental and muscle memories we've forgotten. For novel tasks, though, the unconscious knowledge we seek resides in other persons' heads and hands. Exporting that knowledge in a shareable format is one key challenge; helping people to connect with it is another.
Google narrows the gap between knowing how to do and knowing how to find out. To close that gap completely, we'll have to begin designing systems that facilitate easy collaboration as well as enabling discoverability.