What we know today is not worth half as much as what we can learn tomorrow. This is especially relevant in the world of cloud-based software development.
For those of us who have built a career around the accumulation of knowledge, this can sound like an affront to our experience, our talent and our value. But I’m here to tell you that our experience, talent and value are not what they used to be.
Why is this the case? Why is learning so much more important than knowing? The answer is simple: the pace of change in cloud-based software development. The pace has been accelerating for the last two decades, and that feverish pace continues to heat up. What made sense two years ago may not make sense any longer. New cloud-native technologies bring massive opportunities for improvement, and older technologies begin to look and feel like boat anchors. Powerful technologies appear so quickly that we don’t even know they are there.
How can we move past what we know and move on to what we need to learn? This brings us back to the question of what we mean by “knowledge.” How do we even know what we know? Not all knowledge is the same, and I’m going to highlight two different kinds of knowledge.
To better think about “what we know.” I will introduce the concepts of “tacit knowledge” and “explicit knowledge.”
- Tacit knowledge is very similar to tribal knowledge. Tacit knowledge usually resides in our heads and can only be communicated through talking to other people. In an environment where tacit knowledge reigns, it’s all about who you know. It’s all about meetings to rehash what we know.
- Explicit knowledge is typically written down and formalized. It might be a combination of language and pictures, but explicit knowledge exists outside our heads. We must externalize our tacit knowledge in order to create explicit knowledge. In an environment where explicit knowledge reigns, everyone has equal access to the published knowledge.
In the world of tacit (tribal) knowledge, we can never agree on what we know because we have not formalized in a way that everyone can understand. Ideas that should be relatively stable can change from day to day, minute to minute, person to person. Knowledge becomes a matter of unstable opinion, and so we are mired in the present: the present of our shared misunderstanding.
If we agree that we need to spend our energies learning rather than knowing, we must do something with the knowledge we already have - we must transform our tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. We have to write down “what we know” and make it available for everyone who needs to know. We must extract the ideas from our heads and formalize them so that others can use them. We need to move toward a shared understanding and away from a private understanding. If we don’t make this transition, we become bottlenecked by our tribal knowledge. Our knowledge asset becomes our knowledge weakness.
And therefore we write down what we know so we can move past it.
By writing down what we know, formally documenting our knowledge and making it publicly available, we force ourselves to think it through, and to make sure it is transferable. In doing so, we focus on simplicity and shared understanding. We put our ideas in language that has enough clarity and stability that others can understand and use that knowledge.
Something else happens when we shift from tacit (tribal) to explicit (written) knowledge. We can move past “what we know” and focus our energies on the next challenge. We can take on new problems and new ideas. We can start to ask questions no one has asked yet, and we can make connections that have not been made yet.
We can go create.