J. Software Engineering & Applications, 2010, 3: 273-279
doi:10.4236/jsea.2010.33033 Published Online March 2010 (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/jsea)
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JSEA
Exploiting Distributed Cognition to Make Tacit
Knowledge Explicating
Mingrui He1, Yongjian Li2
1School of Management and Economics of University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, Chengdu, China; 2School of
Management and Economics of Southwest Jiaotong University, Chengdu, China.
Email: mingrui0208@21cn.com; swtjlyj@sina.com.cn
Received September 1st, 2009; revised October 5th, 2009; accepted October 12th, 2009.
Distributed cognition is a new development trend of cognitivism, and is also a new research field of knowledge manage-
ment. The study discusses that tacit knowledge explicating activity is a distributed cognitive activity, whose success
depends on interaction of each of these factors in distributed cognitive system and none of the factor could be neglected.
Further, the study exploits distributed cognition to explore how to design these factors in the system so that tacit
knowledge explicating can be accomplished successfully.
Keywords: Tacit Knowledge, Distributed Cognition, Tacit Knowledge Explicating
1. Introduction
In today’s dynamic global economy, knowledge is viewed
as a key strategic and competitive resource by organiza-
tions, and effective management of individual knowledge
within the work place has become critical to business
[1,2]. Growing interest in the management of knowledge
within organizations has focused on the control of tacit
knowledge, which can be retained within the firm as a
source of possible competitive advantage [3,4]. The
knowledge in employee’s head (tacit knowledge) is ac-
counting for 42% of organization total knowledge, by
surveying the knowledge composition of Delphi Group
[5]. Further, OECD’s a report named The Knowledge-
Based Economy has indicated that the best value to or-
ganization is tacit knowledge of individual. So how to
exploit and manage tacit knowledge always is crucial to
knowledge management.
With expanding of knowledge management study,
more and more scholars realize that we should pay more
attention to not only technique but also personal factors
[6]. To grasp the essence and regulation of human cogni-
tion is indispensable to the study of knowledge manage-
ment [7]. The breakthrough of modern cognitive psy-
chology, especially the development of distributed cog-
nition, provides new angle of view to study tacit knowl-
edge explicating.
Firstly, this article attempts to bring some clarification
to tacit knowledge. We give an overview of historical
beginnings of tacit knowledge concepts. Before we dis-
cuss how to transfer tacit knowledge, it’s necessary to
understand what means the tacit knowledge discussed in
this article. Secondly, the article will inventory the basic
tenets of the concept of distributed cognition, then review
the current studies of tacit knowledge explicating and
discuss how to disclose the cognition activity is the most
essential question. In the following section, we discuss
how to disclose the cognition activity based on distributed
cognition. In particular, we discuss that the change of each
factor in function system would cause the change of the
whole system, and each factor in the system is very im-
portant for the success of tacit knowledge explicating. If
we want to make the cognitive activity successful, to
design each factor in the system is necessary.
2. Tacit Knowledge
In 1958, Michael Polanyi [8] put forward the term (tacit
knowledge) in his book named Personal Knowledge, he
proposes his famous epigram “we know more than we can
tell”: Humans can undertake a range of activities, and thus
in a key sense know how to do them, without necessarily
being able to provide a complete or coherent account of
their actions, their reasons for undertaking them or to
explain to others how to undertake them, let alone to ex-
plain the laws of physics, biology and so on that underline
The term has been paid close attention by many schol-
ars from the earliest times. Robert J. Sternberg and his
colleague defined the term from the view of psychology
Exploiting Distributed Cognition to Make Tacit Knowledge Explicating
[9–11]. It is viewed as knowledge that generally is ac-
quired with little support from other people or resource, as
procedural in nature, and it has direct relevance to indi-
vidual’s goals. P. F. Drucker defined the term from the
view of management [12]. Tacit knowledge can’t be ex-
plained by language, only be confirmed by demonstration.
The only way to study them is apperception and exercise.
They root in experience and skills. And Nonaka believed
that, tacit knowledge can have both technical and cogni-
tive dimension, and it is high personalized and high situ-
ated, it includes individual thinking model, belief and
mental model etc. Those models and beliefs are so deeply
rooted that we are quite hard to perceive them. But when
we are looking around the world, we always receive their
huge impact [4]. Tacit knowledge, which is deeply rooted
in action and context, can be acquired without awareness
and is typically not articulated or communicated [13].
The notion of tacit knowledge is intuitively appealing
and seems to be something that we all instinctively un-
derstand as the knowledge that people have in their heads,
rather than knowledge that is written down and recorded
[14]. However, as Day [15] notes, the “folk-psychology”
notion of tacit knowledge is simplistic and leads to the
expectation that tacit knowledge can easily be transferred
simply by having the knowledge holder reflection and
articulate the knowledge. In fact, the real tacit knowledge
remains ambiguous, with researchers applying the term
with a variety of meanings and characterizations [16]. So
before discussing tacit knowledge explicating, the article
attempts to bring up some clarification to tacit knowledge
The nature of tacit knowledge in a business context can
be viewed as a continuum with structured, codified, or
explicit knowledge at one extreme and unstructured, un-
codified, or tacit knowledge at the other [17]. Actually, we
discuss the tacit knowledge at the extreme of knowledge
continuum is complete tacit knowledge, which means that
people absolutely cannot perceive them, let alone explain
or articulate them, such as mental models. Between one
extreme of knowledge continuum and the other extreme
of knowledge continuum, there is a kind of tacit knowl-
edge which cannot be structured or codified, but people
can perceive them. For instance, skilled baker can bake
delicious bread, he knows he can do that, and others also
know he can do that, however he cannot articulate how to
do that. We discuss the tacit knowledge which he owns is
a special kind of tacit knowledge. The kind of tacit
knowledge usually is in form of individual skill. But only
after people can perceive the skill, the skill can be fallen
the kind tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge discussed in
the article is this kind of tacit knowledge. It’s no meaning
to discuss tacit knowledge explicating if people absolutely
cannot perceive them. In fact, for business organizations
this kind of tacit knowledge has more meanings.
So we describe this kind of tacit knowledge as follows,
and tacit knowledge mentioned in the following text is this
kind of tacit knowledge.
Tacit knowledge is difficult to be partially or totally
coded by language or words in a particular situation. The
definition reveals the main features of tacit knowledge.
One is difficult to code the knowledge in a particular
situation which means that maybe others can code it or
maybe one can code it in another particular situation.
Tacit knowledge is high personalized and situated, and its
cost of transfer is so high. It is formed automatically by
subconscious. Its forming and utilizing aren’t controlled
by willingness of subjective and are manifested by inspi-
ration, skill, habit and belief, and so on. However tacit
knowledge is not mysterious experience (Polanyi), it is
just can not be partial or total coded by one in a particular
3. The Concept of Distributed Cognition
Distributed cognition, which takes cognitive overview
into consideration, is a new development trend of cogni-
tivism and a new cognitive paradigm. In 1884, Dewey
wrote that organisms do not deviate from environment.
It’s impossible to look mental activity as individual ac-
tivity without any relations [18]. One’s cognition should
be built on interactive relationship of human and envi-
ronment [19]. Hutchins explicitly defined distributed cog-
nition as a new basic paradigm to rethink cognitive phe-
nomena in all fields [20]. The chief theory and method-
ology of distributed cognition is that it emphasizes that
analytical unit of design, individual in social or in some
situation instead of individual who be thought that he
plays cognitive activity only in his head, and functional
relations among different factors in cognitive process
form functional system [21].
Having learnt these methods from cognition science,
anthropology, sociology and social psychology, distrib-
uted cognition holds that to know cognitive phenomena
should be from functional system point of view, which is
composed of individual, other individual and artifact, and
so on. Those cognitive phenomena which cannot be
known only from individual point of view are pinpointed
in distributed cognition. It’s particularly important that
distributed cognition stresses interaction among indi-
viduals and technique tools in a specific cognitive activity
[22]. So distributed cognition is a system made up of
cognitive subjects and environment, a new analytical unit
including all things in the cognitive activity [23], and an
information processing of representation to inner and
external [24].
Since it was born, distributed cognition has strong vi-
tality. It not only has learnt many advantages of traditional
cognition, but also has different features from traditional
cognition. Firstly, distributed cognition takes all factors
into consideration in cognitive activity, puts forward a
new analytical unit which is built on functional relations
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JSEA
Exploiting Distributed Cognition to Make Tacit Knowledge Explicating
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JSEA
among different factors participating cognitive processing
together, and forms functional systems which show dif-
ferent representation status among different media and at
the same time harmonize these media. Secondly, distrib-
uted cognition emphasizes the distribution across indi-
viduals, artifacts and internal and external representations
in terms of a common language of ‘representational
states’ and ‘media’, and holds that cognition can be dis-
tributed not only within individual but also in media,
cultures, social and time. Thirdly, distributed cognition
also stresses the influence of social substance situation to
cognition process. Finally, distributed cognition notes that
communication, sharing, factors (human and artifacts, etc.)
depends on each other, and artifacts play important role in
distributed cognition. When artifacts are used by people,
cognitive residue phenomenon will appear. As long as
artifacts are applied to help cognitive action, the ability
being trained in the action would be remained, even the
artifacts have gone, the ability is still here and can support
high level thinking.
4. Tacit Knowledge Explicating is a
Cognitive Activity with Distributed
4.1 The Current Studies of Tacit Knowledge
The idea about knowledge transfer was firstly formulated
by Teece in 1977 [25], he thought that technique transfer
can help industry accumulate valuable knowledge and
impel technology diffusion, the result can reduce tech-
nology gap among different areas. With further devel-
opment of knowledge-based economy, the study of tacit
knowledge explicating has been put on the agenda. Tacit
knowledge has been studied that it can be explicated by
deep talks including analogy, story and metaphor
[4,26,27], can be attained and transferred by learning and
informally communication among people working as
technical innovation [28], and can be exploited and ap-
plied by a new applied information technology. Tacit
knowledge in inter-web of organization can be distin-
guished by information retrieval system based on software
proxy technology [29]. Cognition mapping is also a useful
implement to transfer tacit knowledge [30]. Further,
Zhang [30] made differential dynamic model of organi-
zation tacit knowledge and analyzed these primary con-
trolling parameters to influent tacit knowledge diffusing.
Gao [31] made a model transfer of tacit knowledge based
on ontology. Liang [32] thought informal relationship
network is a primary way to transfer tacit knowledge.
Tang [33] thought knowledge has biological activity, and
made knowledge fermentation model borrowing biology
fermentation process. Of course, SECI model is the most
influential in the field of tacit knowledge explicating,
which was put forward by Nonaka and Takeuchi. So-
cialization, externalization, combination and internalization
form a circle of knowledge transformation and creating.
The current studies of tacit knowledge explicating fo-
cus mainly on the methods of explicating, transfer model
and technique, especially SECI model pushes up greatly
the development of knowledge management theory and
practice, and becomes one of important foundations of
knowledge management theory [34]. However, it is a pity
that SECI doesn’t take cognitive psychology into account
[35] when it provides a suit of analysis paradigm [36]. In
recent years, cognitive psychology has been paid more
and more attention to by scholars when they are studying
tacit knowledge. The inner mechanism of tacit knowledge
and implicit cognition has been discussed. Implicit cog-
nition provides empirical evidence for tacit knowledge
from psychology, and tacit knowledge provides theoreti-
cal basement from epistemology [37]. And cognitive
structure of tacit knowledge is also discussed, which is
comprised of implicit system mechanism, ingredients
transferred mechanism and motivation mechanism [38].
However, most of the research works focus on the indi-
vidual cognition of tacit and few discuss on the cognitive
activity of tacit knowledge explicating. From the most
fundamental terms, tacit knowledge explicating is one
kind of cognitive activity. The success of tacit knowledge
explicating depends on individual, artifacts, environment,
cultures, etc. in the cognitive activity. How to reveal the
cognition activity is the most essential question. Only
after having discussed the activity which is like black box,
we can made further research on how to increase the ef-
ficiency of tacit knowledge explicating.
4.2 Tacit Knowledge Explicating As Distributed
Tacit knowledge explicating activity can fall into two
One is that individual with tacit knowledge can expli-
cate the knowledge by his own explicit knowledge and
artifacts, and it can be shown as Figure 1. In this form of
activity, cognition is distributed within individual, among
artifacts, in culture, in environment, through time and so on.
Another is that when individual with tacit knowledge
communicate with others, his tacit knowledge can be
explicated by others’ explicit knowledge and artifacts, and
it can be shown as Figure 2. In this form of activity,
cognition is distributed within individual, among indi-
viduals, among artifacts, in culture, in environment,
through time and so on. The second form is a general form
for tacit knowledge explicating, so we discuss the second
form in this article.
When cognition is considered as a distributed system, it
opens up the process of tacit knowledge explicating to
inspection. This is important for tacit knowledge expli-
cating because inspection permits people to examine the
Exploiting Distributed Cognition to Make Tacit Knowledge Explicating
Environment and culture
Environment and culture
Figure 1. Form 1 Figure 2. Form 2
variables involved in the activity and more importantly,
distributed cognition, as a perspective with which to think,
has the potential to enhance the likelihood of careful se-
lections of tools by people for the activity.
In the activity, cognition is distributed:
1) Within individual: Cognition structure of individual
is psychological basis to make tacit knowledge explicit;
2) Among individuals: For instance, storytelling is of-
ten thought as an effective way to make tacit knowledge
3) Among artifacts: Artifact is a core term in distributed
cognition, which means tool, thinking and method and so
on. When artifacts are applied, people’s intelligence can
be extended and people can be more intelligent and more
effective. For instance, computers can make us simulate
real world better, and symbols can make us express our
thoughts and ideas better. Human inner cognitive ability
and external artifacts together can greatly improve cogni-
tive level [21];
4) In culture: Different individuals in the activity
maybe are from different cultures, which causes they have
different cognitive styles. Culture can be experienced by
communicating face-to-face, and influents cognitive pro-
cess indirectly. The human mind is more than the sum of
localized (interiorized) cognition; our thoughts, capabili-
ties, and actions are continuously shaped by, and
co-evolve with, elements of the external world and the
cultural contexts in which we operate [39];
5) In environment: Interaction of internal and external
representations is influenced by environment. Any activ-
ity cannot be divorced from environment, including tacit
knowledge explicating;
6) Through time: The products of earlier events can
transform the nature of later events [20].
5. Analyzing Tacit Knowledge Explicating
Activity Based on Distributed Cognition
When cognition is seen as distributed system, it has pro-
vided a very good method and angle of view to study the
essence of tacit knowledge explicating which is like black
box. During the cognitive activity, not only the individual
with tacit knowledge should be paid attention to, but also
other variables in this cognitive activity should be paid
attention to [40], for instance, the cognitive state of others,
the actions of others when they accept tacit knowledge,
the characters of artifacts, culture state and environment
state, and so on. The whole tacit knowledge explicating is
a dynamic activity in which dynamic exchange is between
individuals, between artifacts, between individual and
artifact, etc. Of course, dynamic exchange is also in par-
ticular culture and environment. In the whole activity, the
source of tacit knowledge is often considered as teacher,
and the focal-point of tacit knowledge is often considered
as learner.
The whole tacit knowledge explicating activity has
cognitive distribution, which distribute within individual,
among individuals, among artifacts, in culture, in envi-
ronment and so on. Further, individuals, artifacts, culture
and environment constitute a functional system. Accord-
ing to the functional system, the representation, trans-
mission, and progress can be analyzed as follows by four
analysis phases [41,42]. The method pays attention to
collect raw data not only from different metaphysical and
material levels, but also from the changes of representa-
tion state in the activity. So it can show the crucial mo-
ment which is maybe unclear and maybe neglected by
traditional analysis, and can definitely reveal that the
problem is caused by mutual influence of various factors.
In the first phase: Individual takes inner representation
and forms some knowledge (for instance, individual skill)
in his working memory system. He cannot express this
knowledge (tacit knowledge) by any language or words,
only could teach others by demonstrating over and over or
using suitable artifacts. On one hand, learner undergoes
instructions himself from the knowledge holder, on the
other hand, he selects suitable artifacts to help himself
learn it better, for instance, he can use video or audio to
record situation. The records must be very detailed. To
omit any subtle corner, color and odor can cause some
significant information missing (be missed). In this phase,
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JSEA
Exploiting Distributed Cognition to Make Tacit Knowledge Explicating 277
inner representation, interaction among artifacts and so-
cial interaction between different inner representations are
In the second phase: Learner always has different cog-
nitive structures and knowledge structures from the
knowledge holder. By observing the holder and using
artifacts, he could translate all information representation
by video or audio records into printing press representa-
tion, including language and other words. In this phase,
the interaction of inner representation state and technique
tool representation is primary.
In the third phase: Learner and his (her) partners would
find significant behaviors and events from the printing
press representation attained in the second phase. So the
continuous behavior flow is divided into lots of significant
In the fourth phase: to explain these significant behav-
iors and events confirmed in the third phase, then translate
into corresponding theory. So the result of explicating
would be attained.
When we analyze tacit knowledge explicating by the
method, we need to descript all aspects of behaviors and
interactions, which are so trivial and apt to take for
granted, and cannot neglect the important function of
environment, culture and artifacts in the cognitive activity.
Different from those methods which only care the main
element causing problem, the method definitively reveal a
problem caused by various factors [43]. By the method to
analyze the tacit knowledge explicating activity, we can
see that the cognitive activity cannot be successful with-
out any one of the factors in the functional system.
6. Discussions
Distributed cognition theory holds that cognition distrib-
utes in functional system, which is made up of individuals,
artifacts, environment and culture. And tacit knowledge
explicating activity is unexceptional, too. In a functional
system, the change of any of these factors would cause the
change of system. For example, the change of sharing tacit
knowledge culture would cause the failure of tacit
knowledge explicating, the usage of wrong technique
tools would cause the failure, and the inappropriate in-
formation representation transform of others also would
cause the failure, etc. The success of tacit knowledge
explicating activity depends on interaction of each factor
in a functional system. How to translate temporary un-
stable cognitive distributed system into stable distributed
cognitive resource is an inspiration for us. For instance, to
build up long-term resource pool and to cleanse and ana-
lyze the result of explicating can help us translate dis-
tributed cognition into stable distributed cognitive re-
source and help to explicate tacit knowledge effectively.
Factors in distributed system must depend on each
other to accomplish one task, so none of the factors could
be neglected. Communication is a necessary condition of
distributed cognition, and shared information is pooled
information, which can make someone who has the best
resource apply the information for other’s benefits [21]. In
tacit knowledge explicating activity, sharing culture has
important influence on the success of the activity, too.
Only in sharing culture, each factor can communicate with
each other effectively and the specific person can apply
the useful information to cause the success of the expli-
cating activity. So how to build up sharing culture in tacit
knowledge explicating activity is a very important task.
The function of artifacts in the system is not only as tool,
but also as a teacher sometimes. Artifacts expand and
support human’s intelligence, even they are more effec-
tive in some special task. When artifacts are applied,
cognitive residue phenomenon will appear. When indi-
vidual must finish some task without these artifacts, cog-
nitive residue can provide efficient service for individual.
For instance, the recorders can record those micro motions
and effects of learners in detail. Even without the
knowledge holder instruction and demonstration, the
records could make learners go on to study. The cognitive
residue phenomenon would support learners to understand
the skill effectively. So in tacit knowledge explicating
activity, how to choose and design suitable artifacts
should also not be neglected. Such as, how to apply in-
formation bank and how to apply symbols, etc.
Individual is at the center of distributed cognitive sys-
tem as cognitive subject [44]. The success of explicating
activity is bound up with the cognitive structure of indi-
vidual. If the specific person hasn’t the corresponding
professional knowledge, he couldn’t succeed to explicate
the knowledge. So for the purpose of sharing tacit
knowledge effectively, the receiver with corresponding
cognitive structure is an important factor, too.
Distributed cognition theory and study not only pro-
mote the development of cognitive theory, but also pro-
vide a good angle of view to study management problem,
for instance, the study in team management [7]. At the
same time, it has significance to study tacit knowledge
explicating. However, many problems still need to be
discussed more. For instance, how to design and choose
suitable artifacts in different situation of tacit knowledge
explicating, and how to discriminate suitable receivers to
join the explicating activity, and how to build up suitable
culture and environment in organization to push the suc-
cess of tacit knowledge explicating activity, and so on.
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