Thursday, June 16, 2005

Tacit knowledge…

Today we take a slight detour from my memories back to IT/IS… it is all about the code, isn’t it?

I read an article today entitled “The Tacit Dimension of tech support” the premise of the article was that some IT ‘wizards’ often don’t have the detailed ‘knowledge’ tid-bits stored away mentally for immediate recall, but rather are very good at ‘finding’ the answer.

Like a lot of things I read, that article got me thinking.

It finally dawned on me why anyone that I know, assumes that I know, the answer to their particular PC question. This fellow is right; it is about knowing how to find the answer, not necessarily about ‘knowing’ the answer.

I’ve been programming for over 20 years now. In the early days, there was no internet, no built-in 200Mb ‘help’ file, no online anything. In those days I was very good at hitting the index section of the manual and zeroing in on what I needed to know.

I realized today, that I’ve been doing this my entire career, and that while the amount of things I need to know to do my job has increased ten or a hundred fold, so has my ability to search for and access information.

Last fall an associate and I were installing a small office network for a client and I needed to retrieve some configuration guidelines I’d seen before. I was totally lost, the office internet connection wasn’t in place yet and there was no WiFi in the building. If any of you have looked at the manuals that come with software these days, you know there’s not much there. We were in real trouble.

Fortunately, the place is fairly close to the local airport, so I grabbed my laptop and headed over there for my internet ‘fix’. In less than 10 minutes I had what I’d needed and was on my way back. We finished up the install without further incident.

We could have had the network working, and come back later to tweak the installation, but travel time is down time (as in I’m not earning). It was much more cost effective to do what I did.

In the early days, I would have had a ‘dial-up’ account and used CompuServe or some similar service all of us Techno-folk used back then, today, we all pretty much take broadband internet access for granted. I for one am in big trouble without it.

With it I don’t have to remember a lot of fairly useless details. I don’t carry around 50 or more ‘floppies’ with all sorts of tools and configuration files on them I can simply Google for whatever it is I need and have pages of answers in a couple of seconds. The internet has become my own personal ‘toolkit’.

Google,and similar search engines, another I use a lot is, have become my ‘index’ to things technical. If I’m trying to decide, for example, how to alter to the intellisense pop ups in Visual FoxPro, I simply Google this and get back almost 3,500 pages that reference this stuff. I know from experience that the first page or two is likely to have the best information, yet, if I need to look further, I can.

The entire FoxPro (and almost any popular) language reference library is on line, for the most current, and several older, versions. Why worry about searching the ‘help’ files when the search abilities of most websites (especially Microsoft’s developer site) exceed the Help files abilities?

So, when my wife asks me how I do what I do, would I write down the steps, I find I can’t do that. It’s frustrated previous clients, employers, friends, associates and colleagues… but I simply do not know how to put into words what causes me to use the search phrases I use, to be able to spot a good link from a bad one 9 out of ten times, and how to get my answer without winding up in some bizarre chat room!

I don’t know how I did it with manuals either. Maybe it was years of looking up technical specifications for cars/trucks and bikes, determining what parts would, and would not fit, knowing who to ask, where to look, that prepared me for all of this. Honestly, I don’t know.

I do know I rely heavily on the internet, its vast repository of information, technical articles, user forums, code samples, tips, tricks and general coding wizardry. While I’m absolutely convinced I get far more work done because of it, I also know it can be the largest time waster ever invented if you’re not careful.

I don’t know what sort of tacit intuition is in place that helps me find the exact menu item to accomplish the task at hand on a piece of software I’ve never used before. The truth is, I really don’t care about the ‘how’, what I do care about is that I “can”. A great Cajun Chef, Justin Wilson, used to say “I don know how I do it, I’m jess glad I did it” when asked where his incredible recipes came from… I feel very much the same way!

Thanks again for stopping by… if you can, drop me a comment; tell me what you’re thinking.


Firehawk said...


I have that conversation at work all the time. Someone will say, "I need to do________, can you tell me how?" I'll sometimes have a specific response, like, "Look in this menu, and select this's right there." Most of the time, though, I'll say something like, "I'll poke at it and see where we get, okay?"

Being asked for specific details on a process that's more intuitive than reasoned is a really difficult thing. I think that we store little bits of "system" information in our heads, and that we can "see" possible steps toward solving problems, even if we're not aware of why we choose to do it that way. Still, when new versions of software come out, and they've changed the way basic processes take place, it can be a real drag, because you have to adjust your internal compass to get that easy feeling back. I was initially baffled by some of the Windows XP organization, especially the way the Control Panel functions operated. Of course, they're second nature now, but it took a few months.

For a long time, I didn't think much of the internet. It just didn't seem that interesting to me. With the advent of broadband/T1 connections, though, it's become an indespensible part of my world. I'm online all the the time. If I'm not blogging, I'm downloading stuff, researching, listening to web's crazy. You're absolutely right about the search engines. There's very little you can't find with Google or the like.

Good post.

Bill said...

Firehawk - Thanks.. I hadn't really thought about this until I read that article. I agree, we store like little 'markers' or something mentally so we can 'see'.

Like you when someone asks me how to do something, and I'm not 100% sure, my standard response is "Let me 'drive', I'll show you". I simply get too frustrated trying to think through all the steps, and verbalize them at the same time.

Thanks for your take on all of this.

Beth said...

I would love to be the type to find the answer quickly. My minor pc problems usually take days to fix. I'm just happy when I actually fix them.

I just switched my broadband server and the installer did not know how to get me online again. It was the weirdest thing I've ever watched. I had to show him how to delete mail servers and such. When I finished he said, "Well, I set you all up" and left. I wanted to say, "No, I set me up, you just plugged in the line." lol

Master of None said...

I don't know what you mean about the internet being a time waster!!! Who am I kidding, there's yard work and laundry waiting as we speak because I'm reading (and commenting) blogs.

Spirit Of Owl said...

Funny, it turns out that using THE BIG ORACLE that we call the Internet is a lot like sports or music; success takes talent and practice. Lack either, and you're in trouble.

A smart observational post, there. Weird really. The most fundamentally logical invention ever in the world requires intuition to use, huh? Us techy types know for sure, it really does. :o?

Comfort Addict said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Comfort Addict said...

As a fellow IT guy, I couldn't agree more. I have always been really good at finding things quickly. I also find that I'm relying more on references than before (I don't know if it's old age, more stuff to know or moving into management).

Today, though, I wrote a SQL query off the top of my head (an intermediate table creating AS columns and a GROUP BY on the result) that earned me a "you're the man." That felt good after a day of otherwise managerial junk.

Trevor Record said...

I think that I'm better at remembering things specifically. I have trouble looking through a user's guide for something specific. I've practically memorized the user requirements guide at my work front to back.

Bill said...

Gardening Knitter: You were just that guys knowledge repository... he obviously couldn't use the 'net'... so, he search your knowledgebase :)

Master of None: Exactly... I wrestle with 'time wasting'... but then again, 'this' is like a hobby... and we need hobbies.. right?

Spirit of Owl: I actually sat next to a guy on a plane once, who claimed to have been on the design team for ARPANet, which was the foudation of what we know today as the internet. His comments that day (and I have no idea if it was true, although he was about the right age), said that the design was intended to be intuitive... for those who 'knew'.

Comfort Addict: It's more 'stuff' to know for certain. I know I've lost a little of my 'edge' over the years, but there's a 100, maybe a 1000 more things to consider today... FoxPro's got maybe 1500 reserved words, .Net? 25,000...

As an aside, one of the best compliments I've gotten in the last couple of years was from a young dog with great ability. I was building a reporting app for a Cisco Call Center and wrote a fairly complex SQL statement across two different databases... his comment "I gotta give you props on that one" made my day!

Trevor: What will you do when they revise it, revamp it and change the rules? Not knocking your memory skills, 'cause that's impressive... what about the 're-learn' curve though? Just asking.

No_Newz said...

I sooo know what you mean about taking broadband internet access for granted! Going to the airport and using their signal was smart thinking and cost saving on your part.
Lois Lane

Bill said...

Lois: I know you do! I loved your posts from your recent road trip. I was hoping to see that huge sunflower painting they have in Kansas... I'm going to have to dig mine out so you can look for it on your next trip! Thanks for stopping by

Jay said...

Uh oh. One sentence in, and I just knew this post was totally beyond me. Totally.

Trevor Record said...

That's exactly my problem Bill, I have to re-learn things when they change they change them.

Bill said...

Jay: Sorry.. that was not my intent... hopefully you took away a tid-bit or two anyway!

Trevor: That's what I found too.. first with cars... again with IT/IS stuff.. and why I developed this learn how to look it up thing... it was simply self-preservation!!

Spirit Of Owl said...

You and I so could've been there, and yet we were doing something else at the time. Hmm. Life is more lottery than any of us care to admit.

Bill said...

Spirit of Owl: I've often compared my career in IS as being similar to riding a big carousel, the one’s that used to have the ‘Brass Ring’. I’ve had several chances come around where that ring was in sight, each time I got close, something prevented me from being able to grasp it. Sometimes the cost was just too high in terms of what I’d have to give up, in others I lost focus and simply missed, or miss-timed, my shot. But you are very right, any of us could have “been there”, or could have the chance to “be there”, when that next change is taking place.

I’ve had the chance, over the years, to talk with some pretty successful folks, and nearly all were doing the same thing when things took off… that ‘thing’?... their job… Maybe life is just a big lottery after all!!

Karyn Lyndon said...

I try not to take the Internet for granted. All it takes is being forced offline for a little while and the day seems darker and I feel completely lost. I used to HATE to go to the library for research (I think I was abused by a librarian as a but NOW with internet access, the "world" truly is my oyster. Thank GOD Al Gore invented it.


Bill said...

Karyn - "Al Gore", heh-heh... I doubt he could get on line without help!! He's made a number of bizarre statements, that one has to be at the top of the list though.

I could *never* get the library figured out.. research there seemd to be a forever circular process for me. Thank God I don't have to rely on it any more!!