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Dealing with tacit knowledge

When developing a new service, the users will pass on to us their explicit knowledge, i.e. knowledge of procedures and data that is at the front of their minds and that they can easily articulate. A major problem when eliciting requirements is that of tacit knowledge, i.e. those other aspects of the work that a user is unable to articulate or explain.

Some common elements that cause problems and misunderstandings are:

  • Skills – explaining how to carry out actions using words alone is extremely difficult.
  • Taken-for-granted information – even experienced and expert business users may fail to mention information or clarify terminology, and the analyst may not realize that further questioning is required.
  • Front-story/back-story – this issue concerns a tendency to frame a description of current working practices, or a workplace, in order to give a more positive view than is actually the case.
  • Future systems knowledge – if the study is for a new service development, with no existing expertise or knowledge in the organization, how can the prospective users know what they want?
  • The difficulty of an outsider assuming a common language for discourse, and common norms of communication. (If they do not have this, then the scope for misrepresentation of the situation can grow considerably.)
  • Intuitive understanding, usually born of considerable experience. Decision makers are often thought to follow a logical, linear path of enquiry while making their decisions. In reality though, as improved decision-making skills and knowledge are acquired, the linear path is often abandoned in favour of intuitive pattern recognition.
  • Organizational culture – without an understanding of the culture of an organization, the requirements exercise may be flawed.

Communities of practice are discrete groups of workers – maybe related by task, by department, by geographical location or some other factor – that have their own sets of norms and practices, distinct from other groups within the organization and the organization as a whole.

  Tacit Explicit
Individual Skills, values, taken-for-granted, intuitiveness Tasks, job descriptions, targets, volumes and frequencies
Corporate Norms, back-story, culture, communities of practice Procedures, style guides, processes, knowledge sharing

Table 5.1 Requirements engineering – tacit and explicit knowledge

Example levels of tacit and explicit knowledge:

Technique Explicit knowledge Tacit knowledge Skills Future requirements
Interviewing X
Shadowing X
Workshops X
Scenario analysis X
Protocol analysis X

Table 5.2 Requirements engineering; examples of tacit and explicit knowledge (Maiden and Rugg, 1995)

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