Panel Paper: Evidence about the Value of Apprenticeships in Helping Public Managers Acquire the Tacit Knowledge Necessary to Produce Results

Friday, November 9, 2018
Harding - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Robert Behn, Harvard University

Traditionally, philosophers and scientists have divided knowledge into two categories: Explicit Knowledge and Tacit Knowledge. Of course, this is not really a knowledge dichotomy but a knowledge spectrum, with very “explicit knowledge” at one end (e.g., Newton’s laws of motion) and very “tacit knowledge” at the other (e.g., Picasso’s artistic sensibilities). Moreover, when people seek to achieve some practical purpose, they will usually need both types of knowledge—indeed, from multiple places along this explicit-tacit spectrum.

For example, an experienced electrical engineer designing a new gizmo employs multiple electronic equations. Simultaneously, this engineer will exploit the tacit knowledge of electronic design that he or she has accumulated through years of experience. An engineer just out of graduate school will possess knowledge that is primarily explicit and will be expected to broaden his or her tacit knowledge by working with experienced professionals in a laboratory.

Similarly, an experienced public manager designing an implementation strategy will employ explicit lessons about motivation and human behavior (many of which were learned in graduate school and professional development courses). Simultaneously, this manager will exploit the tacit knowledge of how people in this specific organization behave, which he or she has acquired through years of experience A manager just out of graduate school will possess knowledge that is primarily explicit and will be expected to gain tacit knowledge by working with experienced professionals in the organization.

In government, the implicit assumption appears to be that neophyte managers accumulate tacit knowledge through their normal work (if, that is, anyone in the organization worries about this challenge of professional development). With this approach, managerial development depends upon each neophyte’s conscious curiosity and focus on mastering the profession. The organization may create in-house courses to develop their managerial cadre and send promising managers to outside programs. But most government jurisdictions and public agencies devote little effort to helping their promising managers to expand their tacit knowledge.

Nevertheless, millennia ago, we humans invented/discovered an effective process for conveying tacit knowledge: the apprenticeship. In the last few centuries, this has been particularly common in crafts. George Washington was an apprentice surveyor; Benjamin Franklin an apprentice printer. Today, moreover, we think of an apprenticeship as a very formal process, sometimes organized or sanctioned by a government, business, or union, and often tying the apprentice to the master for a specific time with specific obligations.

Yet apprenticeships can be informal. And to the extent the public management is a craft—with its most accomplished practitioners having accumulated a wealth of explicit and tacit knowledge—it may make sense for a government jurisdiction or public agency to seek to improve the quality of its management cadre by facilitating, sanctioning, even promoting informal, yet real, apprenticeships (though the “master” could be a “mentor” and the “apprentice” a “mentee”).

This paper will explore the evidence that such an approach to managerial development could prove effective, evidence about the apprenticeship approaches that are most effective, and evidence that such a strategy would benefit the organization.