Panel Paper: The Tacit Knowledge of Public Management: How Experienced Public Managers Use Stories to Acquire, Create, Illustrate, Understand, and Use Their Tacit Knowledge

Thursday, November 7, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Plaza Court 5 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Robert D. Behn, Harvard University

Through experience, public managers accumulate a breath and depth of practical knowledge, often captured in stories connecting purposes, problems, circumstances, choices, and actions to results. They further build their strategic knowledge by analyzing the work of colleagues, also seeking to capture their strategic, cause-and-effective relationships in stories.

The analytical objective of such stories is to understand which strategies produce meaningful results in which situations—and how. Much of this cause-and-effect knowledge is primarily tacit contained not in complex algorithms or even in simple rules. Instead, this tacit knowledge is best captured and illustrated through stories.

If the manager’s knowledge is explicit, he or she can offer a clear, cause-and-effect explanation of how the strategy works in certain circumstances (and why it doesn’t it others). If, however, a manager has acquired through experience only the ability to sense (but not explain) when a specific strategy will work or not work, this knowledge is essentially tacit.

Learning the Tacit Knowledge of Public Management

Public managers seek to build—through practice, observation, and analysis—a repertoire of professional strategies. They may codify some of this knowledge in an explicit collection of expected behaviors, even rules. The rest, however, will be primarily tacit, useful only to skilled practitioners. For no one can explain these tacit practices—not even the most skilled professional (including the boss).

Many such practices—the does and the don’ts—are unique to the organization, reflecting its purpose, authority, and constraints plus the idiosyncracies or wisdom of its founder (or current leader). Some are professional courtesies: “Never talk back to a legislator at a public hearing.” Others are more sophisticated and complex.

To expand his or her pool of knowledge, a professional constantly analyzes the work of colleagues, attempting to understand their strategies plus whether (and how) they produce meaningful results. The manager also analyzes his or her own practices and strategies—seeking to also understand their causal connection to the results they do (or don’t) produce. The manager will codify some of this knowledge into an explicit collection of expected behaviors, even rules. Much of the manager’s professional knowledge is, however, strictly tacit, even that employed by the field’s most respected practitioners.

Understanding the Tacit Knowledge of Public Management?

Much tacit knowledge is: [1] Captured by Converting Experiences into Stories; [2] Recalled by Remembering a Story or Stories; [3] Explained by Telling a Story; and [4] Employed by Matching (as much as possible) the characteristics of the current managerial problem to a different problem captured by a Remembered Story with some conceptually similar (though never identical) features..

Stories Contain and Convey Lessons

This paper proposes a framework for exploring, analyzing, and appreciating how professional public managers acquire and employ their tacit knowledge. It examines how such professional tacit knowledge is acquired by observing a story, by participating in a “story,” by listening to a “story,” or by debating different versions of “the story.”