"Tacit" and "explicit" knowledge at the Portuguese Ministry of Education

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The emergence of “explicit knowledge” in the post-bureaucratic reorganization of the Ministry of Education: the role of “specialists committees”.

As previously stated, in order to characterize from an epistemological point of view the type of knowledge mobilized by the different entities, we have used the categories of "explicit knowledge" (communicated in a formal and systematic language) and "tacit knowledge" (which, by nature are difficult to formalize and communicate) [1].

In light of these categories, the "bodies" under study [2], despite showing at times their capacity to mobilize some "explicit knowledge", are characterized overall by the use of "tacit knowledge". We mean here an empirical knowledge, generated from its ‘processes of organization’ and circulating in the spaces of its various activities. However, we must underline that this study on "specialists’ committees" [3] (in particular the "school evaluation working group") draws us to conclude that they seem to differ from the central structures of the Ministry of Education in that they more significantly mobilize a type of knowledge that we qualify as "explicit".

This situation is a direct product of the nature of these committees, which tend to recruit its members amongst specialists within its domains of activity. And as specialists they mobilize in their work the "formal knowledge" that they have acquired in their academic and/or professional experience.

Yet, based on the conclusions of this study, it is possible to infer that the central role of these committees, in the mobilization of knowledge for decision-making, basically consists in a mediation process between the two types of knowledge stated hereunder. This mediation takes place in two ways: first, through the "externalization of tacit knowledge"; and second, through the "internalization of explicit knowledge” [4].

The first case refers to a phenomenon similar to what Schriewer (2001) describes as "externalization". It refers to the systematic use of international references and the "lessons learnt abroad", whose function is to supplement, through policy argumentation, the insufficiency or deficiency of the national examples (traditions, beliefs, forms of organization). Similarly, we see committees attempt to use "explicit knowledge" produced in international venues or specialized knowledge centers to legitimize and argue in favor of more informal and "implicit" knowledge supporting the political options that originally served as the basis of committees or which represented the administration’s practical knowledge. This "convergence" of the different types of knowledge is the product of the criteria used to select the specialists who will form the committee. It is also the result of the coexistence of administrators and academics inside these committees.

In this case, we thus seem be witnessing what Nowotny, Scott and Gibbons (cited by Laws, D. and Hajer, M., 2006) call “negotiated knowledge”, a knowledge produced by the “interaction amongst researchers and between researchers and non-researchers” (p.416). This knowledge is the result of the need that researchers “have to negotiate their work and credibility both in the circles of their own scientific communities and in the world of policy-makers” (idem).

In the second case, the committees mobilize "explicit knowledge" in order to construct models and applied systems of practice transferred from actual actions. In this process, specialists assume the role of what Hatchuel (2005, p.86) describes as "prescriptors". In this capacity, they enjoin the actors to conform to the rules and instruments that fit the collective action, thereby likening their functions to those traditionally attributed to the techno-structure.

As visibly noted in the study on the "School Evaluation Working Group", this explicit knowledge tends to become tacit not only as a consequence of the intervention of external appraisers, but also as a result of the dynamics of appropriation of school actors , who are called upon to apply the evaluation instruments and react to their results.

[1] It is important to stress that the use of these categories is only instrumental in order to identify the two types of knowledge. We do not consider here the debate on these authors’ principles concerning the process of knowledge creation in the organizations, nor their "theory of explicitness" which is related to the transitions between tacit and explicit knowledge (see Lorino, 2005, pp. 68-69).

[2] We have studied the following bodies: Central Services of the Ministry of Education - DGRHE (General Board of Human Resources for Education), GAVE (Educational Evaluation Office), GEPE (Statistics and Educational Planning Office), IGE (General Inspection of Education); two teacher unions - FENPROF (National Federation of Teachers) and FNE (National Federation of Education Workers).

[3] The name “specialists’ committees” used in this Report covers the different organizational forms that range from more formal “working groups” that encompass personalities and institutional representatives to more flexible teams of specialists contacted individually. For example: The ‘School Evaluation Working Group; ‘Working Group on School Autonomy Project’; ‘Artistic Education Evaluation Study Team; etc.

[4] This is an inference that, although empirically supported by the data, must nevertheless be considered as provisional and prospective. In reality, it would be necessary to appeal here, in the picture of an "epistemology of the action" (Hatchuell, 2005), to the study of the “grammars" existing inside the committees to understand the way that, in these cases, the collective action built the knowledge.

  • LORINO Phillipe (2005), Théories des organisations, sens et action: le cheminement historique, du rationalisme à la genèse instrumentale des organisations, In : Teulier Regine & Lorino Philipe (ed.), Entre connaissance et organisation: l’action collective. L’entreprise face au défi de la connaissance, Paris: La Découverte.
  • HATCHUEL Armand (2005), Pour une épistémologie de l’action. L’expérience des sciences de gestion, In : Teulier Régine & Lorino Philippe (ed.), Entre connaissance et organisation: l’action collective. L’entreprise face au défi de la connaissance, Paris: La Découverte.
  • LAWS David & HAJER Maarten (2006), Policy in practice, in Moran Michel, Rein Martin & Goodin Robert E, The Oxford Handbook of Public Policy, New York : Oxford University Press.
  • SCHRIEWER Jürgen (2001), Formas de Externalização no Conhecimento Educacional, Cadernos Prestige 5, Lisboa: EDUCA.

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