Skills and Tacit Knowledge

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

SkillConcept description

Merriam-Webster defines skill as “the ability to do something that comes from training, experience, or practice.”

In public management, skill is often associated with effective execution. Indeed, the fuller Merriam-Webster definition of skill includes “the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance.”

Most of the material on the Atlas of Public Management deals with ideas, conceptual models and intellectual frameworks rather than skills. However, some of the Atlas subjects, topics and concepts are highly skills-intensive and could be considered to be describe skills at three different levels:

Teaching skills in professional programs

As Bob Behn explains (reference below) developing public management skills involves the acquisition of both explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge:

“Scientific knowledge” is “explicit knowledge.” It is precise and thus can be explicated in mathematical formulas, textbooks, blueprints, procedures, and manuals. It can be converted into a system. It can be stored, retrieved, and used again, exactly as it was used before, whether that was yesterday, last year, or centuries ago. … explicit knowledge is much easier to teach and to learn than “tacit knowledge.” For tacit knowledge cannot be precisely codified. As Michael Polanyi, who first articulated the concept of tacit knowledge famously explained: “We can know more than we can tell.” Or, to phrase that in reverse, “We cannot tell everything we know.” If we know things that we cannot “tell” – cannot “explain” – how is it possible for us to “teach” this knowledge to others? How can others learn, “understand,” and “use” this knowledge?

Given the crucial role of tacit knowledge in skills acquisition, the matter of how best to address skills development is a perennial question in professional programs. As the late Richard Neustadt (reference below) explained in a note to students in the early years of the Harvard MPP, “we cannot teach you in the classroom to be operationally skillful on the job. Skills are acquired by doing; learning takes place on the job… [but, nevertheless] …”we may be able in the instance of some skills to reduce time required for your learning-on-the-job by classroom exercises which acquaint you in advance with what there is to learn.”

We hope that topic-level and concept-level skills pages on the Atlas can, in the spirit of Richard Neustadt, acquaint students in advance of what there is to learn on the job, and can be useful as sources and reminders once students become practitioners.

Source at, accessed 13 February 2016.

Bob Behn (2016), On why all results-producing performance leaders need to remember – Apprenticeships Best Convey Tacit Knowledge, Bob Behn’s Performance Leadership Report, Vol 13, No 5, January 2016, at, accessed 26 January 2017.

Richard Neustadt, 1971, Operational Skills, Note to Students in PP240, at, accessed 10 February 2016.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Leadership and Communication (core topic) in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 12 April 2016.

Image:, at, accessed 13 February 2016.