Practical Knowledge - The How to the What

Knowing how to apply knowledge is more important than the knowledge itself

by Madelyn Blair, PhD.

David Brooks is one of my favorite thinkers.  His January 14 editorial in the New York Times was called The Leadership Revival.  He wrote about how we might begin to revive the leadership qualities that we need in our political system.  What attracted me, in particular, was his use of the words ‘practical knowledge.’  This is what he said:

“Practical knowledge is hard to see, but it is embedded in traditions of behavior. It is embedded in the lives of older legislators and public servants, and it is passed down by imitation to the younger ones.”

We often speak of tacit knowledge (as opposed to explicit knowledge), and we have done so for so long that the words have begun to lose their effect.  But the phrase ‘practical knowledge’ offers an opportunity to see why this kind of knowledge – that is impossible to capture fully in words – is essential to learning fully how to use the volumes of explicit knowledge we read, teach, or hear.

In another example, I was reading from a small book called The Little Book of Talent  by Daniel Coyle. In it, he describes how powerful observing something again and again, embeds that something in our brains so well that we are able to imitate what we have seen at a remarkable level even if we have never done it before.  He writes about a tennis teacher and author who:

“Without uttering a word, Gallwey began to hit a forehand while the woman watched.  He directed her attention to his feet, his grip, and the rhythm of the stroke.  The woman watched intently, then began to emulate his moves.  Within twenty minutes, she was hitting a shockingly decent forehand.”

Brooks’ admonition is to “find a wise old person who will teach you the tricks of the trade, hour after hour, side by side.”

Governing, tennis, playing the violin, running a meeting, looking for patterns in data, interviewing candidates for a position – all involve knowing how to use the technical knowledge we have learned in other places.

When was the last time you had the luxury to be in the presence of a master of the ‘how’ and the time to simply watch her?  Who are masters in your world today who might show you how it is done? How will you create the opportunity to watch him or her?


Madelyn Blair, PhD., is the founder of Pelerei and has been its president since its inception in 1988.  She is expert in the fields of organizational development, knowledge management, instructional design, and research technique.  Madelyn is a longtime friend of the KM Institute, and a featured speaker at the upcoming KM Institute Solutions Showcase, March 27, 2014 - Info and Registration Here.