Tacit Knowledge Transfer Makes the News

In the Guardian, October 22 2023, John Naughton writes an article on the complications associated with moving semiconductor manufacturing from Taiwan to the United States. The article and the problems that it describes are pretty interesting.

At the centre of the product is the difficulty of transferring tacit knowledge about chip fabrication. It turns out that documentation on its own doesn’t work very well. What matters most is having people in the same physical space, interacting with each other, and observing how problems are solved and how problem-solving works.

What’s most interesting, to me, is this:

What’s fascinating about all this is how much of it comes down, not to finance or technology, but to people and what they know. In that sense the FT’s deep dive into TSMC’s travails reminded me of a striking piece of research conducted decades ago by the philosopher of science Harry Collins when he was a PhD student. Collins was interested in how knowledge gets transferred and intrigued by a particular piece of technology, the TEA laser. This was a device that was comprehensively documented in the physics literature but which research laboratories were unable to replicate. What Collins discovered was that “nobody could make the laser work if they hadn’t spent time in a laboratory that already had a working laser.

It’s the kind of knowledge that is never written down and yet can be crucial, even in the highest of hi-tech enterprises. And you won’t find it in ChatGPT, either.

John Naughton, “The advanced silicon chips on which the future depends are all made in Taiwan – here’s why that matters”, The Guardian

Harry’s book on this is called Changing Order; well worth a read. There are strong echoes of it in Harry’s later work, Artifictional Intelligence: social interaction and social agency are crucial to solving human problems.

Needless to say, Harry has been profoundly influential on Rapid Software Testing. It’s nice to see him recognized in The Guardian.

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