Tacit vs. Explicit Knowledge and the PMP exam


I was going to do a post on the outputs of the Process 4.4 Manage Project Knowledge which I have blogging about over the past few days. However, my laptop computer has decided to start a seemingly interminable series of software updates, so I thought I would take advantage of my smartphone and write a relatively shorter post.

I discussed in a previous post about the distinction between explicit knowledge, the kind you can get from reading a book or watching a video, and tacit knowledge, the kind you can get only from experience. How do you share this kind of knowledge? Through conversations and interactions with people. As a Toastmaster, I can tell you the best way I have found to convey this kind of information is through a story or anecdote.

The first level of certification for project management is called Certified Associate in Project Management. This requires explicit knowledge about project management processes as laid out in the PMBOK Guide. However, you can pass the exam without having any actual experience on a project, just explicit or “book” knowledge.

However, the higher level of certification, the Project Management Professional or PMP, does require tacit knowledge or actual experience as a project manager. This requirement is in he form of a certain number of hours of experience required.

But the written exam also tries to test for tacit knowledge, which is harder than testing for explicit knowledge. How do you write a question that tests whether you have internalized the lessons of being a good manager through hard-won experience?

This is where the scenario question comes into play. This is a question that describes a situation through explicit details about a hypothetical project you are on as a project manager. Then it will ask you what to do next, or what is the best course of action? Of course this is not a free-form answer like an essay question–it is a multiple-choice question so you are given four possibilities to choose from.

What you are expected to know is tacit knowledge about project knowledge in the form of assumptions informally called “PMI-isms”. For example, in the area of change management:

  • Avoid unnecessary changes to the project scope
  • When you receive a change request from upper management, your next task is analyze the impacts of that change on the project’s constraints (usually time and cost).

These are assumptions, and if you know them then you can answer such a scenario question even if you have not had the particular experience described in that scenario.

However, assumptions such as the first one may not be true in certain situations–avoiding unnecessary changes is a mindset that is definitely NOT present in agile project management. An additional assumption in agile project management is that you need to prioritize the various constraints in terms of there importance to the customer at the beginning of the project to help guide the decision process after the analysis listed on the second bullet point above is complete.

That is why I liked studying with the Rita Mulcahy PMP Exam Prep study guide when I was helping our study group prepare for the exam back in 2012. It had an entire section devoted to these PMI-isms because understanding them will help you pass the exam. Whatever textbook you use, make sure it spends some time on these assumptions, because they contain the tacit knowledge PMI wants you to have as a project manager!

Well, assuming my computer updates itself in the next 24 hours, I will return to my regularly scheduled post, outputs of the process 4.4 Manage Project Management, tomorrow.

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