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Principles in Brief

Personal Knowledge

Philosopher of science Michael Polanyi taught that we only truly know something — that is, have personal knowledge — when we can apply it to get results. We develop personal knowledge by converting conceptual understanding into an effective tool for solving problems, addressing new opportunities and discovering what does and doesn’t work. Developing personal knowledge involves a personal transformation—what Polanyi called, “a self-modifying act of conversion.” Reading a book or watching a video on how to ride a bike can be helpful, but developing personal knowledge requires riding one. Because practice makes permanent, not perfect, you must engage in correct, frequent and prolonged practice.

When you’re just learning how to do something, a template or operating procedure can be necessary and useful. As you study and practice in a particular field, you absorb increasing amounts of specific knowledge, including rules, facts and relationships. This encourages a type of conformity, but at some point, you know these details well enough that you can begin to focus on the whole and innovate, recognizing the limitations of templates and processes.

Discoveries are more likely when you understand the meaning of things because you sense what and when something is wrong, even though you may not always be able to articulate your understanding. You are able to perceive patterns, problems and opportunities — whether researching a new technology or market, operating equipment, interviewing a candidate, screening an acquisition or doing anything with the goal of delivering value to both customers and the company.

Personal knowledge helps you identify gaps between what is and what could be. Even without quantitative data, your intuition might tell you that something is wrong, or something better is possible. This is why we encourage the passionate pursuit of hunches based on personal knowledge. Hunches and intuition can be tough to explain, but that doesn’t make them incorrect. As Polanyi said: “We can know more than we can tell.” Hunches help you develop hypotheses that can be challenged and tested. This can lead to insights, discoveries and new ways of doing things.

Our principle-based framework recognizes that many individuals have deep personal knowledge about aspects of how to produce the product(s) or deliver the service(s) of the organization, but the total knowledge is dispersed. This is why we believe it is impossible for a top-down approach to determine all the necessary activities, methods and changes needed to be successful. Instead, we rely on a shared vision, superior cooperation and a culture where the knowledge of all employees is valued and leveraged to create the greatest long-term value for Koch.