Getting Creative: Explicit and Implicit Knowledge

In this next series on creativity, we’re going to look at the challenges faced in being more creative and some ways you can address those challenges successfully. Why focus on creativity? It’s one of the skills of the 21st century. With more forms of media accessible to more people than ever before, creativity is going to be one of the defining traits of your career and your business success. Creativity is no longer the domain of the “art guy” or the “creative director”; creativity operates at all levels of business and marketing, from strategic plans to blog posts to Tweets to ads.

Chihuly Glass Museum - Seattle

Before we tackle that, however, we need to examine how creativity works. Creativity has been a topic of study for thousands of years, from ancient Chinese and Greek philosophers to modern neuroscience, and we’ve still not cracked just how creativity works in a scientific, repeatable, broadly applicable fashion.

The current theories and beliefs about creativity center around the neurology of the brain and how we deal with information. Broadly speaking, psychologists Sebastien Helie (UCSB) and Ron Sun (RPI) published research in 2010 that defines our knowledge in two types. Explicit knowledge is rule-based, verbal knowledge, while implicit knowledge is holistic, symbolic, non-verbal knowledge. To put this in less abstract terms, explicit knowledge is the information in a cookbook. Implicit knowledge is the information and experience in master chef’s head after decades of practice. Both are valuable and essential.

In past research, psychologists have classified these types of knowledge as being left-brain or right-brain, but Helie and Sun diversify our understanding of these knowledge types by suggesting that they are also related to conscious processing and subconscious processing. The reason for this distinction is that concrete (left-brain) and abstract (right-brain) processing can occur consciously and subconsciously. You can, for example, think abstractly about verbal knowledge, such as trying to write today’s blog post. You can also think concretely about abstract knowledge, such as what you’re going to paint or the piece of music you’re going to compose. Going back to the earlier example, a master chef can read a recipe and pull information from his implicit knowledge, augmenting the explicit knowledge. Conversely, a chef can take a recipe he knows by heart and transcode it to explicit knowledge, writing a new recipe that can be shared with others from his experiences.

In the past, there was a belief that one form of processing was dominant, that people were either left-brain people or right-brain people, and that they struggled with “the other side”. The reality, proven out through experimentation, is that we are all hybrids (with the exception of people who have sustained or were born with significantly diminished corpus callosum) who process subconsciously and consciously all the time, who integrate left and right brain thinking all the time, and that we are most successful in our creative efforts when we engage all of the different ways that we think.

In the next few posts in this series, we’ll explore some ways to work with both explicit and implicit knowledge to maximize creativity, from thought exercises to routines to ideas you can use and share for creative work.

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology


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