Open-ended style knowledge

2019-09-01 ☼ StyleOrganizationsDesign

Part 2 in a series on the organizational implications of open-ended style. You can find Part 1—a definition of open-ended style—here.


A business that can repeatedly make new products which nonetheless feel familiar has implemented style which distinguishes and marks its output but which is open-ended because it marks not only a static set of already-produced products but admits new products to the set too. Open-ended style contains a paradox—it must simultaneously be the same as and different from what came before. Though open-ended style seems paradoxical in nature, we have seen evidence of it in work ranging from van Gogh’s paintings, to Shakespeare’s plays, to Giacometti’s sculptures, to Wes Anderson’s films, to the buildings designed by Frank Gehry’s architecture studio, to the consumer electronics designed by Apple. Having to innovate within an open-ended style is a constraint; the payoff of working within this constraint is innovation that feels familiar.

Making new things constrained by a style requires the maker to recognize when something—a decision about how to proceed, an intermediate work product—is (or isn’t) appropriate to that style. Gehry is talking about these kind of appropriateness judgments when he says, you’re bringing an informed aesthetic point of view to a visual problem. You have freedom, so you have to make choices—and at the point when I make a choice, the building starts to look like a Frank Gehry building: It’s a signature.”

Appropriateness judgments aren’t always at the level of conscious decision-making. Most often, they’re decisions born out of intuition, decisions so small and apparently trivial that they appear to have no individual effect. A furnituremaker makes an appropriateness judgment when she moves the blockplane twice more (but not thrice more) over a particular spot when shaping a compound curve. A cook makes an appropriateness judgment when he dips his hand into the salt and sprinkles this much (and no more) into the saute pan. The author of a piece of software makes an appropriateness judgment when she stores the data for a process here (and not there), making that process slightly faster (or slower). The vast majority of these decisions may not even appear to be decisions. But when they accumulate, their mass can have the familiar shape of a distinctive style.

Regardless of whether they’re conscious or not, appropriateness judgments are the result of an individual processing an amorphous mass of knowledge. What we know not only gives us the ability to take action but also determines whether we act in particular ways. We do the things we do, the way we do them, because of what we individually know.

Style is relevant only for products that must be familiar.Style is relevant only for products that must be familiar.

The knowledge problem in style

Knowledge is the fundamental problem of style, and it has several successively greater levels of conceptual difficulty in terms of how style knowledge is disseminated among its users. Level 1 (the easiest) is what an individual maker faces in taking action and making things infused with a distinctive style. A painter, a musician, an author working alone answers only to his or her own inclinations, whether or not those inclinations can be consciously interrogated. S/he must develop a style but no one else needs to understand it for the style-infused work to be produced.

Style becomes more complicated in its implications when it is being implemented not by an individual but by a group of people who must separately and jointly take action to make style-infused things. The foundational problem is that an organization’s members must have shared knowledge of its distinctive style to produce objects infused with that style.

Hard … but not so hard: The closed-ended style knowledge problem

Closed-ended style applies when style characterizes a pre-defined set of objects to which no new objects need be admitted. Closed-ended style is thus what distinguishes what I call traditional products (see the upper-left corner of the usual 2x2 above) which consumers value because they remain unchanged over time. Under these circumstances, the knowledge problem of style is Level 2 hard. The organization must develop a style that applies to each object in the set, then ensure that each member understands what these objects should look and feel like. This is hard in practice … but not hard in concept. To develop the formula for Coca-Cola is difficult, to produce lots of Coca-Cola that all tastes more or less the same is practically challenging (secret formulas, international supply chains, etc) but conceptually straightforward. A manual (a style manual?) with precise specifications is the usual solution to this problem.

Very hard indeed: The open-ended style knowledge problem

Style creates the hardest organizational knowledge problems when it is open-ended. Open-endedness implies that the set of objects connected by the characteristics of style has no pre-determined limit; it admits new instances that are not necessarily foreseen in the existing set. An organization attempting to use open-ended style to create familiar innovations faces a knowledge problem that is conceptually and qualitatively much more difficult to solve or even to talk about.

An innovation which is genuinely novel is definitionally uncertain—it cannot be predefined or understood fully (or even mostly) in advance. You can’t have a style manual that precisely specifies an object which hasn’t yet been developed or even conceived. The open-ended style knowledge needed to generate new things that still feel familiar cannot be articulated because the new things don’t exist yet.

Despite this, organizations are demonstrably able to create series of familiar innovations (the Apple hardware design team’s consumer electronics, Merchant Ivory’s portfolio of films, the art of Gilbert & George, games by Maxi, etc). These organizations can do this because their members have somehow developed a shared understanding of the open-ended style knowledge unique to each organization—what Harry Collins and his colleagues call collective tacit knowledge. This knowledge allows each member to act in ways which his or her colleagues find appropriate despite unpredictably changing contexts and demands. Crucially, the unpredictability of these contextually appropriate actions means that the collective tacit knowledge which enables such actions can never be fully explicated. For this reason, collective tacit knowledge is theorized to be the only type of tacit knowledge which permanently resists explication.

It seems indisputable that collective tacit knowledge exists and makes it possible to create familiar innovations—these are of enormous importance for organizations, especially those in creative industries. Collective tacit knowledge is a source of robust competitive advantage. But we actually know almost nothing practically useful about collective tacit knowledge, which is why it is Level 3 hard. What actually is it? And if it cannot be articulated, how do teams of people communicate it and learn it among themselves? Organizational and strategic success is likely to hinge on understanding what collective tacit knowledge is, and how teams can manage that knowledge internally.


Some graspings toward answers to these two questions to come in Part 3 of this series on the organizational implications of open-ended style. Meanwhile, to understand more about the distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge, and the different types of tacit knowledge, you could take a look at Harry Collins’s admirably compact book, Tacit and Explicit Knowledge.