Writing by Peter Hilton

Capturing what’s in your head

The decision-making tacit knowledge problem - 17 March 2021 #NoCode

Birthday cake

unsplash-logoAnnie Spratt

Most professionals lack a tool for capturing how they make decisions, and routinely do complex reasoning in their head. No-code tools increasingly give them a way to capture that tacit decision-making knowledge.

Decision-free cookery

Recipes (for cooking) present a familiar form of written instructions that capture what you might otherwise only find in your ancestral cook’s head. We know how to write down a cookery book recipe, and don’t have much trouble following one.

Cooking doesn’t look like the general case, though, because you don’t have to make decisions while following a recipe that affect the rest of the recipe. You only have to evaluate whether you have completed a step: brown the onions without burning them, for example. Cookery books, on the other hand, combine recipes and (without loss of generality) let you make two decisions:

  1. Which kind of dish do you want to make: salad or cake?
  2. Which of the photographed cakes do you want to eat?

But if you had to make a yes/no decision after each of eight steps, instead of a linear eight-step recipe, you’d now have 255 possible steps and 127 possible conditions. It might not take much longer to complete an eight-step recipe, depending on the seven decisions’ complexity, but you’d need a lot of pages in the cookery book.

Making decisions ‘in your head’

Real-world jobs tend to involve more decisions than baking a cake does. Their decision-making complexity looks more like a decision tree with hundreds of steps and conditions than a birthday cake. At this point programmers start writing code to capture the logic; a non-programmer asks questions as they go.

If you go to see the doctor, or go to a cocktail bar, assuming you don’t frequent the kind of place that has a ‘menu’, you’ll need to talk to an expert who can figure out what you need. They’ll ask you twenty questions (or fewer) and use their expertise to select suitable medication. You’ll notice that they don’t refer to written instructions or computer assistance: when it comes to complex decision-making, most experts train for the ability to do it in their head.

Decision trees for non-programmers

As a non-programmer, you still might benefit from capturing your expert knowledge in a decision tree, to automate routine work, train colleagues, or discuss and improve this decision-making. However, few kinds of experts do this, for various reasons that have as much to do with history as feasibility.

Intriguingly, most experts have never seen a decision management tool, let alone actually used one. Most professions resist the idea that technology might make it possible to systematically describe some of their members’ decisions. But this leads to precisely the opportunity for no-code decision management tools that give subject matter experts a way to capture some of the expertise in their head.