About 20 years ago, A Japanese fellow named Ikujiro Nonaka postulated the Knowledge Creation Cycle to answer the question: where does the creation of knowledge happen in organizations?
Knowledge itself is intangible, boundaryless, and dynamic. If it is not used at a specific time in a specific place, it is of no value. The use of knowledge requires the concentration of the knowledge resources at a certain space and time. This dynamic and place-sensitive nature of knowledge echoes principles of quantum physics: that something is either a particle or a wave, depending on whether it is observed, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (I could dive deeper by going into epistemology and ontology and Plato and the boys, but I’ll spare you).
Nonaka (and various colleagues) applied the Japanese concept of ぱ, or “ba”, which means place, or a shared context in which knowledge is created, shared, and utilized. It represents a platform for advancing individual and/or collective knowledge in a company. Ba can be physical (office), virtual (email, teleconference), mental (shared experiences, ideas, ideals), or a combination of these.
Nonaka theorized that knowledge creation is a spiraling process of interactions between explicit (words, #’s, data, formulae, manuals, best practices) and tacit (personal, hard to formalize, intuitions, insights, experience, held in relation to values, ideals) knowledge. He modeled this spiral process using the quadrant SECI grid:
S ocialization: sharing b/w individuals
E xternalization articulation and translation of tacit (colleagues, clients, experts) into comprehensible explicit forms (metaphors, narratives, supported by dialogue)
C ombination sorting and conversion of explicit knowledge into complex sets (capturing, integrating, disseminating, editing, processing)
I nternalization conversion of explicit into the organization’s tacit (requires individual to identify knowledge relevant for one’s self within the organization, embodied in action and practice, actualizes concepts about strategy, innovation, improvement)
This model is important because it demonstrates a key cultural difference in the kind of knowledge that is valued in Eastern and Western cultures. Typically, western culture values explicit over tacit: if you can’t write it down and teach it to others, it didn’t happen. There is an emphasis on the combination phase, which can to look like overzealous standardization of procedures, bureaucracy, duplication of efforts, and low efficiency. Workers are praised for the amount of widgets they distribute and outputs they put out, and not the quality of the contribution that has been made. Time is spent more in the planning and strategy phase by decision-makers, and less in wayfinding what works at the direct practice level.
In cultures where tacit knowledge is more valued, personal and professional practice is revered. Ways of knowing something, intuitive guidance through complex issues, and values-based wayfinding are held to greater esteem and given space in organizations.
The take home message of this model, is to not rush to combination phase. It can be likened to a chemically unstable crystallization process. Organizations can introduce a Ba that is conducive to the socialization and externalization phases in complex systems.
So, what does this look like in an organization’s activity? Practical application of the model comes in the form of an organization uniting around a purpose posed in an organizational knowledge strategy, which I will delve into in an upcoming article.
Nonaka, Knowledge Creation Cycle: http://www.cocreativity.com/handouts/nonaka.pdf
Nonaka, I. (1994). A dynamic theory of organizational knowledge creation. Organization Science, 5(1), 14-37.
A Framework for Knowledge Creation – Knowledge Creation 101
Nonaka & Konno (1998). The Concept of “Ba”: Building a Foundation for Knowledge Creation. California Management Review, 40(3), pp. 40-54.