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Ikujiro Nonaka: Knowledge Management

Ikujiro Nonaka has been described by a long-term colleague and collaborator as the ‘Father of Knowledge Management’. He takes a radical view – in the true sense of radical: he goes to the route of how we acquire, create and share knowledge.

Ikujiro Nonaka

Very Short Biography

Ikujiro Nonaka was born in 1935 and grew up in Tokyo. He studied political science at Waseda University, gaining his BS in 1958. He started work that year at Fuji Electric, where his principal accomplishment was to create their management programme. He went on to further develop this, in alliance with Keio University.

Nonaka left Fuji in 1967, to study in the United States, at the University of California, Berkeley. He was awarded his MBA in 1968, and his PhD in Business Administration, in 1972. He took posts at US universities (Claremont Graduate University and then the Haas Business School at UC Berkeley), before returning to Japan, as a professor at the Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy, Hitotsubashi University.

There he collaborated with another staff member, whom he had known as a grad student at Berkeley, Hirotaka Takeuchi. It was the latter who describes Nonaka as the ‘Father of Knowledge Management’.

The Knowledge Creating Company

Together, Nonaka and Takeuchi have written numerous articles, and the highly influential 1995 book, The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation. Two of their Harvard Business Review articles have been particularly influential:

A more recent article is also well-worth reading:

At the heart of Nonaka’s thinking is the rejection of the common view of Knowledge Management as fundamentally an IT function. The data management part of knowledge management is a minor – indeed, incidental – component. The fundamental part is the creation and sharing of knowledge, which takes place via the relationships between people.

He therefore asserts that spending tens, or hundreds of thousands of dollars on technology systems misses this essential truth and argues that true knowledge creating companies are ones with a generous community feel.

Ba

‘Ba’ is a word Nonaka coined to mean a meeting place for minds. Whilst it can be a physical space within the organisation, Nonaka sees it more as a mental state, where people are able to share and create knowledge together. He likens the concept to that offlow – in the sense that both are states of total focus and immersion. However, unlike flow, Ba is a shared mental state.

The SECI Model

Nanak and Takeuchi’s most notable contribution is their SECI Model of how knowledge transforms in organisations. Regular readers of Pocketblog will know just how much we love models, so here goes.

The SECI Model - Nanaka & Takeuchi
The SECI Model – Nanaka & Takeuchi

The SECI Model is a representation of the dynamic way that knowledge flows from explicit to implicit and back. It sets out to unite the Western preference for Explicit knowledge (‘Know why’ or, to use the ancient Greek term, ‘episteme’) and the Japanese focus on tacit knowledge (‘know how’, or ‘techne’).

Nanaka and Takeuchi start their cycle with social knowledge sharing to build tacit knowledge and move around to internalization of explicit knowledge to make it implicit, or tacit. They then see that knowledge being shared, restarting the cycle (they originally drew it as a continuos spiral, but I prefer the loop metaphor). At each stage, knowledge is converted, and made more useful.

Phronesis

In his latest work, Nanaka draws the ancient Greek analogies of episteme and techne, and highlights a third sort of wisdom that the ancients cherished: ‘phronesis’, or ‘practical wisdom’. He describes phronesis as the wisdom to know what must be done – judgement, if you like. He sees this as the antidote to an overly rigid focus on theoretical know-why knowledge, or practical, know-how. In Aristotelian ethics, phronesis is usually seen as rational thinking and prudent judgement.

Nonaka thus connects up knowledge management with leadership.  Phroneis gives us a clearer understanding of how our organisation relates to the rest of the world: purpose, choices, actions. This can give the organisation a resilience that a less self-aware organisation will lack. Nonaka argues that phronetic leaders can foster improved judgement and decision-making by creating a culture of sharing, nurturing, and creating knowledge through informal social connections: ‘Ba’.

Nonaka in his Own Words

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The Fertile Mind of Edward de Bono

The Green Hat Fits

Without a doubt, one of the most fertile minds in personal and management effectiveness of the late Twentieth Century is Edward de Bono.  His almost constant stream of books about thinking skills (approaching 60 to date – the latest is Think!: Before It’s Too Late) has provided insight, provocation, practical skills and frustrating verbiage by turns.  The fact is that I’m a sucker for his books and have 17 on my shelf.  Many have inspired me.

Green is One of Six

Perhaps de Bono’s two most famous titles are The Use of Lateral Thinking (1967 – and the several similar follow-up titles) and Six Thinking Hats(1985).

Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats

Six Thinking Hats is the one I frequently return to – both in my own thinking and in offering it as a valuable tool to workshop participants.  In a nutshell, de Bono advocates deploying different thinking modes to examine an issue, consider a decision or work on a problem from different points of view.

The Green Hat – Creativity

Put this on to think innovatively, creatively, and from a new perspective.

Yellow Hat – Positive

Put this on to think constructively, develop ideas, identify benefits and find practical ways to implement them.

Black Hat – Judgement

Put this on to evaluate risks, downsides and problems with an idea and evaluate it critically to protect us from mistakes.

White Hat – Factual

Put this on to focus on facts, evidence and logical analysis of the situation.

Red Hat – Feeling

Put this on for one of two reasons: to think intuitively and also to use your emotional response to generate and evaluate ideas.

Blue Hat – Process

Put this on to direct your team’s and your own thinking process; to provide an orderly structure for problem-solving, decision-making and evaluation, using all of the hats to see the topic in all possible ways.

The Thinking Hats Controversy

I don’t want to take sides: I don’t have a basis to do so.  But it is worth noting that Dr Michael Hewitt-Gleeson puts forward a case that the idea was developed not by de Bono, but by the directors of The Edward de Bono School of Thinking Inc – now defunct – but which Hewitt-Gleeson argues is the predecessor of his own School of Thinking.

What I do agree with Hewitt-Gleeson on is his rather lovely suggestion for a seventh hat.

The Grey Hat

Hewitt-Gleeson proposes a Grey Thinking Hat for Wisdom and I love the idea.  In his words:

Grey Hat Thinking is the ability to see consequences, immediate, short term and long term. It is the ability to look back over history and to see forward into the future. To understand cycles, passages of time, the passing of fashions, eras, eons and the many possible futures including extinction, the possibility of no future at all.

‘Grey Hat Thinking also means the wisdom to see other points of view. It includes the sagacity of patience to see beyond one’s own immediate viewpoint and the wisdom to see the viewpoints of others involved in situations: your partner’s viewpoint, your children’s, your children’s children, your neighbour’s, your customer’s, your enemy’s.’

From School of Thinking: Seventh Hat for Wisdom

Wisdom is a topic of great interest to me and, from now on, I intend to add The Grey Hat to my descriptions and credit it clearly.

Grey Thinking Hat of Wisdom

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