SECI & ‘Ba’ Frameworks – Misunderstood

From Nonaka & Konno 1998


In order to understand the SECI framework one needs to read these articles and book written by Ikujiro Nonaka and his collaborators.  The SECI model is very easy to mis-interpret.  Simply put, Nonaka and his collaborators intent was to explain why and how Japanese companies were so successful in creating innovative products and fostering creative ideas in the workplace.  It seems to me that too much of time people believe they were developing theoritical frameworks which I don’t think was their purpose.

  1. The Knowledge-Creating Company, Ikujiro Nonaka, Harvard Business Review, 1991 and reprinted in 2007.
  2. The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation, Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi, Oxford University Press, 1995.
  3. The concept of “Ba”: Building a foundation for knowledge creation,  Ikujiro Nonaka and Noboru Konno, California Management Review, Spring 1998.

In 1991 Nonaka described the ‘knowledge spiral’ with copious examples from innovative Japanese firms: Sharp, Honda, Matsushita, Canon.  He did not use the now famous model/diagram but he did define tacit and explicit knowledge and describe the 4 knowledge transfer processes: tacit-to-tacit, tacit-explicit, explicit-to-tacit, and explicit-to-explicit.  This is not an academic theory.  It is an explanatory framework to describe what can be observed in these companies.  The “knowledge spiral” is actually not the primary focus of the article.  The focus is the importance of motivating employees, the use of metaphor, analogy and models and the interaction of front-line employees, middle-management and senior management.  The central role of the middle manager is high-lighted as vital for the knowledge-creating company.   The importance of redundancy in an organization to allow employees to have the freedom to innovate and the time to explore is vital for the knowledge creating company.

In 1995 Nonaka and Takeuchi used the SECI model for the first time in an English language publication.  The model has been used over and over and modified by many different knowledge management practitioners.  It is unfortunate that people don’t stick to the original model.  The purpose of this book is to explain how Japanese companies are different from western companies and how this leads them to more innovative.  Is this true?  I’m not sure, but I am confident that this is the overlying purpose of the book as is explained on the very first page, ‘we make the claim that Japanese companies have been successful because of their skills and expertise at ‘organizational knowledge creation’.  They are more successful because they approach business from a philosophically different way from western corporations which vastly improves a Japanese companies ‘organizational knowledge creation’ processes.

From Nonaka & Konno 1998

From Nonaka & Konno 1998

In 1998 Nonaka and Koona expanded the SECI framework with the concept of ‘Ba’, 場、ば。 See the diagram.  I think this really pulls the whole SECI framework together but it is not discussed much in KM literature.  I suspect because it is too mystical for most westerners.

1.  Originating ‘Ba’ – emerging care, love, trust, and commitment.  Corresponds to Socialization in the SECI model.

2.  Interacting ‘Ba’ – depends on sharing mental models and being aware of one’s own mental model, extensive dialogue between peers, extensive use of metaphors to enhance understanding.  Corresponds to Externalization in the SECI model.

3. Cyber ‘Ba’ – a place of interaction in a virtual world instead of real space and time.  Corresponds to Combination in the SECI model.

4.  Exercising ‘Ba’ – facilitates the conversion of explicit knowledge to tacit knowledge.  It depends upon learning through action in many cases.  Corresponds to Internalization in the SECI model.

Five dimensions of care need to take place for ‘Ba’ to exist in a network.  All of these dimensions relate closely to the giving and receiving of trust between individuals and groups.

  • Mutual trust – trust compensates for the lack of knowledge we have about others.  Trust is reciprocal.
  • Active empathy – creates a basis to assess and understand what someone else needs.
  • Access to Help – care must encompass real and tangible help.
  • Lenience in judgment – failure must not be punished, experimentation need to be encouraged not corrected too quickly when it appears to be a mistake, failure must be allowed so that people will learn from errors.
  • Courage – seniors must let juniors experiment, juniors must reveal their work and ideas, everyone must give their opinion and feedback.

More than anything, ‘Ba’ is a network of interactions, determined by the care and trust of participants.  Without trust and care ‘Ba’ cannot exist in organizations.  Although this may sound rather mystical and vague, the same general themes are echoed time and time again in knowledge management discussions on the basis of trust in networks, organizations and communities.

The SECI and ‘Ba’ frameworks are similar to anthropological models developed to explain why a group behaves in a certain way or why a kinship system is in place for the group.  Can the SECI and ‘Ba’ frameworks be realistically applied outside of the Japanese corporation?  I believe they can but they need a significant amount of careful nurturing in order to become accepted and utilized in another culture.  Interestingly, I just read that the US government’s recent ‘cash-for-clunkers’ program to get US car-buyers to replace old automobiles was a huge success for Toyota.   More US car-buyers bought new US made Toyota’s than any other automobile with their government subsidy.

7 Comments »

  1. […] So what does any of this have to do with knowledge management? Many of the seminal knowledge management ideas from the 80’s and 90’s were highly influenced by Japan’s success and the alarm from the west over what was making this small country so successful. In the 80’s western electronic corporation were being surpassed by Japan’s Sony, Toshiba and Hitachi. One of my favorite lines from a now forgotten Hollywood movie was the answer to this question, ‘How can I understand America?’ — ‘Remember good cheap Japanese electronics’. Detroit ignored the threat and payed dearly 20 years later as their market share was overtaken by Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Subaru. In 1995 Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi published “The knowledge creating company: how Japanese companies create the dynamics of innovation.” In 1998 Thomas Davenport and Laurence Prusack published “Working knowledge: how organizations manage what they know.” In 1998 Hirotaka Takeuchi published a paper “Beyond Knowledge Management: Lessons from Japan.” He emphasized that the western idea on knowledge management put far too much emphasis on management of explicit knowledge and failed to recognize the fundamental difference between Japanese and western concepts on workers, knowledge and how together they create real innovation. Dave Snowden began developing the Cynefin (kun-ev’in) sense-making and decision-making framework in 1999. Dave Snowden likes to say Nonaka’s SECI model was the model that launched a thousand failed knowledge management systems. This is undoubtedly true. The world is now littered with knowledge bases that are seldom used because it is too difficult to find anything and there is little trust in the found knowledge. However, I agree with Hirotaka Takeuchi that people misunderstood what he and Nonaka were writing about and spent way too much time on explicit knowledge management. This happened in both Japan and western countries. I’ve blogged about this here. […]

  2. Ricardo said

    Hello,

    Can you help me? I have some doubts about SECI Model:

    – Was SECI Model the first KM Model ever developed?

    – Is SECI Model the most used KM Model ? Or, at least, the most ‘adapted’ one?

    – what are the main advantages/disadvantages (and other main differences) between SECI Model and other GC Models? ( you have written about one disadvantage, at least, in this post: Japanese companies are different from western companies…)

    Kind regards from Portugal.

    • Baoman said

      I don’t know if the SECI model was the first KM model. It was one of the early models. The SECI model is frequently used and has been adapted many times. I make the point in this post that the SECI model would better be used as it was intended and not constantly adapted to suit new purposes.

      What are GC models? How can it be a disadvantage to be a model for Japanese companies? They are hands down the most successful companies in post-industrial capitalist world 🙂 ….

      • Ricardo said

        Sorry, i wanted to ask “what are the main advantages/disadvantages (and other main differences) between SECI Model and other *Knowledge Management* Models?”

        Is is fair to say that SECI model is the KM Model most used in Japanese most successful companies?

        Thank You.

  3. Baoman said

    I’m not really in a position to say which model is most used in Japan’s most successful companies. Take a look at this site http://www.kmsj.org/ You can use Google Translate for the Japanese pages.

  4. Roan Yong said

    Hi Baoman,

    Great post. I can see where you are coming from in this article. I guess the SECI model is used to explain why Japanese companies are so successful in Innovation. I got that.

    But question remains on how to apply this SECI model outside of its original intent. The concept of ‘Ba’ is rather vague as you have pointed out in the above article. Any idea on its application?

  5. Baoman said

    Hi Roan,

    I think ‘Ba’ while very vague is not as vague as when people talk about the importance of ‘culture’. ‘Ba’ is about attitude and divides it up into 4 types – rather like 4 faces of the same god – This is a common idea in both Chinese and Japanese religions as I’m sure you are aware.

    I don’t think the SECI model should be used outside of its original expalanatory intention. It doesn’t work as a theory but it can work as a framework to analyze an organization.

    Japan’s companies are still market leaders in many sectors and large sectors of specialized technology continue to be dominated by Japanese mid-sized companies. The really ‘global’ ones have done reasonably well outside of Japan. However, maybe we should look at the failures from Japan. Telecommunications, one of the most innovative areas of Japanese business, has not done well outside Japan. Both Nokia and Apple are much more successful then NTT’s DoCoMo on a global scale. Portable music was invented by Sony and yet it has been hammered by Apple. DoCoMo is so innovative that it can’t export its innovations. Sony couldn’t see the MP3 player as a realistic innovation. Ba doesn’t seem to help these companies manage innovation.

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