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Nonaka – The wonderful wizard of KM

The content of this blog comes from an article under development:  ‘Knowledge Management  – The enemy within:  Overcoming Technology’s fifth column’

We’re developing this latest article to look at the dominance of technology within the KM field, and the perception that KM ‘is’ technology. This led to an enquiry into the foundational theories of our field and Nonaka in particular.

This blog is a summary of some of the work we’re doing in this area and is designed as a conversation starter for those who are interested in the foundationalist aspects of our field…***please take a look at the comments if you get a chance, some thought provoking responses***

You can’t speak of KM without being aware of Nonaka and his collaborative work with Takeuchi (et al.).  His SECI (Socialisation, Externalisation, Combination and Internalisation) spiral of knowledge creation is probably the best known KM model on the face of the planet.  The language of SECI has transcended our situated realities to form a thread of commonality between practitioners and academics.  Nonaka is the most cited theorist in the KM field.  People speak of the ‘fathers’ of KM and cite theorists such as Sveiby or Drucker, or practitioners such as Buckman.  However, if we are to speak of the most influential theorist then we have to speak of Nonaka and his various collaborateurs.  His place in the pantheon of KM history is guaranteed, but, if we pull back the curtain, does the substance live upto the myth?

Over the last twelve months I have been lucky enough to attend international conferences in Newcastle, Paris, Pecs and Hong Kong.  In each case papers and key-notes have been delivered that have extensively used Nonaka’s various works in a foundationalist manner, accepting them as an unquestioned bedrock for justification of research in the field.  My problem is that before enrolling in this burgeoning network of belief I feel the need to question the belief structure and this is where my problems start. 

Peeling back the layers of Nonaka’s work on the SECI model it beomes possible to view the person behind the theory.  For me, it is the underlying assumptions or the nature of the researcher that are cause for concern.  KM is a field of dualisms:  Explicit/Tacit – Theory/Practice – Knowledge as an object/Knowledge as a process – Technology/People – Individual/Collective – East/West.  Nonaka cleverly presents us a potential solution, but at the same time asks us to put on emerald glasses.  He suspends our understanding of reality, as described by Polanyi, having us believe that knowledge can exist outside of the body human, at which point it can be manipulated as an object.  Fair enough, but how does he justify and reason this?

His justification appears to be fractured at best.  Nonaka defines knowledge as the ‘justification of true belief’, a traditional positivist definition of the concept.   The positivist definition of knowledge lends itself to the idea of knowledge as a product, something that can be removed from the person human; a closed system where the world does not answer back.  In building his model upon a positivist foundation he, perhaps unwittingly, opened the KM field to technology solutions that to this day often negate the human aspect of KM processes.  This idea of knowledge as an object appears to privelege ‘explicit’ knowledge, which is championed by technology-centric theorists who combine Nonaka’s work with that of others, such as Lyotard, who believe ‘explicit’ or ‘technical’ knowledge to have value over tacit knowledge – a popular view with positivists who prioritise propositional knowledge or ‘episteme’.  Nonaka attempts to extricate himself from his own positivist stance by declaring that tacit knowledge has a higher value over explicit knowledge, but it is buried in his research and is overawed by the Yellow Brick Road that leads in the opposite direction.

Through slight of mind Nonaka then uses Polanyi’s work on explicit and tacit knowledge to justify his spiral of interactions between the two states in the knowledge creation process.  However, Nonaka fails to tell us that Polanyi believes tacit knowledge to be inexpressible, existing only in the minds of the person human.  Instead we are led to believe that the simple process of ‘Externalisation’ will transform tacit to explicit knowledge; a process that is described by many theorists as the generation of new information, not knowledge. 

Perhaps I’m just picking.  What damage can possibly be caused by such a simple slight of mind?  In presenting knowledge this way Nonaka paints a picture of knowledge as a complicated process where variables can be managed in a linear manner – further justification for those who proffer technology-centric KM solutions.  This seems far removed from the chaotic interaction of variables that coalesce in the socialisation knowledge creation process.  (To clarify theorists such as Radford see complex processes as being rooted in chaos were ‘unforseen elements within the system emerge from interactions between other elements or variables and cannot therefore be taken into account until such interactions have occurred’ (p. 265)).  This builds a picture of KM that has been seized upon by technology-centric approaches that could be said to have subjected the field to fads. 

Then there’s Nonaka the scientist.  How does he know that SECI actually works?  How has he helped us as practitioners to operationalise it?  Nonaka states that global organisations have learned from Japanese production principles and therefore the world must also learn from Japanese knowledge creation principles.  Sounds good, but what about the successful Japanese production and management processes, such as Quality Circles, that have failed to successfully migrate into Western Society, finding themselves consigned to the global scrap heap of management fads.  Knowledge is said to be historically, culturally, socially and geographically bound; how does Nonaka’s work sit outside of the ‘Eastern’ reality it was developed in?  I’ve already suggested Nonaka to be a positivist by nature, but where is the deductive research to support his own model?  It seems to me that he has produced a theory, albeit one based on what could be seen as slight of mind, but where are the case studies?  What about aspects of KM or knowledge creation that appear to be missing in the SECI spiral; the progression of knowledge to knowing being a good example?  Knowledge use, which puts knowledge into action to produce knowing doesn’t appear to exist, which would appear to be a critical issue for organisatons looking to operationalise Nonaka’s work.

Much like the Wizard of Oz, Nonaka seems to have provided emerald glasses for the KM field.  The problem is that the field is failing to provide practitioner satisfaction.  Something is wrong and theorists such as Nonaka, whilst providing a vision for a solution, are part of the problem. 

Perhaps it is time to take off the glasses, take a fresh look at reality and bring new eyes to an old landscape?

10 comments on “Nonaka – The wonderful wizard of KM

  1. Marbacher
    August 11, 2010

    Interesting post indeed. But it seems to me that your worry too much about KM IT-vendors possible manipulation of the concept. Personnaly, I see Nonaka’s value precisely in enlarging our techno-centered view of knowledge. Now, what I really like in your post is your question about the SECI model : where does it really come from ? In “The Knowledge Creating Company” it really comes in the book very sharply without a lot of explanations and it is in fact not really the core of the book. Now it has become really “the” Nonaka model even when there are many other interesting concepts and ideas in that book. In “Managing Flow”, SECI model is central, but also comes as a “given” even if it is better explained and more detailed. I don’t know of any Nonaka article explaining more “The Origins of SECI model”, maybe you do ? In fact, I think that Nonaka is a true “author” because he “authorizes” the exploration of a new field of research and practice but I agree with you that it needs to make more explicit 😉 the foundations of his work, or it can become another sort of “Mazlow pyramid of needs model”, without explicit scientific background but highly valued by managers because it is simple and consistent with dominant preconceptions…

    • theknowledgecore
      August 12, 2010

      Thank you for such a thought provoking response.

      You’re right of course, I am obsessed with the dominance of technology within the KM field. This obsession is fuelled by the perception that KM ‘is’ technology. It’s supported by research I’m conducting at the moment where 92% of global KM job adverts tweeted on Twitter between April and June of this year were rooted in the development of technology solutions. The research into why this is happening, and why technology providers believe that they can capture and share tacit knowledge, has driven me to revisit the building blocks of our field…and the criticism of Nonaka.

      I agree with your description of Nonaka as an ‘author’ and the comparison with Mazlow. The problem for me is that too many theorists and practitioners use Nonaka’s work as a foundational justification for their own KM theories, models and practice without realising his, as you say, ‘authorship’ approach to SECI. I also believe this to be one of the root causes of practitioner dissatisfaction in our field.

      I’d be interested to hear your thoughts…


  2. Gerald Doempke
    August 12, 2010

    Thanks to digital TV, I have been watching a lot of Japanese programming
    from NHK.

    What I find is that the Japanese use technology, but as an extension of
    their culture.
    They don’t just “do quality circles” , the live quality in their very
    thinking and working.
    Read “Kaizen” , by Masaaki Imai, and you will see how they view quality
    quite differently from the U.S. buzzwork mentality.
    Watch NHK and you get glimpses of their obsession with quality as an
    extension of their disciplined culture.

    To my thinking, there are parallels with KM.
    With knowledge, we seem to ignore the culture side, and treat it as
    either an esoteric discipline with technology as a theat, or mesmerized
    by technology such that we let it dictate how we think. There is also
    the dark side of KM with hucksters who sell KM as they have sold any
    number of topics as the snake oil remedy of the moment.

    Technology is just a tool that enhances information interactions and
    processes, but it is not knowledge.
    Knowledge is a culture.

    Knowledge management, in fact, has grown out of the need to direct the
    fast-growing informattion technology so that it is not driven by
    systems, but rather by a view of how the technology can serve and
    enhance how we use information.

    KM is the blending of behavioral psychology with information technology,
    such that they interweave and permeate our society.

    It’s obvious that the IT processes are expanding dramatically, so it is
    the KM practioners that need to develop paradigms to employ technology
    to enhance a culture of knowledge. Otherwise, KM just goes on to the ash
    heap of buzzwords.


  3. Gerald Doempke
    August 12, 2010

    I find that while discussing the facets of “knowledge” and KM, we often
    get so parochial in our views that we miss the big picture.
    While most of my work as a program manager and systems engineer center
    in technology, I am constantly frustrated at how program managers let
    the technologists develop the logic that forces the thinking of the
    people who actually use the technology.

    It needs to be the other way around, and the knowledge practicioners
    need to become familiar enough with what technology does to be able to
    work with the technologists to enhance our knowledge processes.
    Likewise, an understanding of how people use knowledge will help the
    technologists develop systems for the broader culture of knowledge.

    As a program manager for systems, my discipline straddles the
    communities of the user and the developer, which allows me to see the
    parallels with KM.

  4. John Bordeaux
    August 12, 2010

    We can learn only so much from the Japanese, yes? If the core issue is
    culture, and you’re pointing out a valid aspect of their culture that allows
    them to integrate quality more holistically…

    …and by argument, the American culture doesn’t feature this…

    Then what task are we handing the KM practitioner? Make Americans more

    I think you have something here – our failure to appreciate new
    opportunities or threats as a mandate to re-think core processes is
    profound. Instead, we “pave the cow path.” Far too often. If we had an
    aspiration for quality at our core, we would always be looking for ways to
    do everything better.

    But if we don’t, where does this leave us?

  5. Neil Olonoff
    August 12, 2010


    Good points. Asians do think differently from Westerners, and the difference
    relates directly to knowledge sharing and cultural ideas about individuality
    versus group identity. There is a very useful book entitled:

    The Geography of Thought : How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and
    Richard Nisbett (Author)

    I don’t have it to hand at the moment, but he cites many experimental
    results that show significant differences in perceptions of Asians versus

    John, you ask, reasonably, whether the job of KM practitioners is to get
    Americans — or Westerners — to act more Japanese. I think in many cases
    this is indeed what we we are being asked. We are being asked — to some
    extent — to abandon the rugged individualism that America so prizes, in the
    name of group cohesion and knowledge sharing.

    It’s a challenge I’ve always struggled with, myself, because despite long
    experience in meditation and yoga I’ve retained my stubborn, American,
    individuality. I finally came to the conclusion that one can espouse and
    enact a “generosity of spirit,” feeling that one should share with all,
    without necessarily giving up one’s individuality. But it is a constant
    struggle, because as I look deeper into the issues that underlie real
    knowledge sharing, I see persistent clues that our rugged individualism is
    often an artifice, erected to protect against fear of deep connection.

    (The narrative arc of many John Wayne movies seems to bear this out, by the
    way. He usually goes from stiff necked, rugged individualist, to reluctant
    but protective parent, husband and protector.)

    The truth is, humans are connected creatures. Knowledge is a product of
    connection, in that it is, in the last analysis, socially constructed. So
    there is no knowledge without connection (or, relationship, if you will).
    This seems to be the essence of Nonaka’s message, although he’s complicated
    the story with his model.

    If this is the core of knowledge management, then we were right all along to
    relate to narrative and stories, communities of practice, conversational
    practices and so forth. And we were also right all along to say that the IT
    tools were ancillary to our practice. They simply weren’t at the core or
    sweet spot of KM, despite the vendors’ claims.

    It’s always about the conversation.

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  8. Dr Marc Cashin
    October 29, 2011

    Certainly some food for thought in the above article and subsequent comments, views expressed therein. Excuse my directness but have the participants, and indeed those reading the blog and comments, not just ‘operationalised’ the SECI concept and in so doing, the interactions of the SECI process being enabled, in this instance, by technology (PCs, smartphones).
    I have used the SECI model many times, many have regarded it as a tool in itself which enables further ‘enlightenment’. In project management, for example, I have embedded SECI in project meetings, particularly at the end of each phase, to develop what I term the OFI (opportunity for improvement) document, essentially enabling others and other projects to benefit from the knowledge harnessed in the preceding project. This is truely a human process, the outcomes from which are documented (information), stored in repositories.
    Technology, in my opinion and experience, is and can be an effective enabler, but thats just what technology is!

    • David Griffiths
      October 29, 2011

      Hi Marc and thank you for your contribution – really interesting point of view…thank you.

      My problem with SECI is that we, speaking in terms of an organisational collective, are model dependent and, as such, rely on the completeness of the models we use. The problem with SECI, in my opinion, that it is conceptually flawed and lacks the completeness, in terms of preconditions, that is needed to inform system design. Also, it tends to give a false impression with regard to the transformation of knowledge from tacit to explicit forms – perhaps enforcing the Resource Based View of the firm and the leaning of KM towards techno-centric solutions.

      Nonaka is the most cited KM theorist and yet his model is actually incomplete – the preconditions for KM are not clear or tested, to say nothing of the fact that his thinking is often ambiguous, at best – link that to system design and the dissatisfaction being expressed by executives (see my other blogs, such as ‘When will we admit we’re getting it wrong’) and it is not a stretch to conclude that a poorly constructed model can interfere with outputs.

      Also, when most people ‘implement’ SECI, I would suggest that they are actually taking a vague concept and filling the gaps with their own mental models – the model is a stimulus and not a solution in itself. However, what organisations seem to need is an operational model and not an incomplete or misinformed concept that causes more problems than it solves.

      Thank you again for your feedback and I hope we get a chance to debate issues further in the future…

      Cheers, David

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