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Published: 05.07.2007, 06:00
Modified: 04.07.2007, 21:05
Ikujiro Nonaka on the subject of knowledge management
Creating knowledge

Knowledge is gaining increased importance as a production factor in the modern economy. Ikujiro Nonaka, one of the leading experts in the field of knowledge management, gave a lecture on Thursday evening, 28 June 2007, on the subject of “Social knowledge creation” in the ETH Zurich Observatory. ETH Life interviewed the Japanese professor beforehand.

Interviewer: Florian Wehrli

Professor Nonaka, which topics will you address in your presentation?

I will present a new way of thinking about strategic management. Aristotle called it “Phronesis” but I call it “Distributed Practical Wisdom”. Specifically I will deal with the role of management staff in the process of knowledge management.

Knowledge management is not yet very widespread in the Western understanding of management. Could you please define the term in more detail?

The way I look at strategic management, I see the concept of a business enterprise as a knowledge-generating process. I will deal with that more precisely on Thursday.

Where do you see the differences between the European and the oriental concept of knowledge?

I define knowledge as well-founded true conviction. It starts with a very subjective hunch, a vision, a dream, a hypothesis. To turn this vision into reality one must enable others to comprehend the subjectivity through dialogue. I call this knowledge “tacit knowledge”, i.e. implicit knowledge. In the Western concept knowledge is understood as information and has nothing to do with subjectivity. It is explicit knowledge that can be grasped objectively. The only way to internalise information is by examining it in depth and applying it. I designed the SECI model to describe this process.

Ikujiro Nonaka

Ikujiro Nonaka (*1935) is Professor emeritus for International Business Strategies at the Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo and Visiting Professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, where he also gained his doctorate in 1972. He is also Visiting Dean of the Center for Knowledge and Innovation Research (CKIR) at the Helsinki School of Economics and Business Administration and Founding Dean of the Graduate School of Knowledge Science at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Nonaka is regarded as an eminent authority in the field of knowledge management. His best-known book is “The Knowledge-Creating Company” (Oxford: 1995).


Ikujiro Nonaka is currently visiting the D-MTEC (Department of Management, Technology and Economics) large

Could you please explain the model in more detail?

The acronym SECI stands for Socialisation, Externalisation, Combination, Internalisation. Socialisation is the acquisition of implicit knowledge at an individual level through personal experience. By articulating this knowledge in dialogue with a group, the knowledge is externalised, i.e. it becomes explicit knowledge. At the corporate enterprise level this explicit knowledge is combined in order to implement actual projects. The implementation of these projects is performed by individual employees. Thus the combined knowledge is internalised again and the process begins anew. In an ideal case the business enterprise’s knowledge is escalated upwards in a spiral in this way.

How is the SECI model applicable to a business enterprise in a concrete way?

To apply the SECI model, an appropriate environment for dialogue must be created within the enterprise. In Japan we call this environment “Ba”. Literally translated, “Ba” means “field”, i.e. a flat terrain on which something can thrive and flourish. Working in project groups with a flat hierarchy or none at all fosters dialogue and the exchange of implicit knowledge. The pre-conditions for this kind of dynamic network are values such as care, love, trust and safety. A good working atmosphere also includes a transparent information policy, offices in which the staff has a sense of well-being, and shared activities outside the workplace.

But management also means control. How can the dynamic network you describe be controlled?

When a team spirit has developed first of all and the individual employees identify with the corporate enterprise, self-control emerges unconsciously. This is very much more effective than superficial control by the management.

Do you believe this model is also applicable to Switzerland?

Community spirit and collaboration have a long tradition in Japan. That’s why the SECI model has already proved successful there. I believe the system of direct democracy in Switzerland, with its open social dialogue, suits it equally well. I can definitely see features in common.

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