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Knowledge Types and Knowledge Creation

December 14, 2013

Since the Enlightenment Western society has placed great trust in rational and logical approaches to understanding the world we live in. We cannot deny the immense progress we humans have achieved with this approach and the use of the scientific method. This approach has an associated world view which sees learning as something individuals and organisations do by taking information from the external environment and processing that information [1][2] to devise ways to adapt to changes in the external environment (i.e. single loop learning [3] http://wp.me/p3TKaW-2D ).

While this view of the world corresponds very well with our common everyday experience, it is however a very superficial model of knowledge creation, which itself is key to creativity and innovation, the holy grails of modern business! It is this view of the nature of knowledge and knowledge creation which prompts organisations to invest large amounts of resources in IT-based systems of knowledge management and programs of organisational learning. It is sadly, also the reason why they often only succeed in adding bureaucracy and administrative overheads without any real learning or improvement in organisational performance.

Understanding that all knowledge is not explicit and that there are individual and social aspects to learning is critical to the design and successful implementation of knowledge management and organisational learning programs. Nonaka and Takeuchi [1][2] provide a useful model of the different types of knowledge we need to be concerned with and of the importance of cycles of social interaction and individual learning involved in organisational knowledge creation.

I referred to explicit knowledge above – that is knowledge that we are consciously aware of, can easily describe, verbalise and codify so that others can also understand. This knowledge is the primary focus of much of our schooling and university education and is undeniably a critical component of our learning. This knowledge is however theoretical,  static and non-human in nature. Tacit knowledge in contrast is dynamic, embedded in action towards a purpose and is context-specific. For example, as a golfer I understand the explicit theory of how I need to strike a ball with a putter to make it roll along an inclined surface with just the right speed to allow the ball to fall into the hole, fulfilling my purpose. I can read about it in a book but until I actually take a putter and a ball and stand on a green and do it, I cannot start to generate my own tacit (unconscious) knowledge of how it works in reality. Over a decade of regular training and playing golf I have become reasonably proficient at putting. When my wife started to play golf I offered her some tips on putting but those tips did not seem to help her, much to my surprise! I realised sometime later that what I was  conveying to her was my explicit knowledge – that is the theory I could write down or express verbally. I could not explain however how hard to hit the ball or how far outside the hole I aimed for any given slope. I could not explain how much harder I hit the ball on a cold day compared to a warm day or how I adjusted parameters of speed or slope for fast or slow greens. These are thing I know subconsciously in the context of action but cannot explain explicitly. A great deal of our knowledge is of this nature!

For someone interested in personal and organisational learning, understanding that I am dealing with these two types of knowledge is very important. But as someone interested in my own personal development and in helping organisations to use the scarce human and intellectual resources to acheive their strategic objectives, understanding how to transform tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge over time is critical. Nonaka and Takeuchi  describe a cycle of four phases of knowledge transfer and transformation that I find very useful when thinking about my own learning or examining a client’s approach to knowledge management and organisational learning. The model has four phases which re-iterate endlessly over time in cycles of knowledge creation, transfer and combination. The four phases are socialisation, externalisation, combination and internalisation.

Nonaka and Takeuchi 1995 001

Socialisation

A process where tacit knowledge is transferred between individuals through sharing experiences and creating shared mental models and skills. Examples include an apprentice carpenter learning from the master or on-the-job training in business. Critical to this tacit knowledge transfer is the context-specific and socially embedded shared experience rather than formal knowledge transfer.

Externalisation

Here we transform tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. This presumes that individuals or groups become consciously aware of knowledge, concepts or presumptions that were previously subconscious. This process requires reflection as individuals or in groups. Senge [4] describes a process of dialog, of presenting our view of concepts or mental models for critical but positive examination by others to allow the group reveal previously hidden tacit knowledge and indeed to collectively create new explicit knowledge (see combination below). This was a goal of  the social gathering of intellectuals  in ancient Greece we know as a symposium. The social interaction enabled philosophers to mutually examine knowledge to generate new insight, aided by wine it must be admitted!

For organisations this is the key transformation – it extracts individual knowledge allowing it to be codified and made available for the organisation as a whole. This is what lessons-learned and retrospectives workshops are trying to achieve but often fail to reach.

Combination

Once we have made knowledge explicit we can now combine it with other sources of knowledge to create new, innovative theories, ideas, concepts, products and services. There is again a strong social interaction needed here, as evidenced in the workshops, meetings, schooling and research activities we use to create new combined knowledge. The scientific method and rational approaches are usually focused on this type of knowledge creation.

Internalisation

This completes the cycle, as individuals take explicit knowledge and through their experience, that is, through action in the real world create new tacit knowledge, which is again context-specific and subconscious. The cycle can then begin anew!

Bibliography

[1] Nonaka, I, and Takeuchi, H. (1995), “The Knowledge-Creating Company”, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[2] Nonaka, T. (1993), “The knowledge-creating company”, Harvard Business Review, pp. 80–94.

[3] Argyris, C., (1994), “On organizational Learning”, Oxford, Blackwell.

[4] Senge, P. (1991), “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation”, London, Century.

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