Japanese knowledge theory: the types of workplace knowledge
by Catherine Heath

Japanese knowledge theory: the types of workplace knowledge

Human understanding of knowledge has been in progress since ancient times – when Aristotle came up with epistemology (a branch of philosophy) as the theory of knowledge. Since that time, no one can agree on exactly how to define what we consider to be knowledge. 

In this article, we’re looking at knowledge as it exists in the workplace, and then sharing a Japanese theory of knowledge transfer and knowledge creation (the SECI model).

What is knowledge?

At first, the word “knowledge” seems to be easily understood. Yet, eventually you find it’s so ambiguous as to be totally misleading. “Knowledge” could be interpreted as “things that we know,'' a result of the process we call “knowing”. 

Nonaka and Takeuchi accepted knowledge as “justified true belief”, which was the definition favored by Plato. The three conditions required for knowledge are: truth, belief, and justification.

Some synonyms for knowledge are information, wisdom, or data, but none of these words correlates exactly with the term knowledge

It helps to look at the two different types of knowledge: tacit and explicit. Michael Polyani first distinguished between explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge in the 1960s. 

Understanding the difference between them is central to the Knowledge Management discipline. 

Explicit knowledge 

"Explicit knowledge can be expressed in words and numbers and can be easily communicated and shared in the form of hard data, scientific formulae, codified procedures or universal principles." – Nonaka and Takeuchi

Explicit knowledge is known as “Know-what”, and can be easily articulated and shared. Explicit knowledge is not particularly open to interpretation, but rather is objective and logical. 

It’s highly transferable, and is best captured using IT systems since it can be communicated directly through a variety of media. 

Types of explicit knowledge are: 

  • Scientific formulae
  • Data
  • Product specifications
  • Manuals
  • Books
  • Documents
  • Reports
  • Memos

Examples of explicit knowledge

Many examples of explicit knowledge can be found in the workplace: 

  • A product specification for a solar-powered calculator
  • A 2019 financial report for a software company
  • Operating procedure for a printer technician
  • Customer contacts saved in your database
  • A research report on changes in the American workplace

How best to capture explicit knowledge

Luckily, explicit knowledge can be relatively easily captured and shared. 

An example of capturing explicit knowledge would be bringing together discrete pieces of knowledge held by your customer support reps. You’re not really creating anything new, but mining all your existing stores of information to bring it all into one place. 

You scour your customer support conversations, research customer forums, talk to your support reps, break out the analytics, all of which you use to create your content for your internal knowledge base

Next, we’ll look at tacit knowledge. 

Tacit knowledge

"[It’s]... something not easily visible and expressible. Tacit knowledge is highly personal and hard to formalise. Subjective insights, intuitions and hunches fall into this category of knowledge." – Nonaka and Takeuchi

Tacit knowledge relates to “Know-how” or technical skills. It’s gained from experience and is highly personal, intimately related to the personality of the person who holds the tacit knowledge. 

Tacit knowledge is hard to express and capture, and therefore difficult to communicate. It’s rooted in action and a commitment to a specific context. By definition, tacit knowledge is somewhat non-verbal. 

Types of tacit knowledge are: 

  • Subjective insights
  • Intuitions 
  • Experiences
  • Ideals
  • Values
  • Emotions

Examples of tacit knowledge

There are many examples of tacit knowledge in the workplace: 

  • The worker on an oil rig who could identify a drilling failure by feeling the vibration on a certain area of the platform
  • The best practices of your company’s most prolific sales person for engaging prospective customers
  • A senior software engineer’s experience of programming
  • A statistician interpreting a complex statistical equation
  • A baker’s experience of the process of baking bread
  • A teacher holding the attention of a classroom full of students

How best to capture tacit knowledge

It’s notoriously difficult to capture tacit knowledge. 

Tacit knowledge can be communicated best through social relationships that are person-to-person. These could take the form of apprenticeships, mentorships, or informal communities of practice. Tacit knowledge can be communicated indirectly using figurative language, through metaphor and analogy (we’ll discuss more of this later). 

It’s better to transform tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. This is the fundamental idea behind the SECI model. 

SECI model of knowledge dimensions

The SECI model was developed by Ikujiro Nonaka in 1990, and was later refined along with Hirotaka Takeuchi in 1995. 

Nonaka and Takeuchi were Japanese business experts who linked the success of Japanese companies to their ability to create new knowledge. They had the unique ability to harness tacit knowledge, and use it to produce innovative and successful products and technologies. 

Learning how to transform tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge is the key to the Japanese business’ success. 

Here’s a brief overview of the SECI model: 

  • Tacit to tacit (socialization) – when one person teaches their tacit knowledge to another person, which can take place through observation, imitation, practice, and participation in formal and informal communities. It usually requires the creation of a physical or virtual space where the community can interact.
  • Tacit to explicit (externalization) – being able to articulate the foundations of tacit knowledge to create new knowledge that can be communicated to the rest of the organization. The tacit knowledge must be articulated into explicit concepts that can be shared with an audience.
  • Explicit to explicit (combination) – combining existing pieces of explicit knowledge in a new whole, integrating parts into a new knowledge system. Rather than creating something new, existing knowledge is rearranged, for example into a trend analysis or a new database to organize content. 
  • Explicit to tacit (internalization) – when previously unknown explicit knowledge is shared through an organization, so other employees can learn from it and expand their store of tacit knowledge.

In Nonaka’s model, the knowledge in a knowledge-creating company should move in a spiral – that is, back and forth between explicit and tacit forms of knowledge. Knowledge creation is a continual process that never stops. 

The SECI model is based on studies of several businesses, which includes a study of Japanese organization Matsushita developing a new breadmaking machine. We’ll look at Matsushita in the next section. 

The example of the breadmaking machine

Nonaka uses the example of a breadmaking machine to illustrate how the knowledge spiral in a knowledge-creating company works in practice. 

At one time, product developers at Matsushita Electric Company were struggling to get their new machine to knead dough correctly. When the machine turned out the bread, the crust was burnt and the inside was undercooked. Despite the team’s efforts, they could not duplicate the skills of professional bakers kneading bread (which would have been tacit knowledge). 

Software developer Ikuko Tanaka decided to turn to the Osaka International Hotel, where they had a reputation for making the best bread in Osaka. She trained with the hotel’s head baker, studying his kneading technique in detail – which involved stretching the dough more (tacit converted to tacit knowledge). 

It took a year of trial and error of Tanaka working with the product engineering team for them to come up with a new design for the breadmaking machine. The new design eventually included the researched improvements for stretching the dough. These new product specifications (tacit converted to explicit knowledge) led to the final product, which became a record selling new kitchen appliance in its first year.

How to convert tacit to explicit knowledge

With the SECI model in mind, how can we convert tacit into explicit knowledge? Converting tacit to explicit knowledge is the process of knowledge creation, and it means finding a way to express the inexpressible. 

Nonaka and Takeuchi recommend the use of figurative language (like metaphor) which can connect imaginatively with an intended audience. Metaphor can transcend specific contexts and experiences by appealing directly to a person’s intuition. 

For example, they use the example of top management at Honda forming a product development team. They embraced the phrase “Let’s gamble,” and asked the team to come up with a new type of car design. 

This original metaphor led project team leader Hiroo Watanabe to develop a further slogan, “Theory of Automobile Evolution”. His slogan compared a car to a living organism, and asked how it should evolve in the future. 

Finally, the product team came up with the slogan of “man-maximum, machine-minimum”, leading to the concept of a car made in the shape of a sphere. They called the new car design “Tall Boy”. It eventually became the Honda City – a distinctive urban car. 

To convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, you should use: 

Metaphor >> Analogy >> Model

Analogy is the next step after a metaphor, providing the link between imaginative and rational thinking. While metaphors link remote images together, analogy emphasizes difference, contradictions, and distinctions. Analogy looks at two images or concepts, and analyzes what is different about them. 

Finally, you create a new model based on logic. An example of this is Honda’s Tall Boy concept. 

“...the three terms [metaphor, analogy, and model] capture the process by which organizations convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge: first, by linking contradictory things and ideas through metaphor; then, by resolving these contradictions through analogy; and, finally, by crystallizing the created concepts and embodying them in a model, which makes the knowledge available to the rest of the company.”Ikujiro Nonaka

Final remarks

The theory of knowledge creation is a fascinating field. The SECI model provides important insights into how knowledge is created and shared. 

To better share the knowledge already available in your organization, you need to encourage your people to form social relationships that transcend team boundaries. 

As well as tacit to tacit knowledge creation, you need to find more ways to help your employees make their tacit knowledge explicit. Employing figurative language is a crucial way you can appeal to different audiences and connect directly with their intuition. This will stimulate the creation of more innovative products and services. 

If you want to capture explicit knowledge you need to have the right software. 

Creating an internal knowledge base is a great way to communicate explicit knowledge. Trial our very own knowledge base software now. 

Catherine Heath

Catherine is a freelance writer based in Manchester. She writes blogs, social media, copy, and designs owl-based images. 

You can find out more about Catherine on her personal websites Away With Words and Catherine Heath Studios.

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