I’m enjoying reading again the view of knowledge described by Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi in their book The Knowledge-Creating Company. They posit that Japanese companies recognize knowledge to be primarily tacit, something personal and deeply rooted in an individual’s actions and experience, in their ideals, values and emotions. Whereas the view “deeply engrained in the traditions of western management” is one of explicit knowledge, formally expressed in words and numbers, and easily communicated as hard data, scientific formulae or codified procedures. To the Japanese, apparently that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Two dimensions of tacit knowledge are described. The first is a technical dimension encompassing the informal skills captured in the term ‘know-how’. “A master craftsman has developed a wealth of expertise at his fingertips through years of experience but he’s often unable to describe the technical principles behind what he knows.” The second is a cognitive dimension comprising schemata, mental models, beliefs and perceptions. These are so ingrained we take them for granted. And yet these implicit models shape the way we perceive the world around us. “This dimension reflects our image of reality (what is) and our visions for the future (what ought to be).”
Tacit knowledge isn’t something that’s easily made visible or described; it’s difficult to share or communicate. Nonaka and Takeuchi tell the story of an interview with Shigeo Nagashima, aka Mr Baseball. He was asked how he had managed to hit so many winning runs in tight moments. In reply he used lots of figurative language and body movement, but couldn’t explain it logically or systematically. In the end, he simply said “You have to feel it.”
It was Theodore Levitt who pointed out that “the most precious knowledge can neither be taught nor passed on.” The most powerful learning comes from direct experience. “A child learns to eat, walk and talk through trial and error; learning is with the body and the mind.” Levitt tells a story emphasizing that learning is not always done consciously:
“A little girl screams with pain when she touches a hot stove. A little comfort and soothing cream soon makes things better. When the mother returns home she greets her daughter with: ”Hi. What did you learn today?“ ”Nothing“ the little girl responds cheerfully. But never again will the little girl touch the stove, except cautiously, even when it’s cold.”
I find Nonaka’s and Takeuchi’s view on the learning organization to be interesting. They state that tacit knowledge “stands in contrast to the thinking behind the learning organization”. Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline, describes systems thinking as a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools that helps shift the mind from focusing on the parts to seeing the whole. Trial-and-error learning is a delusion according to Senge, since most critical decisions made in an organization have system-wide consequences over years and decades, a time frame that makes learning from direct experience impossible. Nonaka and Takeuchi say the learning organization is focused on learning only with the mind and not the body.
Seeing things differently
According to Nonaka and Takeuchi, the recognition of tacit knowledge gives rise to a different view of the organization – not as a mechanistic machine for processing data but as a web of relationships connecting people inside a company with each other, with customers and society. “Within this context, sharing an understanding of what the company stands for, where it’s going, what kind of world it wants to live in, and how to make that world a reality becomes more crucial than processing information.” Individuals begin to think about innovation in a whole new way. “The essence of innovation is to re-create the world according to a particular vision, quite literally to re-create the company and everyone in it, in an ongoing process of personal and organizational self-renewal.” Innovation isn’t just doing new things by “putting together diverse bits of data and information”. Innovation isn’t the responsibility of a selected few – an innovation team, a specialist engineer in research and development, a strategic planning group or the marketing department. Innovation is everyone’s responsibility.
Creating new knowledge is as much about ideals as it is about ideas
Only a small fraction of knowledge can be acquired, taught, and trained through manuals, books, or lectures. In Japan, there is a belief that tacit knowledge has to be built through intensive and sometimes laborious “outside-inside interactions”. Nonaka and Takeuchi advise more attention be paid to the less formal side of knowledge with a “focus on subjective insights, intuitions, and hunches gained through the use of metaphors, pictures and experiences.” This lies beneath the scientific approach the Japanese have mastered.