Last week, I’ve had the honour to present my second academic paper during the i3 2017 conference at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. It presents preliminary results from a survey undertaken by members of an online social platform, Knowledge Hub (KHub), that incorporates social media features and enables knowledge sharing amongst public sector professionals. It also addresses the concept of ‘Ba‘ in relation to tacit knowledge sharing in online environments. Since this concept is not very known and a little bit challenging to understand, I intend to shed light on its meaning and why I find it relevant to my research.
The Ba model
The concept of ‘Ba‘ originates from Japan and can be challenging to understand, particularly for the dualistic western mind (by dualistic western mind one needs to refer to the Cartesian consideration of mind and body). Inspired by the work of the existentialist philosopher Kitaro Nishida, the concept was brought forward through the work of Nonaka and Konno in 1998, with the intention to facilitate the understanding and integration of the initial SECI model of knowledge conversion (invented by Nonaka in 1994).
The ‘Ba‘ represents a contextual place shared with others from which relationships emerge, and within which knowledge is exchanged or shared. This place may be physical, virtual, or mental or a combination of these. Four types of ‘Ba’ have been defined by Nonaka and Konno in order to distinguish the various contexts in which knowledge conversion between tacit and explicit knowledge occurs, as shown in the scheme here below:
The ‘Originating Ba‘, is an existential place in which employees can potentially share their experiences face-to-face through a primary socialisation process. A place where individuals share emotions, feelings and ideas informally. Here, the culture of an organisation is communicated in an implicit way. This space is strongly related to Nishida’s existential vision of reality.
The ‘Interacting Ba’ (also called ‘Dialoging Ba’), is a place in which knowledge and skills are shared among peers through an externalisation process. Here mental models of various employees (selected to form a team) are discussed by individuals who are also invited to reflect on their own knowledge. Dialogue is therefore crucial in this process. In this space where the conversion between tacit and explicit knowledge occurs, the worlds of Nishida and Descartes can meet.
The ‘Cyber Ba’ (also called ‘Systemizing Ba’), is a virtual place (or world) in which explicit knowledge can be exchanged in a systematic way. It is usually supported by collaborative environments using information technologies, facilitating knowledge sharing between groups. This includes online networks, databases, and online platforms. This place is dominated by the Cartesian logic.
The ‘Exercising Ba’, is a place in which the absorption of new knowledge happens through an internalisation process. This is where the learning process occurs when individuals absorb and synthesise the knowledge made available to them. It includes focus training and tutoring, where knowledge is translated into action. The worlds of Descartes and Nishida meet again, in a conversion process of explicit knowledge to tacit knowledge, before moving towards the ‘Originated Ba’ again.
Why does it matter?
Tacit knowledge is personal and highly contextual. Therefore, the need to investigate the variety of contexts within which tacit knowledge is shared is essential. In 1998, the Cyber Ba was the only ‘place’ where Nonaka & Konno anticipated a role for technology. This was the time of the Web 1.0, where online databases and basic Intranets were often used as information depositories. Since then, there has been an exponential growth of social media tools (based on the Web 2.0 technologies) which have enabled and facilitated online social interactions, networking and collaborative work.
One relevant outcome that emerged from this first data analysis of the online survey, is that other types of ‘Ba‘ (besides the ‘Cyber Ba’) could actually also occur online. For instance, a majority of respondents have positively confirmed that ‘Problem-solving‘, ‘Expertise sharing‘ and ‘Innovation‘ are facilitated by the online social platform KHub. Each of these tacit knowledge sharing practices requires active social interactions, which is one of the fundamental aspects of the ‘Interacting Ba’. A majority of respondents have also positively confirmed that ‘Learning processes‘ are facilitated on KHub, which corresponds this time with the characteristics of the ‘Exercising Ba’.
This is important because it means that twenty years later, the Ba model could be updated in regard to the emergence of social media affordances. I am not the first one to make this assumption, other scholars have. To the extent that some of them (such as Martin-Niemi & Greatbanks, 2010) even suggested that the ‘Originating Ba’ could also be online (particularly with the use of blogs). At this stage of my research, I’m not convinced by this statement. Especially since the Originating Ba usually requires face-to-face interactions and a physical situational context (see the Epilogue below for a deeper understanding of this Ba). However, it is my intuition that if there was one technology which could simulate such ‘place’ of ‘pure’ tacit knowledge, it would have to be an online interactive video conferencing platform (such as Skype, Google video or more recently Zoom). This is an exciting field of research which certainly deserves further empirical studies in order to investigate to what extent such technologies could replicate pure tacit knowledge. I reckon that Virtual Reality technologies will also contribute in a significant way in that matter, particularly in regard to situational contexts (which are partly absent from online environments).
As this blog provides a place in which I can express myself more freely (including some of my personal interests that cannot be included in my PhD work), I would like to end this post with some complimentary explanations regarding the ‘Originating Ba’, which is very rarely mentioned in the literature, but nonetheless essential to my eyes.
The ‘Originating Ba’, according to Nonaka & Konno (1998), is, as mentioned earlier, an existential place within which experiential tacit knowledge is shared. But what is also mentioned in their article, is that this is a place where an individual can feel sympathy and empathy for others, and where ‘the barrier between the self and others‘ is removed. Nonaka & Konno then use an epistemological metaphor to explain Nishida’s vision of reality, ‘I love therefore I am‘, which contrasts with the (more famous) one of Descartes ‘I think therefore I am‘. Nonaka & Konno even suggest further on that the ‘Originating Ba’ is a place where ‘pure experiences‘ and ‘ecstasy‘ exist, citing Heidegger’s definition of ‘being thrown into the world‘. This space, where face-to-face experiences are a key to the conversion of tacit knowledge, is where care, love and trust emerge, providing the ideal place for the knowledge-creation process to begin.
Would the sharing of tacit knowledge be a genuine act of love? An altruistic volition of sharing some of ‘our’ knowledge (or ourselves?) to others for the sake of the common good?
Looking forward to sharing more of this knowledge with you in another blog post…