The concept of ‘Ba’

BA conceptLast 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:

 

Ba model

 

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.

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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).

 

Epilogue

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…

 

 

The exploration of the intangible

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One of the most important stages of a doctoral study is the empirical work that enables us to collect data and gather results in order to hopefully help us answering with accuracy our research questions. To ensure the validity and reliability of the results, this empirical work must preliminary be based on a rigorous methodology.  The short paper that I have recently presented at the ISIC 2016 conference in Zadar, and which will be published next year in the journal Information Research, concerns the methods I’ve chosen to use in order to study tacit knowledge. It presents the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches adopted by researchers, and the pragmatic approach I have chosen to undertake the empirical work of my study.

The intangible nature of knowledge

Unlike explicit knowledge, which is visible, quantifiable and therefore more easily measurable, tacit knowledge is invisible, embedded in people’s minds & working practices, and therefore, more challenging to observe. Indeed, how do you measure what is inside the minds of people, which is then shared with others, and moreover online? Similarly to other cognitive or comportemental studies, it is not so much about measuring, but more about exploring and broaden the understanding of a phenomenon, by using the appropriate methods.

How then, can one study such knowledge of intangible nature?

According to the literature, there has been a need for robust methodological approaches to studying the sharing of tacit knowledge for some time. The problem is that some of the methodological approaches which were initially intended to study explicit knowledge have also been applied to investigate the tacit characteristics of knowledge (e.g. explicit assets of tacit knowledge).  The risk of such approach is to overlook some essential elements which constitute the far more complex and multidimensional nature of knowledge. Consequently, this can create a bias towards exploring the nature of knowledge.

So what are the options for exploring the intangible?

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The positivist approach

Some researchers favour quantitative methods – particularly  by attempting to model tacit knowledge sharing. These methods are usually based on large-scale surveys, some of which make extensive use of the Likert scale. (e.g. Borges, 2013; Lin, 2007; Tsai 2014)

Criticisms: as mentioned above, these methods which are designed to study explicit knowledge tend to overlook the multidimensional nature of tacit knowledge and the fact that knowledge is socially constructed. They also tend to focus on assets generated from tacit knowledge. Therefore, the risk with this approach is that the requirements of the research validity might not be met.

The qualitative approach

Researchers in knowledge management who take an interpretivist stance assert that knowledge cannot be studied objectively. They deploy qualitative techniques such as interviews, focus groups, and surveys, often in case study settings. These studies usually do not generate models, but instead provide nuanced understandings of particular aspects of knowledge management. (e.g. Murray & Peyrefitte, 2007; Neve, 2003; Whyte & Classen, 2012)

Criticisms: the risk by adopting such method, is to undertake a study with a limited population sampling. According to positivist researchers, this approach can bias the findings as they cannot be generalised.

Counter-argument

The theorist Flyvberg (2001) states that on the contrary, a deep analysis through the generation of a single case study is valuable because it can contribute to the ‘collective process of knowledge accumulation‘. This ‘power of the good example‘ as he named it, holds the potential to broaden the understanding of a phenomenon.

The mixed-method approach

An increasing number of researchers opt for a mixed-method approach, although only 7% of studies that consider public sector knowledge management have chosen that solution.

Criticisms: some positivist scholars assert that qualitative and quantitative methods are incompatible since they are based on different ontological roots. It seems that some researchers (particularly in Social Science) would have a tendency to assume that such triangulation process provides a guarantee of robustness, with the hidden hope to be recognised as ‘scientific’ in front of an external audience.

choice

 

For a pragmatic approach

Since I have a limited time to undertake this PhD (and limited funding), I do not have any other choices than making compromises. Also, I need to take into account the population I’m studying (in my case, employees working in public sector organisations using an online shared platform). The challenge here is to take into account these constraints, without challenging the validity nor the reliability of my study.

I have therefore opted for an approach adopted in practice: a research approach that deploys mixed methods for an inductive case study in order to extend the knowledge of the influence of online tools on tacit knowledge sharing.

The approach is qualitative, which is a dominant practice in KM research. Based on an interpretivist perspective, it reflects the philosophical stance of knowledge, which is socially constructed. It also takes into account the contextualisation of respondents profiles.

The method is mixed. For triangulation purposes, in order to enrich the data and broaden the possibilities of understanding the phenomena studied.

The research site is a case study. It is  a dominant practice in KM research, and allows a depth of analysis in a specific community.

The data collection consists of 4 activities:

  1. A cross-organisational online survey (completed)
  2. Semi-structured interviews (October-November 2016)
  3. Potential focus groups if the data collected will need to be completed
  4. The content analysis of documentation if it contributes to the investigation.

 

Conclusion

The justification of choosing a qualitative approach to study tacit knowledge stems from the empirical stance that knowledge is socially constructed, even more so when the object of the study is linked to social media usage. It does not deny the value of a positivist approach, nor exclude its usage of course. The point here is to emphasise that the design of a methodology is essential because its objective is to help us answering our research questions.

ISIC 2016

isi2016_logo_blue_smallOn Wednesday the 21st of September, I will be attending the Information Behaviour Conference ISIC 2016 held this year in Zadar, Croatia. This is because I will have the honour to present my 1st short paper co-written with my supervisors Prof. Hazel Hall and Dr. Colin F. Smith. The title of the short paper is: ‘Tacit knowledge sharing: the determination of a methodological approach to exploring the intangible.’ I will present it on Thursday the 22nd in the afternoon session ‘Context of information sharing’ hosted by Maija-Leena Huotari.

Three of my colleagues from the CSI will also be there: Frances Ryan, who will present her paper on Thursday morning, John Mowbray and Lyndsey Jenkins who will both present their research on an academic poster.

Prior to the conference, on Tuesday the 20th, my colleagues and I will be attending the pre-conference Ph.D. workshop with other fellow Ph.D. students. This workshop will give us the opportunity to discuss various challenges and issues we’re struggling with at the present stage of our research.

This is the 2nd time this year that I have the privilege to present my research at an international academic conference, after the IDIMC conference in January. I’m thankful to the School of Computing from Edinburgh Napier University for giving me the opportunity to participate in such important event, as it provides the best environment to discuss my research with other academics.

Last but not least, the fact that this conference happens in Croatia, a country that I love for almost 20 years by now, is a nice wink from Life. No doubt I will enjoy each minute of it.

From shadow to limelight

Delegate

I’ve just came back from the IDIMC conference held by the Centre for Information Management at Loughborough university, as mentioned in my previous post. This was the first time I was attending an academic conference where I could finally present my research in an official academic environment, as the scientific poster I had submitted to the Committee last October was peer reviewed and accepted for being part of the official programme.

The theme of the conference was ‘Exploring our digital shadow: from data to intelligence.’ The programme included several presentations and workshops from researchers, guest speakers and PhD students covering various aspects such as Information behaviour, Big data, Learning organisations, Virtual competences, or research methods to name a few. My colleagues John Mowbray and Frances Ryan respectively and brilliantly presented their papers on Social networking and employment, and on Personal online reputation.

 

Exposing our research

Photo 13-01-2016, 09 44 25In academic conferences, poster sessions typically occur during lunch or refreshment breaks, when delegates have time to discover each one of them and discuss their content with their authors, (who usually stand nearby), which allow them to make comments or ask questions.

This time is very precious as it gave me indeed, the opportunity to explain my study to researchers, but also talk about the hesitations I still have at this stage of my PhD. There were some really interesting feedback that gave me the opportunity to point out the weaknesses, but also the strengths of my study.

 

5 minutes madness

Besides the traditional way to display our work, we were also given the opportunity to present our research through a presentation called ‘5 minute madness‘ during which each PhD student could present their research to the audience, with or without slides, but no longer than five minutes… This was the only chance I had to present mine to all the delegates at once, so I’ve tried to make it a bit fun and visual with the aim of attracting people to discuss my work.

Needless to say that I had a stage ‘fear’: firstly, I’m not used to talk to a public of academic researchers, and secondly, I’m not used to express myself in English in front of a public that I don’t know (I’m more at ease at teaching students). In short, I was out of my comfort zone; but this is what it takes if I want to learn how to be a researcher myself (!) Anyhow, I survived. Several delegates did come to view my poster and discuss my research, with a cup of tea or a cookie in the hands, which added to the friendliness of the meeting 🙂

Knowledge visualisation

I must say that I’ve really enjoyed the process of doing a poster, that I find very similar to the one of building a course, when you own a rather huge amount of knowledge that you would like to share, without much time or space at your disposal to do so. 09AThere is therefore no other choices than being extremely concise, yet clear and specific if you want to make yourself understood. It is also a creative way to share knowledge that I find very enjoyable (I’m personally very sensitive to the beauty of design). I feel therefore thankful to have had the opportunity to present my work in such way.

Over the moon

When I discovered the programme of the conference, I found out that there would be prizes for the best paper, best poster and best ‘5 minute madness‘. I knew that my poster was  fairly good, but I didn’t know how good would be the others. Many were really interesting, and gave me the opportunity to find out about the research of other PhD students in the field of Information Science. Some of them looked really ‘advanced’ and complex to me, and made me feel like an ‘absolute beginner’ (to stay in touch with this week’s cultural reality) when I would compare them to the early stage of my research.

CYnbFUAWsAQqibFTherefore, despite the fact that I knew I had my chances like anybody else, I was still honestly surprised when I heard my name for the prize for the best poster (!) and frankly, it felt good to hear <)

This joyful moment was enhanced by the fact that my colleague Frances Ryan won the prizes for the best paper and the best ‘5 min. presentation’! Basically, we (the CSI team from Napier University) swept all the prizes! 🙂

Needless to say that our supervisor, Prof. Hazel Hall* was proud of us. A compliment that we gladly returned to her, regarding the chance we have to be supervised by her.

*[Update: you can now read her post “An award-winning trip to #IDIMC 2016” about this event.]

 

A glow in the shadow

The theme of this conference was about exploring our digital shadow. For me it has become symbolically a way to shyly expose myself to the limelight of the academic world. My eyes are still a bit blinded by it, but I’m confident that the more I’ll have the chance to expose myself to such challenging circumstances, the closer my time to shine will come.

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