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.

Ba_logo

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…

 

 

Local GRAD school 2017 – lessons learnt.

The Spy Who Shagged Me

Last week, I’ve had the chance to attend the Edinburgh Local GRAD School among other PhD students from all over Scotland. The aim of this training was to give us some space so that we can become more aware of our personal and professional transferable skills.

There were a lot of group activities, some workshops, and plenty of opportunities to meet other PhD students to discuss our research or chat about PhD lives. The program was intense and challenging, and not much time was left on our own to reflect on all the activities we were involved in. However, there are a few lessons learned that I would like to share here, by sharing the insights of one particular exercise.

Just a widget

The very first activity we were asked to do consisted of creating an innovative widget, starting from the scratch. The only guideline we received was to create something which is useful to the society. Each group had 1 hour to create a prototype, that would be then presented to the rest of the entire group, allowing us to explain the concept (technical challenges, management issues, overall purpose, etc.). One hour is not much time when you need to create something new with people you hardly know and who come from different scientific fields.

Where do you start? How will you proceed? And how will you organise yourself?

Lessons learnt

Within a few minutes, we somehow all agreed that it would be more simple to focus on one problem that needs to be fixed (rather than creating something ‘out of the blue’).

  • Lesson 1: Defining a problem will help you discover the potential solution.

Instead of starting something too big (worldwide), we thought it might be easier to create something helpful for the (local) citizens of Edinburgh. One of the problems quickly identified was the issue related to lack of cycling routes in the city, and the danger it represents for all the cyclists.

  • Lesson 2: Think big (global),  but start small (local). If an objective must be SMART, then it seems more realistic to start with something feasible within your own environment (even if it is virtual). If the product if successful, it will become global.

We were asked to think “out of the box”, so we have. As none of us had a background in urbanistic studies, we simply came out with the idea that bikes should be able to fly (above the cars and crowded roads).

  • Lesson 3: Dream, and stick to your dream. No great inventions were ever made without dreaming, even if it looks crazy to the eyes of others. We are creators, therefore free to invent what we feel inspired by.

Somehow, our group split into two sub-groups: one that worked on the prototype (with the material provided by the tutors), and the other one on the presentation (explaining the benefits of our concept).

  • Lesson 4: Trust that each member of the group will eventually find its place to contribute in some way. Don’t let anyone isolated, each one has a precious gift to share. Let go of any egoistic personal desires. It is a group project, not a solo one.

We had only one hour, and therefore no time to make our prototype “perfect“, but the result was “good enough” to be presented to the rest of the main group.

  • Lesson 5: Always aim for the best, but remember that a product that is finished will always be better than an unfinished one, as perfect as it might be.

 

Conclusion

The presentation of our widget was clear and well spoken. Our bike prototype was rather clumsily cute and totally hand-made (with tapes, plastic cups, paper and wires). We gave it a name: Fly High. It won the 1st price.

This exercise was a wonderful example on how knowledge is co-created through social interactions, providing the perfect ground to enable collective intelligence. This was also a beautiful demonstration of the explicitation of tacit knowledge shared with one another, with the common aim of creating something new and useful to the society, with limited resources, and a lot of solidarity, essential to the success of any project.

The exploration of the intangible

fog

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?

stands_sentry_on_chajnantor

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.