Making creativity and innovation happen
Making creativity and innovation happen

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Making creativity and innovation happen

7.1 Lessons from Japan

A distinctly different approach to both knowledge creation and wise leadership is found in Japan.

Some of the most insightful theories about Japanese-style knowledge creation and Japanese leadership have been advanced by Ikujiro Nonaka, whom many regard as Japan’s most distinguished management scholar.

Nonaka’s Harvard Business Review paper, ‘The knowledge-creating company’ (1991), brought his theory of knowledge creation to international attention. It argues that:

Much as manufacturers around the world have learned from Japanese manufacturing techniques, any company that wants to compete on knowledge must also learn from Japanese techniques of knowledge creation.

(Nonaka, 1991, p. 97)

The specifically Japanese techniques of knowledge creation referred to by Nonaka include more active accessing of the tacit knowledge by team members and a more holistic approach to the organisation as a whole.

Figure 17 Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi

Nonaka’s major work, ‘The knowledge-creating company’, written with Hirotaka Takeuchi (1995), argued that a knowledge creator’s tacit knowledge could be converted into explicit knowledge.

Explicit knowledge can easily be ‘processed’ by a computer, transmitted electronically, or stored in databases. But the subjective and intuitive nature of tacit knowledge makes it difficult to process or transmit the acquired knowledge in any systematic or logical manner. For tacit knowledge to be communicated and shared within the organization, it has to be converted into words or numbers that anyone can understand.

(Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995, p. 9)

In what has become known as the SECI model, Nonaka and Takeuchi argue that knowledge is created in a four-stage sequence:

  1. socialisation
  2. externalisation
  3. combination
  4. internalisation.

Socialisation with like-minded people causes an individual’s tacit knowledge to be converted into explicit knowledge, which can be combined with other people’s externalisations to create new knowledge that other people can internalise.

Nonaka argued that ‘New knowledge always begins with the individual’ (1991, p. 97) and spirals outwards to include other individuals – as Nonaka and Takeuchi depicted in the four-stage sequence of the ‘knowledge spiral’:

Figure 18 Knowledge spiral

In recognition of the impact of his work, in 2008, the Wall Street Journal ranked Nonaka among the world’s 20 most influential business thinkers and, in 2013, Nonaka received the Thinkers50 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Activity 8 Creating promising possibilities: lessons from Japan?

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

Watch the video ‘Creating promising possibilities: lessons from Japan?’

To what extent do you agree with the proposition that the Japanese process of knowledge creation is universal?

Download this video clip.Video player: bb842_openlearn_235447_2.mp4
Skip transcript


When I went to Japan in 1992, I met this guy, Ikujiro Nonaka. He was going to direct my fellowship for a year, and he became quite famous with this theory of knowledge creation. But the difficult thing in it all is that the abstract noun knowledge is a theme, sort of.
And Nonaka tells me that you could take the view that tacit knowledge is embodied in our neural networks like some sort of incorporeal ghost in the machine. Well, when we socialise with the like-minded, this thing called knowledge changes state into a corporeal freestanding entity. It's like Schrodinger's cat. It's in two states at the same time. You socialise it, it morphs into explicit knowledge, which can be shared-- here's my knowledge. And then other people can internalise it, mix it up with their knowledge, and we all create lots of knowledge. And we all know everything. Hmm.
You could wonder what this thing called knowledge that we're supposed to be sharing is. It's quite fashionable to say, oh, we're going to have a knowledge sharing event. Come along and share your knowledge. But what is the thing shared supposed to be? Communication doesn't quite work like that. You can't share knowledge among the ignorant in the way that you can share food among the hungry.
Short of a brain transplant, what one person knows how to do can't be moved into another person's head. If my brain were, for the sake of argument, to inherit the body of a fantastic singer, the result would still be disastrous. It's not the body. The body is a tool. It's a very important tool the brain uses to interact with the world. And sometimes quite a deficient body can be overcome by a determined brain. Well, look at Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything.
Our capacity to know is in the brain-- and that's what we should think about-- and how we communicate with others, laugh, and joke. And so I think, of course, he's right, the great singer, that there is something about the close community of relationships that exists within Japan's organisations. They're important. But simply talking about knowledge in the abstract doesn't help.
And there have been dissenting voices. It sounds glorious, The Economist noted in 1997, when they appointed Professor Nonaka as Professor of Knowledge at Berkeley-- "famous for its pretension," The Economist quipped. But what is this knowledge creation? It's rather like telling an orchestra to focus on music creation or a war on terror. We create more knowledge, less terror.
Really, the emphasis ought to be on doing because that's what managers do. War on terror, shock and awe, invasion of Iraq. But what are the consequences of doing shocking and awful things-- terrible, shocking, and awful things, for example, to the prisoners held in Abu Ghraib jail.
You want to start with doing and how we communicate. Knowing how to do things in Japan without being [GASPS] too surprised or too often takes a little bit of time. And what has evolved as viable in a Japanese institution ecology wouldn't be viable in Milton Keynes. It's rather like plucking a fish out of the sea, something that's evolved to saltwater and all of that, putting it in your goldfish pond and expecting it to thrive.
End transcript
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A key learning point is the recognition of the importance of context. What works in one context or organisation will not automatically work in another. If you are seeking to develop and embed innovation you must recognise not just the opportunities that context brings, but also the limits.

Next you will consider the importance of communication in facilitating not just trust but also the exchange of ideas, thoughts and emotions.


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