Strategic Knowledge Communities.
A Western proposal for the Japanese concept of Ba
Preprint from The Journal of Knowledge Management, Volume 8, 2004. Emerald, http://www.emeraldinsight.com
The concept of ba was introduce in 1996 by Ikujiro Nonaka and Noburo Konno. Since that, it plays a major role in the Japanese way of Knowledge Creation. By now it belongs to the specialized jargon of KM out of the archipelago whose approach of KM is different that the IT oriented one from the United States. The print of Japanese culture in this concept makes it not so easy to understand through Western languages using a unique word, clear, distinct and without any shadow. Therefore this paper proposes an equivalent through the formulation of Strategic Knowledge Community. This contribution is organized in three parts. First of all, it strives to define the ba concept from a Japanese cultural point of view. Then, it considers some philosophical implications of the concept. At last, it presents some case studies from the Human Health Care’s program from the Eisai Company. This paper was made possible because of an investigation program about the Japanese way of Knowledge Creation that is supported by the Science and Technology Service from the French Embassy in Japan. The global results of this investigation will be published in 2003.
A Japanese concept
Ba is a Kanji ideogram whose left part means ground, boiling water or what is rising and whose right part means to enable. On the one side it points out a potential and from the other a kind of engine that gives a direction. One may talk about a good ba when relational situations energize people making them creative within positive and dynamic interactions. The right part of the ideogram refers to the yin and yang philosophy of permanent transformation. As Kitaro Nishida wrote: Reality is a succession of events that flow without stopping. The use of ba concept comes from this philosopher who pointed out that way a physical space where an hidden power is lying, where one can receive energy when diving in. That’s not just a spot but also a moment in which one might live a transformation process but also an emergent one. A ba could be memorized and opened to a continuity of relation within a kind of atmosphere that refers to a particular feeling linked to a community’s shared space and time. What we call time, space and material force are simply concepts established in order to organize these facts and to explain them. In this perspective, a ba could be assimilated to a sort of level of consciousness.
For Ikujiro Nonaka, a ba could be thought as a shared space for emerging relationships? This space can be physical (e.g. office, dispersed business space), mental (e.g. shared experiences, ideas, ideals) or any combination of them. What differenciates ba from any ordinary human interactions is the concept of knowledge creation. Ba provides a platform that a transcendental perspective integrates all transformation needed. Ba may also be thought as the recognition of the self in all. According to the theory of existentialism, ba is a context which harbors meaning. Thus, we consider ba to be shared space that serves as a foundation for knowledge creation. As a positive and voluntary field of constraints, ba is favorable to constructive human interactions between selves and between them and their useful environments. Exchanges of data, of information and opinion, collaboration and mobilization on a project to face necessities and the unknown convey ba within an organization. It could be understood as emptiness appropriated for emergence or as a kind of “oriented but not so determined” opened, tacit and consensual space. Ba does not come to reality by decrees. It is not produced by the command and control model of traditional pyramidal management. On the contrary, is set up by voluntary membership within an energize and stimulate mode through care and mutual respect. Ba is fundamentally subjective and relational and one involves in because it is ruled by common interest and because there is no conflicts within human relationships.
Refering to the four stages of SECI model from Nonaka, it is possible to consider ba through different particularities : its emergence, the socialization it provides, the systematic interaction it allows and finally its effect as an agent for internalization. Ba includes a tacit component when emotions, experiences, feelings and mental images are shared. It provides a context for socialization and existential space for individuals transcend their limits through physical implication of the broad spectrum of their capacities. Nonaka used to say that care, love, confidence and responsibility are required. In addition to this inter-individual relationship, a collective one opens to practices, values, processes, culture and climate to be shared in a more or less formalized way. Virtual ba may function using information and communication technologies and distant networking. Interactions combine tacit and explicit within knowledge spirals. At last, ba provides adequate context for internalization of knowledge and catalyzes reflection actually transformed in action ! Effective ba could be revealed in various ways. For example, while passing within a store, weak signals could be perceived and then combined and enriched with other data, hypothesis about markets, purchase attitudes or scenarios about future… Ba is what allowed scrupulous observers to be tuned within right rhythms in order to take efficient decisions in terms for instance of supplies, answers to questions or ways to present services and products… Interaction with consumers and users might create global ba too. Relationships within a ba do not exist a-priori, they are not pre-determined or coming from any extra solid model out of human implications. The inner coherency of ba reveals itself through organic interactions based on vision and community knowledge effort rather than as the effect of a of a mechanical concentration produced by a dominant center. These interactions lead to apparition of a higher self and continuous exchanges strengthen inner relationships. Individuals create the ba of teams which create the one of organizations.
“Elementary, my dear Watson !”
To illustrate the complementary difference between on one side the perception of weak signals produced by serendipity, fuzzy receptivity, tacit know-how, craft experience and intuition, and on another side explicit objective information, Noburo Konno makes reference to the tandem Holmes – Watson. Sensible, clear-sighted and creative, Sherlok Holmes identifies weak signals, and then processes by induction and combines them to make sense. On the contrary, the deductive Dr Watson analyses and that is the reason why he finds out later. He rationalizes like an historian what Holmes presents to him as “elementary !”. These two ways to process are not antagonist but complementary. Dr Watson’s pre-conceptions orient Holmes’s perceptions and even induce his sensibility that lead to identification of relevant signals. Doing so, Dr. Watson’s rationality frees the imagination of Holmes making him capable to devote full time and art to his insight activity. It constitutes the backdrop, the previous accessible and explicit knowledge and competences that match creatively with curiosity and no a-priori availability. Through each investigation, the couple Holmes – Watson creates a strategic knowledge community set up toward the discovery of the truth! They convene partners and all possible indicators that allow them to step ahead to their aim so that they assume their detectives’ commitments.
To highlight the philosophical dimension of ba, Noburo Konno quotes Derzou Ouzala, the central character from a Kurosawa’s film. This lonely trapper from deep inside Siberia develops a high sensibility to signals that are coming from his environment and the harmony he is living with conditions and circumstances makes him part of nature itself. Subject and object do not exist separately for they are the two sides of one reality. Derzou fully communicates with this whole from which he is just a moment, a modality with whom he is not isolated as an autonomous and self-sufficient being. If it comes for him to die, he dies and stays in harmony with what the environment requires. On the other hand, as long as he keeps the least of his energy he is still active without distinguishing himself from what is surrounding and in which he participates. Derzou Ouzala does not constraint events but merges himself within the global unity and finds best solutions that result from the couples action (himself) – reaction (the environment). Walking, he receives the ground’s reaction and does not sink because the ground is part of the movement within a complementary interdependent unity. This environmental and relational comportment is based on community. Derzou Ouzala is never alone and isolated from the world. Same energy underlies nature and makes him alive within an included ba on the very junction between the past and the immediate future. It is not him who wants and desires but the very community he constitutes with the nature.
On a similar way, the film Wild with Women and Painting from Im Kwon-taek relates episodes from the life of the famous Korean artist Ohwon – Jang Seung-Up and stresses the intimate relationship that unifies beings no matter forms and particular existences. All along successive scenes, Ohwon impregnates himself from the energy that goes through the river’s flows, the hustle and bustle of a foliage, a swarm of hundreds of birds, the deaf snow that covers a landscape… till he ends by disappearing inside the inferno of a ceramist’s kiln! There is not such a difference between his art and the work of nature. The achievement of his painting traduces the permanent flow of transformations. In other words, because the artist resounds with them, he becomes able to leave them revealing as an echo through his paintings. Women and wine represent the mean to dissolve the limits of his self increasing porosity so that he fulfils a qualitative sensibility that opens him to an intimate communion with this higher reality. His creativity relies on his ability to be one self with the whole and to vibrate with the forces that underlie it. Through his very exposure to nature’s forces, Ohwon strives to awake similar modalities within him therefore he can traduce them on the paper. That is the essence of his work and the artist does not act just relying on just his will.
Let us talk now about the firm. Because it maintains tuning with the market and manage no barriers that slow communication and adaptation with it, the firm does not consider itself as exterior. It takes profit from the energy of the evolutions of the market as long as it provides satisfaction needs. An including ba allows to keep on flexible availability that orients in function of perceived signals then converted in information and then into knowledge within the community atmosphere. Main danger is to be cut from reality that flows. When something is created, the author of it contributes energetically to this new existence and may loose focus on all the rest. What is all around might be no longer perceived. To get an idea means making a choice, having a bias, and so leaving in the shadow a part of reality : developing a partial thinking and so a biased one (…) the wise man has no rules nor principles, he is ready to chose one issue of the other depending of the moment. He has an opportunistic capability advisedly and do what does require situation. As it goes for failure says Noburo Konno, thinking about it just may create conditions to be invited by. The environment is infernal because hell lies inside you though you become part of it. The transformations’ cycle is endless. The hand inside the flow cannot stop it, so it does with time. Flow is the key word and so it goes too for information. If you keep it enclosed, you poison yourself like a cancer does. You might be killed by information if you keep it! Ba philosophy has nothing to see with a out-of-context supposed creation of knowledge in an individual way, autonomous and outside of any human interactions. On the contrary it opens dynamic process that surpasses individual limits and it comes to reality through a platform where common language is used to achieve community aims and goals. Ba is focused on knowledge front and the human energy it uses can be extended and optimized with ICT’ capabilities (Information and Communication Technologies). ICT cannot be the first step of knowledge management. Flowing without frontiers, ba modifies itself depending the ones who participate. A strategic knowledge community is not exclusively restricted to the history and the spatial limits of an organization but is led by projects.
The Human Health Care’s program
The pharmaceutical group Eisai implemented knowledge creation as a real management philosophy. This led it to tackle its very reason to be as an enterprise and to redesign strategically its mission promoting the HHC’s values as a compass for anybody inside the company. Doing so, Eisai succeeded in mobilizing more that just its own potential. Within the global project of Human Health Care for third age persons the group set up a ba that contributed to knowledge creation. The HHC’s program become chief orchestra of a strategic knowledge community that merged collaborative efforts both from patients and from the company. Previously, Eisai considered its own competencies and knowledge (in R&D, management, administration, business…) as not sufficient to achieve the HHC’s goal for the society at large. To assume such a mission, other competencies and knowledge were required and they had to be seek within the environment of ill persons themselves: their families and the ones who cared them. The apprehension by them of their illnesses represented a major source of information and knowledge, so matching it with the capabilities of Eisai was a very strategic issue. Haughty, supreme, isolated and cut, the scientific knowledge was not sufficient at all. It had to be combined and articulated with the energy of demand through close interactions to give birth to what is necessary to improve and to provide. Doing so, researchers from Eisai did not privatize the needs of patients, monopolizing it in the name of an indisputable hyper-competence, but they strived to contribute to solutions within a global movement.
The knowledge of ill persons, from their relatives, nurses… was above all tacit, silent and non formalized. To create the appropriate conditions to externalize it, a ba or strategic knowledge community unified Eisai and patients inside a common integrated effort (compass). First step of the SECI model, empathy provided the right climate for externalization of tacit knowledge that was not expressed with words nor sentences. Eisai people involved themselves in practical attention and care for patients. Through this relationship, people from Eisai perceived and felt in a tacit way difficulties, pains, apprehensions and rhythms. We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving other Ladies and Gentlemen. To maintain and to deep HHC philosophy, a ritualized smart grants system was set up to reward salaries who contributed to better and increase knowledge and performances of the group. Listening, exchange and cross-fertilization between departments was highly encouraged and also discussions about ways of thinking and processing. The fight against viscosity of information was permanent. Files about met persons from outside of the group circulated and were available through the intranet. Anyone who consulted an information was able to award it with one point whether s/he considered it worth. Transversal training within the enterprise and benchmarking with firms that were the best in the customers’ satisfaction were sought.
A strategic knowledge community functions on the basis of systematic flows and exchange of information far from black hole ways that absorb but do not leave any information going out. To help doctors to better their knowledge and practices, Eisai organized training sessions and made available an opened and free call center. People suffering Alzheimer disease had access in Japan to a specific home page too. Public lectures were planned and the group contributed in the annual day about this degenerative disease. All these practices acted in favor of the setting up of ba that gathered all the ones from outside of Eisai who shared concerns about this illness and wished to increase knowledge about it. Requests, asking, opinions and comments that were coming from patients and caring people from hospitals were processed with lot of care. Questions without answers and diagnostics without solutions were of the main importance because they tackled and informed about knowledge fronts. The processing was detailed and the information was systematically spread to enrich projects management. Circulation used to go on till it lead to qualitative and cognitive steps. Information and communication technologies accelerated the process.
Let’s consider now the practical case of the patients’ fear about endoscopy in which Eisai applied the four stages of SECI model. Socialization step of tacit knowledge took place between doctors, researchers and psychologists through a questionnaire. Externalization of this knowledge allowed to set up a second questionnaire for the patients to answer. Sessions to make them sensitive to the importance of endoscopy were planned and explanations and details were provided too. Results of both questionnaires were combined, analyzed and then communicated through new training sessions. The internalization step bettered the doctors’ knowledge and contributed to lighten the patients’ fear thanks to the development of their knowledge about interest and necessity of endoscopy. As a result, making fears explicit and matching with scientific knowledge gave rise to a new knowledge that enlighten both patients and doctors. This knowledge movement transformed the involved partners for their own global benefice. Efficiency and action came along with knowledge creation. This case study illustrates the importance of seeking to combine knowledge from diverse sources in order to step forward in knowledge fronts and to develop capabilities. What was unknown by the patients was not considered as an obstacle but of vital interest to solve the problem, to enrich knowledge and to open possibilities. Everything had its importance and the experts did not consider themselves as exclusive authorized owner of supreme and isolated knowledge ! Mutual respect and self confidence paid major role and the knowledge creation process was based on dialectic relations. Doctors evaluated the fears with the patients and found a way all along with them in order to provide a convenient method. Distinction between subject (active and who were supposed to know) and object (passive and who were supposed to ignore) disappeared because of the management of a common project. An informational movement was led by a community effort to reach satisfactory solution. In the beginning convenient and operational knowledge was not available. Sharing the management of questions using SECI model gathered scattered elements. Because the move was right, knowledge was created. The HHC’s program provided conditions of a real operational harmony in the meaning gave by John Boyd. HHC philosophy and values acted as a compass for everybody inside the firm for them to develop their activities and interactions. Sharing vision and project afforded maneuver margin for decision making that resulted from signal perceived by Eisai people, and functioned as a binding component that focused energy. Using HHC’s standards, each one had capacity to measure self efficiency and performance and the ones from the others.
As a temporary conclusion
Strategic knowledge communities (SKC) tend to loosen and dissolve physical limits of organizations, fostering collaborative projects that include potentialities from abroad. Partners and even competitors, customers and users, complementary sources of knowledge and competences… are engaged synergistically toward operational knowledge fronts. This dynamic porosity appears as a condition for strategic agility within a hardly predictable knowledge-based society. As a result time and rhythm in knowledge creation take the lead on space and physical limits that are too slow in terms of flows and processes and too limited as regards as the spectrum of possible mobilization of resources in an opened fast global world. The community principle is ruled by projects, aims and goals, therefore it is strategic to enlighten the immediate future. The key strategic principles of liberty of action and economy of means can be applied within such SKC. In the opened informational society where information designs the raw material, the agent for transformation and the final product, the Japanese concept of ba offers the advantage of stressing the preeminence of relational frameworks so that information and communication technologies contribute in a dynamic way. The scope of experimentation is not just wide but imperative.
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 Socialization – Externalization – Combination – Internalization.
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 Konno Noburo, interview with the autor of this paper, 2002, Tokyo.
 This kind of relationship sounds a little bit like hara to hara communication between the master (sensei) and the disciple in Japanese arts.
 Useful slogan for HHC’s program in Eisai.
 See Boyd.
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 Castells Manuel, La société en r éseaux.