A Place Called ba: Rene Descartes and Ikujiro Nonaka Meet, Part 2

Recently, I took you back 400 years to show you how René Descartes solved problems. Our friend Descartes, who developed the Cartesian Coordinate System, followed four steps for solving a problem:

  1. Look for and find what you know beyond a shadow of a doubt to be true, without opinion or favoritism.
  2. Break everything else down into as many simple elements as necessary to solve and prove each part.
  3. Start with the most simple and master it, moving higher in complexity. Assign them into your order of thought, even if they are not in any natural order.
  4. Calculate, organize, and condense completely, and present in general, missing nothing in the solution.

Back in the 1990s, another original thinker, Ikujiro Nonaka, started to wonder about how organizations created knowledge. His key discovery was that organizations do not create knowledge; people do. The job of organizations is to facilitate the work of individuals, allowing people to interact and create knowledge. Beyond the creation, the duty of the organization is to help spread the knowledge within, and perhaps outside too.

Nonaka describes a series of four different modes of knowledge conversion, using Descartes’ grid (or the four-box matrix of the old BCG days) to illustrate the pattern and flow of the creative effort.

Nonakas Grid.jpg

Nonaka believes that knowledge begins with the individual who makes the commitment to solve a problem. In working to solve the problem, or after finding what they may think is a solution, the individual tests out the idea. Sometimes that testing is done in a lab, sometimes it is done on a piece of paper, but it is still an individual effort. While it is an individual effort, the knowledge gained is internal to the individual. It is tacit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge is what you have when you know how to do something, but you can’t describe how to do it with ease. Describe how you know something is red. Or how to swing a golf club. Aristotle called this knowledge techne, where technique, technology, and art come into play. Tacit knowledge is context-dependent, in that you have a hard time explaining how to swing the golf club without holding something in your hands. Tacit knowledge is rooted in practical skills, involving a deep level of rational thinking that happens in the hands, the eyes, and in the movement of the body or the tool.

It is not easy to share tacit knowledge with others. To do so you have to engage in extensive personal contact and trust to transfer the knowledge to another person. Some people can’t learn from a book; they must learn by doing, and finding the right teacher to teach them is difficult. The teacher or the discoverer must socialize the knowledge into words, pictures, and actions that they can explain to others.

And then comes the need for the other person. The person with the knowledge has the desire to share, and they have worked to develop a way to share something that is difficult to teach, to externalize the thought into a form that they can share, and to socialize it to another person.

How many times have you had something exciting to share, found someone to tell it to, and they could not have cared less? How did you feel after that experience? That is why the work to externalize is hard, but the act of socialization is even harder. You have to build up trust that the other person is going to find your discovery of knowledge interesting enough to engage in conversation, to actively think about your thoughts. They have to trust you, that your motive to share the idea is in their interest first, and yours second.

This place of trust, where two people meet and share knowledge, can happen anywhere. It most often happens in real space, face to face. But it can happen on the telephone, or in the virtual world. That place where two people meet and exchange tacit knowledge is ba.

Ba? No, it is not a place to get a drink in Boston—although a bar in Boston could certainly become a place where ba can exist. Ba is a Japanese concept, not really a word but a modifier, meaning “place of.” The closest translations I could find for ba are usage examples in which ba is tacked onto the ends of words. Nonaka uses the word as a shorthand for the moment in space and time where two individuals (and potentially groups) gather and share tacit knowledge.

Let’s Go to the Backyard for Some ba

Whom do you share ideas with? Where do you share them?

wilson & tim allan.jpgRemember Tim Allen’s show, "Home Improvement"? There was always a scene in which Tim would be in the doghouse for something. He would be standing in the back yard talking to Wilson, the neighbor behind the fence. Tim would share his difficult-to-explain problem, usually a problem dealing with other people. Wilson would listen, and then share back a tacit observation that would unravel that mystery for that week. That is an example of ba.

Ba is context-dependent. You have an idea. The other person has an interest in the same thing, or a different solution that may work. You make the connection without formality, because you know each other and trust each other. Both parties are relaxed and comfortable about the subject, knowing they can speak freely, without fear of reprisal for saying something dumb. The place is not as important as the space, time, and sense of being in connection. As you exchange the idea, you are socializing your tacit knowledge with the other person, and they with you. The knowledge is still tacit; it is still hard to describe “know how” kind of stuff. But in the act of the exchange, both people gain a slightly better understanding, turning the techne into something a little bit easier to understand. And both go on to tell others.

Back to Tim:  after he talks to Wilson, Tim is always excited, and goes in to tell the others how he is going to solve the problem. He still messes up the explanation, but gets Jill or the boys to go along with the idea, and it works. The problem is solved, and knowledge is created.

We do this all the time. It gets harder when we take the idea and attempt to share it with many others. That takes many more visits to the ba, and some group ba action. So next, we figure out how to move tacit to explicit, from socialization to combination.

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