Reflection on Nonaka’s theory of knowledge management

A journal article I read last year in IFN615 Information Management by Nonaka (1991), entitled, The Knowledge-Creating Company, had a big impact on me.  I was taken with the way Nonaka described the knowledge-creation process as a knowledge spiral, beginning with the acquisition of tacit knowledge through a process of apprenticeship, or socialisation.  Tacit knowledge is knowledge held by a person – internalised. It is not yet explicit, or able to be transferred easily to another person in written or even spoken form.  According to Nonaka, tacit knowledge must be made explicit – formal and systematic – so that it can easily be shared with others; e.g. standardised into a workbook or manual.  Explicit knowledge can then be shared throughout an organisation and internalised by employees, thus increasing their tacit knowledge.  This articulation of tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge benefits the company as a whole, allowing for rapid embodiment of new knowledge in new technologies and products, and continuous innovation.  Nonaka believed that tacit knowledge held by individuals is of limited value to the company if it cannot be shared broadly – the company as a whole cannot benefit from it.  I had never thought about different types of knowledge, or knowledge-creation before, and the article prompted me to reflect on my own practice as a speech pathologist supervising students, and how I transfer knowledge to them.   As this article was written in 1991, I thought that I would see what has become of Nonaka’s theory of knowledge-creation.

I found an article by Gourlay (2006), entitled Conceptualising Knowledge Creation: A Critique of Nonaka’s Theory.  This article has been cited 98 times in Web of Science, and 65 times in Scopus, so it appears to have made its mark in the literature.  Gourlay agrees with the wide acceptance of the idea that there are roughly two distinct forms of knowledge; with “tacit” and “explicit” often being the labels used to describe these forms of knowledge. He also acknowledges that Nonaka’s theory is one of the best known and most influential models in knowledge strategy literature (Choo and Bontiss in Gourlay, 2006), and is highly respected; however, Gourlay contends that Nonaka’s proposition is flawed, that his modes of knowledge conversion are not supported by evidence, or could be explained more simply.  Gourlay cites criticism of Nonaka’s theory from sources such as Jorna (in Gourlay, 2006) and Bereiter (in Gourlay, 2006).  Gourlay proposes a new framework, citing Dewey’s work in 1916, in which non-reflectional behaviour is associated with tacit knowledge, and reflective behaviour is associated with explicit knowledge, and that different forms of knowledge are created as a result of different modes of experience or behaviour, rather than through the interaction between two kinds of knowledge.

Gourlay’s (2006) article was very conceptual and theoretical.  His arguments appeared to be well researched, but I found the article quite dense, and difficult to read.  It is possible that my difficulty reading and understanding the article reflects my lack of knowledge in this area, and an inability to find something in the article that I could relate to my current knowledge and experience, rather than a shortcoming of Gourlay’s.  Nonaka’s (1991) article, on the other hand, was accessible to a reader with little knowledge in the area of knowledge creation / management, and provided concrete examples for the reader to visualise, understand and identify with. The article introduced me to new concepts (tacit and explicit knowledge), and the concept of passing on tacit knowledge by apprenticeship rang very true for me in my practice as a speech pathologist supervising students.  It really made me think deeply. It captured my imagination, and I can see why it captured the attention of those in management and organisational studies, and knowledge strategy fields, and became such an influential and highly respected theory.  I find it interesting the way the human mind works, and the way we can be persuaded and inspired by an idea that is not necessarily grounded in the scientific method or backed by empirical evidence.  However, if we can relate to the idea, and the end result is deep reflective thought, a new idea, creativity or innovation, then is that necessarily a bad thing? I don’t think it is.


Gourlay, S. (2006). Conceptualizing Knowledge Creation: A Critique of Nonaka’s Theory. Journal Of Management Studies, 43(7), 1415-1436. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6486.2006.00637.x

Nonaka, I. (1991). The Knowledge-Creating Company. Harvard Business Review, 69(6), 96–104.