Project Management Institute

East Meets West: Perspectives on Knowledge at Work

Transcript

JOE CAHILL

Hi, I’d like to welcome everyone in our audience back to Center Stage. I’m Joe Cahill, I’m the COO of PMI and today we are visiting with a very special guest, Naoki Ogiwara. Naoki Ogiwara is Managing Director, Knowledge Associates Japan. He is a world-renowned management consultant and researcher in the topics of knowledge, innovation and productivity. Naoki has previous leadership experience having served as Director, Japan Innovation Network, Director, Asian Productivity Organization, or APO, and Senior Knowledge Management Officer at the World Bank.

For over a decade Naoki has helped over 40 large Japanese firms on knowledge management and innovation initiatives at KDI Fuji Xerox. So, not surprisingly, Naoki has written and coauthored many books and articles in the field. So Naoki Ogiwara, welcome to Center Stage.

NAOKI OGIWARA

Thank you for having me here today. It is my great pleasure to discuss knowledge with you, Joe-san.

CAHILL

I’m going to dive into a broad topic of how eastern and western approaches to knowledge management differ. What do you see are some of the key differences between the eastern approach and the western approach to knowledge and knowledge management?

OGIWARA

I think I have been quite fortunate to work on both aspects of knowledge and knowledge management. I mean the eastern knowledge management and the western knowledge management, and also I worked at the World Bank and also Babson Working Knowledge, where I exposed myself to the western approach of knowledge and knowledge management.

And through my observation, I believe that in the western world, people tend to view knowledge as sort of an object to be managed. With that perspective, the western knowledge management is pretty straightforward to systematically manage knowledge or knowledge assets as an object by defining a knowledge asset and making use and application of that for a better business result.

Talking about… I am not sure whether we can say that’s an eastern view or perhaps more Japanese perspective. We perhaps tend to see knowledge as a part of people and/or an organization, non-separable from a creator, user of knowledge—which are people and organizations—with more emphasis on creation side of knowledge rather than management side of knowledge. I think that is hugely influenced by Professor Ikujiro Nonaka’s view, who is one of the fathers of the concept of knowledge management, working on this field for 25-30 years.

And with that, as I said, since when we talk about knowledge in the Japanese context, we tend to focus more on the creation side of knowledge and hence we value our concept, what we call “ba”.

CAHILL

Tell us about ba. You emphasize the importance of creating some future spaces and ba for meaningful conversations to happen. What is the concept of ba and how can it be established in a virtual or remote world?

OGIWARA

Ba in knowledge creation, or knowledge management theory here in Japan, basically means time and space in which people interact for, say, co-equal collaboration so that eventually people create new knowledge toward a driving innovation. And by the way, the original meaning of the Japanese term, ba simply means place, field and/or space. So pretty much it’s about a physical setting in which people interact.

Talking about some key ingredients of ba through research by Nonaka and his colleagues, well, some key ingredients include a shared sense of purpose and also a sense of trust and deep mutual understanding, even a personal level. And also, a good level of peer pressure. So, to create good ba the group cannot be just a peer group of comfort, sometimes they have to get out of their comfort zone to drive innovation or knowledge creation for that.

And also, we say that the importance of what we call distributed leadership or maybe situational leadership, which means that no one person dominates all the time but the leadership shifts from people to people, depending on the situation to have the right leader and the right timing. And in addition to that, of course a key ingredient of good ba before Covid-19 was the environmental setting, and also tools and techniques used for driving collaboration and/or dialogues.

CAHILL

What would it feel like or look like pre-Covid 19? Would it be a typical room of a certain size, would it be an outdoor setting or it would be everything, it’s about the feeling?

OGIWARA

There are various types of ba, but the typical one that perhaps you can easily imagine is a kind of type of innovation center or innovation studio with quite a unique setting in which people are expected to do some out-of-box thinking, out-of-box doing, to foster say a new combination of knowledge.

CAHILL

So just to wrap up this topic of Japanese as compared to western approaches, what do you see the advantages of one versus the other?

OGIWARA

Definitely the key advantage of the western approach is that systematic approach focusing on the business priorities to the core knowledge asset definition or identification. And as I said, managing that knowledge asset as manageable objects through which you can leverage value of core knowledge assets. So definitely I see the key advantage of the western approach on that end.

And talking about the eastern approach... If we do it right, you can create an environment in which you can encourage creation of new knowledge and also effective collaboration towards innovation. I’m not saying either one is better than the other, but definitely it’s a little different. Historically knowledge management in the Japanese context has been very much closer of driving innovation.

CAHILL

Do you see companies that blend the two?

OGIWARA

Well that is an excellent question that I do not know the answer. Perhaps there are some companies in both the western and eastern world that has been doing some good work around hybrid-ing the two approaches. But probably we have yet to have a practice that fully hybrids the beauty of the two.

CAHILL

So early days of that, that’s interesting. So since we’re talking about organizations and creating knowledge, who has influenced your views about knowledge and innovation in organizations?

OGIWARA

Definitely Professor Nonaka, who is by the way 86 now and still very active. But in addition to Professor Nonaka, if I say one more person in the western world, I would say Larry Prusak.

CAHILL

Larry? All right. He’s our friend.

OGIWARA

Right. So I had a quite fortunate opportunity working together with Larry on various occasions and, among a lot of greatest concepts he has created, the one I like most is what he calls the important of cognitive diversity.

CAHILL

That’s a very interesting topic, actually. I can see how that blends into the broader conversation we’re having, particularly on the innovative side.

OGIWARA

Everybody talks about diversity as a diversity of gender, color of skin, background, et cetera. But what he says is important, especially when it comes to effective knowledge creation, it’s not about gender diversity, but more on the diversity of toolkits that people bring into their workspace, which basically means a toolkit which includes a mental model, method, approaches that we apply to get our work done, such as if you...

For instance, if you graduate engineering school you do bring the engineering toolkit. And someone like me, who has graduated MBA school, we do bring MBA toolkits. That’s the diversity we are talking here, which creates opportunities to make innovation or drive innovation.

CAHILL

So essentially different ways of working, different ways of solving problems, different thought processes, and the blend of those is what really makes the magic.

OGIWARA

Exactly. So that concept goes very good with the importance of ba, which is a Japanese concept. So I am seeing that could be some interesting conjunction to connect the two different approaches towards knowledge.

CAHILL

What is your opinion on how knowledge is used in current practice and organizations? And more specifically tell us how knowledge is shared in projects. And finally, tell us about the importance of transferring knowledge to our youth.

OGIWARA

Well when we talk about knowledge around projects, I think there are two key approaches. One is thinking about intra-project knowledge sharing and the other one is inter-project knowledge sharing. And when it comes to the inter-project knowledge sharing, I think this is where codification of knowledge comes in and also where knowing who knows what approach comes in.

But when it comes to the intra knowledge sharing, especially in the large-scale projects, since all the situations change every day and the core knowledge changes every day, meaning that, for instance, suddenly your client asks new things or technology situations have changed. That kind of dynamic thing happens every day in a project, and hence codifying everything does not work very well. And hence interaction among project members would be more important than the codification approach or a knowing who knows what approach.

CAHILL

So when I hear that, I’m thinking of collaboration, communication, those type of basic things that without them the projects really are challenged, right?

OGIWARA

Right, I would say so. And I think you also asked about the transfer of knowledge to a younger generation. And I believe that has been one of the key drivers of doing knowledge in many organizations, and that is the case in many Japanese manufacturers right now since the seasoned veteran generation are now retiring. You have to think about the best ways to transfer from the veteran to a younger generation.

Let me give you one example. So for instance, the application of drone technologies and the remote medicine was much more advanced in devHere, again, there could be two approaches, which is one codification approach and the other one is more like a transfer as a tacit knowledge directly from person to person. And it’s really up to the characteristics of the knowledge domains.

Sometimes codification approach works well. But sometimes when the knowledge is too tacit driven it’s almost impossible to codify, and hence you have to, you as an organization, have to create an environment, opportunities in which the younger can work together with the veteran on perhaps the same engagement, and those are perhaps having a reflective dialogue among the two or among the multiple people. So that gradually that skill set, with a lot of tacit dimensions of knowledge, can gradually be transferred from the senior to the younger.

CAHILL

So there are certain things where an apprenticeship is a much better approach than perhaps a book, right? So let’s shift over and talk about the related topic of productivity and knowledge standards. What have you discovered about productivity in your role at the Asian Productivity Society?

OGIWARA

Well, I used to work for the Asian Productivity Organization, which is a kind of international organization with 20 member countries across Asia whose primary mission is to drive productivity increase and also quality increase in the industries of the 20 member countries.

And traditionally the interaction among the 20 member countries was like this. So basically developed countries, such as Japan and Singapore, teaches productivity, quality, methods, practices to a developing ones such as say Indonesia, Malaysia, et cetera. That was the traditional setting.

But the interesting part is that when it comes to knowledge work, innovation, that simple formula is not necessarily the best one. For instance, there was a Japanese executives’ visit to Thailand on social innovation already ten years ago. So when it comes to knowledge work, innovation work, sometimes the cutting-edge practices are in the developing country side. That’s a kind of interesting part when it comes to knowledge productivities.

Let me give you one example. So for instance, the application of drone technologies and the remote medicine was much more advanced in developing countries. So the example is the mountain areas, there was mountain areas without transportation access, no good roads, and without good medical care, no doctors are in that area. And also, there was an old person in critical illness. They had no choice but sending an injection needle and medicine via drone to the patient. And the doctor in the city gave an instruction via remote medicine simply because there was no alternatives.

But on the other hand, in developed countries, say like Japan, to make this happen, you need to change dozens of rigid regulations. So sometimes being undeveloped is a kind of friend of innovation. That’s a really interesting part of knowledge and innovation work around productivity.

CAHILL

That is very interesting because it’s really the lack of constraint in that case that enables a quick decision to do something different. PMI has been engaged in creating and maintaining standards for over 50 years. What can you tell us about your work on ISO standards, which are very much related and particularly the ISO standards on the topic of knowledge?

A: So our group has been involved in developing two standards. One is a knowledge management system standard, ISO 3041, which was issued in 2018, so just two years ago. And the other one is a standard on an innovation, management system, which is ISO 5602, which was just published last year. So the simple implication is that now we have global consensus about what is the right knowledge management and what is the right approach of innovation management.

And talking about the standard of the knowledge management system, basically it’s saying that good knowledge management requires a systematic, holistic approach tied to its business priorities. And talking about a standard of innovation management system basically requires upgrading your operation system of management from operation centric to balance both operation centric and innovation centric so that you can also drive innovation-related activities along with managing the operations.

And the reason that that standard is requiring that is basically the operation and innovation should be run in a little different principles of management. So operation requires say basically our favorite PDCA cycle, which stands for plan, do, check, action, with fact-based evidence. So the mantra is basically prove it before you do it.

So whereas innovation requires fast and quality trial and error, so the mantra is not prove it before you do it but learn through doing it. So since these two principles are different, if you apply operation management principles to manage innovation I think you are in trouble. You start trying to prove it before trying new things, which makes it impossible to make a number of trial and errors.

CAHILL

It’s a delicate balance between the two as well, right?

OGIWARA

Exactly.

CAHILL

Everybody is always struggling with that, trying to balance between them.

OGIWARA

That’s right. But you know what? I believe the beauty of having the standard for this knowledge management system and the innovation management system is now… there is a global consensus about how you manage knowledge and also how you manage innovation work. So when you deal with knowledge, for instance, now we know we have to think about whether it’s for operational excellence or whether for driving innovation. The principle to manage that knowledge would be fundamentally different.

CAHILL

The in-between space between innovation and operations is where I have a lot of interest. Because there is always that push and pull, right? There’s a push-pull.

OGIWARA

Right. But that is really perhaps the biggest challenge for many Japanese firms who are, say, good at operations but are really, really struggling with driving innovation.

CAHILL

Do they find that separating the two is the first step?

OGIWARA

Well, some organizations have done that. In some companies that worked in the first step. After that, what they struggled with was to connect back to that too. Eventually you have to connect these two, right? It’s under the one company, but separating the innovation system and after creating that, connecting back to the entire management system, we found it also a big challenge.

CAHILL

So that whole process of putting an ISO standard together takes us into our next topic. We look at global economies, they really require a strong international collaboration, particularly the demands of sharing of knowledge and having effective communication and quality networking. PMI is designing and working on a global Knowledge Initiative to address these very goals. So in our world we are trying to do that.

What are the concepts and practices do you think are needed to be considered for really solid international collaboration and success? Maybe it’s the ISO model is a good example but perhaps there’s other insights you can provide.

OGIWARA

Right, so getting back to what we discussed, definitely I would propose the hybrid of the two, of eastern, western approaches towards knowledge to get the best of the two worlds. As we discussed, the beauty of the western approach is a systemic holistic approach to managed knowledge especially as an asset. Whereas the beauty of the eastern approach is more on the building ba or effective collaboration towards knowledge creation.

CAHILL

So topical of 2020, we are still in the throes of Covid-19 worldwide, one thing that is true, I think the world, to the extent that they could, have learned how to work productively in remote settings. And I just want to ask you what do you think is the impact on the conversations, the innovation, I’ll say the ba if you will, and the exchange of knowledge when it’s done remotely?

OGIWARA

I think we are like… in emergency rooms currently with lots of restrictions... unfortunately I believe we’ve got to live with that, I mean with restrictions. And the one thing I think we can think is, taking advantage of the current situation, as in almost nobody travels for business right now, but that makes it much easier to access those who we don’t know via online. Like for instance having conversations with big names becomes much easier, say one click away.

So currently I think we can definitely take advantage of this in return of giving up quality, deep face-to-face interaction, which we can’t afford right now. So I think that could be a general strategy of collaboration, by seeking horizontal access and giving up some vertical, deep collaboration.

CAHILL

It is a different time management challenge. When you travel all the time and then you don’t travel anymore, it does free up time, it does allow you to do more things. You have more time, essentially because you’re not on a plane, you’re not going from the airport to the hotel. All the things that… all the baggage—I guess that’s a funny word for it—but the baggage that comes with it, for sure.

OGIWARA

For online collaboration, we found the importance of what we call energizers - people who inject positive energy, kind of vital, positive guys. Well, in general, these guys are important for any type of collaboration but especially online discussions, online collaborations require these sort of people as compared to a physical, face-to-face collaboration. It is very difficult to sense others’ energies, right? So when you have these sort of people, the online collaboration would likely be more collaborative.

CAHILL

So the role of the energizer, and it was there before Covid but now it’s more important in terms of pulling the teams together.

OGIWARA

Yes. That’s what we found in through the quick research.

CAHILL

Hopefully we all believe—I said hopefully—but I know we all believe that this pandemic will end, because it will, what do you think work will look like once we get back to normal, whatever normal is?

OGIWARA

Well, once we get back to normal, which is perhaps a new normal, I think we can also think about perhaps creating the hybrid of the two different collaborations, which is one, in-depth, face to face, and the other one is quick access to new people so that your, or our, knowledge network goes both deep and wide. I think that could be one way to think about it, by utilizing the lessons learned through this Covid-19 era.

CAHILL

Excellent. I want to thank you so much for your time today. We covered quite a bit of ground. We certainly talked about the Japanese and western approaches to knowledge management and the importance of blending the two as a hybrid approach. We learned about ba, which is a very important concept to understand the eastern, Japanese approach to knowledge management. And as I learn to understand the concept, it’s something that has multiple applications for team building as well, innovation, we talked about that.

We also talked about ISO standards and particularly on knowledge management and innovation and just finished up... I heard the word energizer, which I like, the importance of the energizer when you’re on a Zoom call and that role that they play. And then of course as we go into this new world that we are going to really... again, the word hybrid, we are going to be working in a much more hybrid way but optimizing on the depth of face-to-face but the breadth of these online technologies.

So, very interesting conversation. I appreciate your insight, Naoki Ogiwara. Thank you, again. And hopefully we’ll be meeting soon. It would be great to see you face-to-face once all this dust settles. So thank you for your time and thank you for your insight.