TopMBA Management Greats: Ikujiro Nonaka | TopMBA.com

TopMBA Management Greats: Ikujiro Nonaka

By Tim Dhoul

Updated June 28, 2019 Updated June 28, 2019

“I see management as a way of life,” said Ikujiro Nonaka after receiving a lifetime achievement award from Thinkers50 in November 2013. “Instead of simply chasing numbers, wise leaders focus on shaping the future together with others considering shared contexts and the common good,” he added.

Ikujiro Nonaka is best known for his work within the field of knowledge management – the way in which organizational knowledge is developed and used effectively. Among his most notable works is The Knowledge-Creating Company (1995), co-authored with his long-time colleague at Japan’s Hitotsubashi University and current Harvard professor, Hirotaka Takeuchi.

Thinkers50 award latest in long line of honors

The tribute from Thinkers50 is by no means the first accolade bestowed upon Nonaka. His contributions to education and academia in Japan have brought him honors that include the Purple Ribbon Medal, a Japanese governmental award, in 2002. The Wall Street Journal named Nonaka as one of its ‘Most Influential Business Thinkers’ in 2008.

Indeed, Thinkers50 co-founder, Des Dearlove, stressed Nonaka’s importance to knowledge management, as well as to a greater cultural awareness of business practice in Japan, when announcing November’s award. “He has helped further our knowledge of Japanese management, has helped build mutual understanding and led the way in how we understand the importance of knowledge as a competitive advantage,” he said in a press release for Thinkers50.

Fuji Electric awakened interest in knowledge management

Ikujiro Nonaka is an MBA and PhD alumnus of the business school at the University of California, Berkeley, known today as the Haas School of Business. Prior to this, he became interested in knowledge management during the years he spent working with Fuji Electric after completing an undergraduate degree at Waseda University in the late 1950s.

Nonaka was especially interested in developing a distinctly Japanese approach to management, rather than merely relying on models imported from the US, something which was widespread in the immediate postwar period.  At Fuji, he succeeded in helping create a management program that was subsequently offered to companies across Japan.

It was while at Berkeley that he met Hirotaka Takeuchi, after which both men became integral faculty members at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University – where Nonaka has been a professor emeritus since 2006. However, in a distinguished academic career, Ikujiro Nonaka also spent several years back at Berkeley as a faculty member at Haas School of Business and is now a resident fellow of The Peter F. Drucker & Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management at Claremont.

The Knowledge-Creating Company

In 1995’s The Knowledge-Creating Company Nonaka, together with Takeuchi, provided a crucial insight into that decade’s booming success among Japanese companies and proposed a new and deeply significant theory in knowledge management.

The Nonaka-Takeuchi model centers on the differences between explicit knowledge (readily available, for instance that contained within a textbook) and tacit knowledge (learnt only by experience and communicated indirectly, through metaphor and analogy, making it difficult to pass on to others.) In The Knowledge-Creating Company, the authors argue that a key driver of Japanese company success was the ability to transform tacit into explicit knowledge.

The Knowledge-Creating Company, and a subsequent book Nonaka penned with G. von Krogh and K. Ichijo in 2000 (Enabling Knowledge Creation: How to Unlock the Mystery of Tacit Knowledge and Release the Power of Innovation) both won business and management book of the year awards from the Association of American Publishers.

Further key works of the Hitotsubashi University professor emeritus

While teaching at Hitotsubashi University, a further key collaboration with Takeuchi lay in the shape of an article published by the Harvard Business Review in 1986. ‘The New New Product Development Game’ argued for a new emphasis on speed and flexibility in developing new products and became one the principal foundations for the Scrum development framework. This method eschews a sequential approach, helping developers work towards achieving a common goal together and has become a hugely popular method in software development.

Meanwhile, a later paper introduced the concept of ‘Ba’ (roughly translated as ‘place’ in English.) Ba is where two minds within an organization meet – either physically (e.g. in an office) or mentally – through their shared experiences of organizational culture. According to the Economist, the term continues to be cited, notably by Thomas A. Stewart, chief marketing and knowledge officer at the global management consulting firm Booz & Company and the Harvard Business Review’s former editor, in his book The Wealth of Knowledge (2003).

Today, Ikujiro Nonaka is still looking ahead, with a view to adding to his oeuvre of works relating to organizational theory and knowledge management. According to Hitotsubashi University’s Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy, his current research compares and contrasts processes of knowledge creation at companies around the world, as well as casting a watchful eye over new developments in innovation and strategic practices among Japanese companies. 

National Center of Sciences at Hitotsubashi: image source

Ikujiro Nonaka image source: Haas School of Business

This article was originally published in February 2014 . It was last updated in June 2019

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Written by

Tim is a writer with a background in consumer journalism and charity communications. He trained as a journalist in the UK and holds degrees in history (BA) and Latin American studies (MA).

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