"Ba" for Management Development

“Ba” is a Japanese concept meaning a shared space that serves as a foundation for the creation of individual and collective knowledge.  Nonaka and Takeuchi built on the concept in their influential book, The Knowledge Creating Company a few years back.

The SECI Cycle of Knowledge Creation

In that book they advanced a “dynamic theory of knowledge creation” embodied in their SECI cycle of tacit to explicit knowledge creation. In the model organizational knowledge is created and grows through a cycle of  Socialization, Externalization, Combination and Internalization

Nonaka considered that “Ba” was the context in which the knowledge assets of an organization were created shared, and utilized through informal interaction.  According to Nonaka, a different type of Ba is associated with each stage of the knowledge creation cycle.  This includs Originating ba (socialization), Interacting ba (externalization) Cyber ba (combination) and Exercising ba (internalization)

SECI and Ba

SECI and Ba (from Nonaka and Konno, 1998)

Ba and Management Development

In my search for informal learning services for the training function I came across a simple and powerful program that might be consider a Ba approach to management development.   The program, called Coaching Ourselves is founded by leading management thinker Henry Mintzberg of McGill University and Phil LeNir.

The Coaching Ourselves program is built around groups of managers, usually four to seven, meeting together on topics drawn from content authored by Minztberg and other leading management thinkers such as David Ulrich, Michael Beer, Marshall Goldsmith.  The sessions are self-structured by the management team and are built on the action learning approach I described here (without the facilitator).  The Coaching Ourselves web site illustrates the learning approach like this:

According to the website:

“Through Coaching Ourselves, managers develop themselves as individuals, the group develops as a team, and together they undertake initiatives that change their organization

  • Participants bring their every day experiences, Coaching Ourselves topics provide the concepts
  • Managers learn as they reflect on their experiences in light of the conceptual material
  • The learning is carried back to work for impact.
  • Insights from new experiences feed into subsequent sessions

The SECI model and Ba are concepts firmly rooted in the informal end of the learning continuum I described here.  The loose structure of the Coaching Ourselves program might place it in the middle of the continuum as a “non-formal” learning program.

In my view it offers managers a way to bring their own experience to the table as they interact with their colleagues and the expert content provided by leading management thinkers.   It puts learning in their own hands and embeds it in their day to day work.   It also fosters management learning as a continuous endeavor rather than the one shot learning experience of many structured management programs.   Use of collaborative technologies would allow managers to continue the conversations outside of the meeting room (a virtual ba) and extend the reach of the discussions beyond geographic boundaries.

The connection to SECI and Ba was made for me by one of the participants in the program whose feedback was:

“The sessions have become a precious ‘Ba’ where ‘lonely’ managers can reflect on their management style and talk with their colleagues frankly.”
Mr. Kentaro Iijima, Managing Director of SSL Fugitsu, Japan

Here’s an introduction to the Coaching Ourselves program from Henry Mintzberg:

Learn More:

Ikujiro Nonaka, Noboru Konno, The concept of “Ba’: Building foundation for Knowledge Creation. California Management Review Vol 40, No.3 Spring 1998

H. Shimizu, “Ba-Principle: New Logic for the Real-time Emergence of Information,” Holonics, 5/1 (1995):67-69

Nonaka, I. and Takeuchi, H. (1995). The knowledge-creating company. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nonaka, I., and Toyama, R. (2003). ‘The knowledge-creating theory revisited: knowledge creation as a synthesizing process’. Knowledge Management Research & Practice, Vol 1, pp 2-10.

More on SECI and Ba: here and here

The International Masters Program in Practicing Management (The MBA alternative from which the Coaching Ourselves program is derived)

Blog Entries:

Chris Williams

Dave Crisp


Leveraging the Full Learning Continuum

Formal learning (structured and designed classroom or e-learning programs) has been taking a beating these days.  The informal learning movement, powered by constructivist concepts of learning and web 2.0 applications is well underway.   Carl Sauliner almost got his virtual head lopped off in the blogosphere for suggesting that predictions of the death of classroom training may be premature (Long Live Instructor Led Training).

I believe that informal learning in the workplace is critical and has been long overlooked by the learning function.  However, we’re creating an artificial competition between formal and informal learning and should be careful not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

Learning in organizations is a continuum from informal natural learning through loosely structured learning experiences to formally structured and designed training.  Traditional training functions focused on the design, delivery and management of structured learning programs.   Organizational Development, Performance Technology, many quality systems and Senge styled Organizational Learning practitioners have all merged learning and work through semi-structured, facilitated learning experiences.    Knowledge Management and more recently social media (web 2.0) provide environments that support informal knowledge creation and sharing environments.  This continuum of informal through formal learning continuum might look something like this (adapted from Stern and Sommerlad 1999)

The Organizational Learning Continuum

Leveraging the full range of this learning continuum is important for every organization.  Here are some general suggestions on how to do that.

Use formal training to prepare employees for jobs and tasks

Well designed, formal learning (traditional or on-line) develops new skills fast.  Leaving routine, job specific skill development to informal, buddy system methods is wasteful.  Skills will always need to be refined once on the job (informal learning will play a big role here) but organizations need rapid development to a performance standard for quick productivity.  Well designed structured learning is the best way to accomplish this.  The time/performance chart illustrates this time tested principle:

The time performance chart

The time performance chart

Informal learning encourages learning from mistakes and experimentation and is great for experienced employees.  But it’s also true that we learn our mistakes.  This is the risk of leaving initial training to chance and buddy systems.

When jobs change, new methods or technology are introduced, formal training methods can again be the best method to get up to standard quickly.

Use non-formal (semi-structured) learning to build organizational capability

When employees become productive, they need continuing opportunities to learn and develop in ways that grow organizational capability and resilience. Here learning must be intimately integrated with work–almost a byproduct.  When employees say they learn the most from “experience” this is what they mean.  Learning by doing.

Skilled facilitation through team development, real time problem solving and process improvement efforts move learning in the direction needed to build individual and organizational capability.  Organizational Development, Human Performance Technology,  Senge inspired Organizational Learning have all produced sophisticated methods for results focused learning in job settings.  After initial training, as job expertise develops through experience, less formal learning interventions are more effective for shaping culture, building capacity, and improving performance.  I discussed some methods in my last post.

Create processes and tools that build learning into jobs and cause informal learning

Experienced employees also learn plenty (sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally) simply from interacting with people, ideas and objects in their work environment using the natural learning cycle I described here.  We can create work systems that can cause this type of informal learning through well designed and visible work processes, feedback, and performance systems. Web 2.0, social networking tools and communities of practice give employees, especially knowledge workers, tools to create, share and use organizational knowledge.

Clark Quinn in his recent article Social Networking: Bridging Formal and Informal Learning, includes this useful chart describing the value of formal vs. informal learning for new and experienced employees.

Formal and Informal learning for novice vs. expert

Formal and Informal learning for novice vs. expert

The Learning function in combination with other functions tasked with improving performance need to work together to use the full range of the learning continuum.  How the learning continuum is used and where emphasis is placed depends on job type, organizational function, industry sector, performance issues etc. but the ultimate solution should be a combination of informal, non-formal and formal learning methods to best suit the needs of the organization.

Ultimately we need to use the continuum to create programs and services to:

  • Build requisite knowledge and skills
  • Create pervasive learning opportunities beyond initial skills
  • Encourage collaboration and team learning
  • Establish systems to generate, capture and share learning
  • Build organizational capability and adaptive capacity

7 Informal Learning Services for the Training Function

Interest in informal learning by the training function is tangible and growing.  The 2008 ASTD State of the Industry report contained a special survey section on informal learning.  The report concluded the following:

” Not only did survey participants acknowledge that informal learning plays a role in today’s workplaces, they also predicted that it would grow in the next three years. More than half of respondents reported that informal learning would increase during that time period”

When asked of the “incidence” of informal learning in their organizations, respondents had this to say:

The results are interesting for a few reasons.  First, Informal learning always has and always will be “occurring” in organizations.   We are natural learners and experience is a natural teacher.   I think the predicted increase has more to do with the heightened awareness on the part of training professionals that the vast majority of learning takes place on the job,  not in the classroom (or e-learning program) along with the current proliferation of knowledge tools.   I think the predicted increase also has to do with the training function’s intention of being more proactive in their influence and facilitation of informal learning…to formalize informal learning so to speak.

That intention will be a great thing if the efforts actually add value and don’t simply get in the way of the naturally occurring human learning already taking place.  Right now training functions are struggling to figure out what kind of services they can provide beyond providing social networking tools and letting employees have at it.   You can see evidence of the struggle in this definition of informal learning provided in the ASTD report:

“After careful deliberation, the researchers arrived at the following definition: “a learning activity that is not easily recognizable as formal training and performance support. Generally speaking, it takes place without a conventional instructor and is employee-controlled in terms of breadth, depth, and timing. It tends to be individualized, limited in scope, and utilized in small chunks.”

huh?…defining something by what it isn’t seems the easy way out.  You can see the same struggle in the way trainers are reporting learning tools and resources being used for informal learning.  If e-mail is considered the top tool for informal knowledge sharing we have a lot of work to do.  From the ASTD study:

7 Informal Learning Services

We need to get beyond these types of generalities, and start adding clear service offerings that managers and teams can take advantage of to harness informal learning.  With that in mind here are seven services that a training function might add to their suite of services to influence organizational learning in meaningful ways.

1. Informal Learning Assessment

In the same way we now do needs assessment to identify formal skill development needs, learning consultants can analyze business processes, problem solving, and decision making methods to determine how and where informal learning solutions and mechanisms would help improve performance. This should be built into current performance analysis methods (in fact I wouldn’t even call it and informal learning assessment.  It should be one facet of a performance assessment or analysis)

2. Communities of Practice

This 20% activity on the ASTD survey needs far more traction.  It’s been around long enough to have worked out some early kinks and is a proven way to generate, share and maintain knowledge.  Many of the best CoP tools have now built web 2.0 inspired collaborative features (see Tomoye for example).  I’m a fan of Cop approaches because the focus is on the process of knowledge creation and exchange and not on the technology.  Also communities are focused around tasks and team accomplishment rather than the social meandering some “social networking” technology can result in.

Learning consultants can help teams plan, establish, build nurture and maintain communities of practice.

3. Action Learning

Another approach that has been out there and proven, especially for management development is action learning (see my previous post here). Action learning involves guided reflective learning around the completion of a real problem or task. A skilled learning consultant guides a small team through the process of doing, reflecting on results and making adjustments, that is at the heart of natural learning.

4. Performance System Design

You might simply call this job design (or re-design). There are so many things that can be hard wired into the design of a job or role that can cause incidental learning simply as a byproduct of doing.

One of the best is an effective feedback system.   No, not performance appraisal, but data driven visual feedback that is generated within the business process.  Performance feedback is frequent, specific and objective information to individuals (or teams) regarding how well they are performing against job requirements/standards.  Poor, delayed or no feedback at all breaks the chain of natural learning.

Other job design elements that will result in learning include access to information needed to do work, clear expressions of expectations, and tools necessary for good performance.   True, these resemble what line management sees as their responsibility but a good performance consultant can provide the guidance and expertise to get it right.

5. Social Media Coaching

Yes, use of social media itself facilitates learning, but how it is used can really accelerate that process. Skilled learning consultants can work with teams and coaches to help structure the use of social media to effectively capture and share learning.  To some, the notion of “structuring” the use of social media is antithetical.  But organizations have goals and collaboration has always been structured to meet those goals.  Social media as we are already seeing with corporate tools like Yammer, Mzinga, Rypple, and Kindling are already being structured for specific organizational purposes.

6. Team Development

Good old fashioned team development is informal learning.  When concerns arise with team relationships new approaches focus on the fit between the business process and human systems rather than narrowly on interpersonal conflict. Learning consultants can use simple tools and methods to help teams and individuals improve candor, feedback, resolve conflict and clarify roles in the context of business activities. The result is team learning and improvement.

7. Systems Thinking

A broad concept but one that can result in powerful learning and performance improvement.  Large scale change and improvement models from Toyota’s Lean Production System (based on Deming’s work), to Rummler-Brache performance improvement and Socio-Technical systems are all grounded in understanding organizations as systems.  Peter Senge’s fifth discipline is systems thinking.  Performance consultants skilled in the use of tools, templates and approaches for modeling an organization as a system can help managers and teams better understand their work and how to get to the deep fixes that organizations need to make both incremental and radical change.  Systems Thinking is a learning tool that results in organizational learning.

…and more

These are but seven broad ways training functions can start to add some value through informal learning consulting services. You need look no further than the sister professions of organization development and performance improvement for more, including coaching, mentoring systems and team learning activities.   I suggested here that it would be nice in the future to see organizations like Training,  OD,  process re-design etc. merge with a common mission of improving performance.  Training is the last one to the table on informal learning.  Many solutions with years with years of successful use and refinement are already available if we can find ways to better combine resources.

By the way, I don’t think learning functions should abandon their focus on formal, structured learning.  I do think they should do less of it and improve its quality.  More on that next time.

Learning from Higher Education

I’ve worked in learning design and management in both business and higher education settings and the differences in how e-learning technology is used in these two worlds is striking.   Business e-learning has focused on short self-paced, independent, interactive learning module typically delivered via an LMS designed to store, deliver and track progress (think Plateau/SumTotal etc) .

In contrast, higher education e-learning has been build on their tradition of distance learning and courses delivered over longer periods of time (usually a semester), using LMS systems built on collaborative environments that support communication between students, instructors and peers (think Blackboard/Web CT).   The “interaction” in higher education courses relies less on designed interactive learner-computer interaction than on person to instructor, student to student interaction in the process of completing assignments and solving problems.

Building collaboration and social learning into business training

The differences are due to underlying models of education and economic factors, but there are many things the two worlds could learn from each other.  In business training we have long suggested training should  be more a process than an event, yet we rarely design programs that encourage a learning process any longer than a few days/hours/minutes.  In our search for effective informal learning approaches in business there is much we could learn from the collaborative, low tech approaches of higher education, especially in management and professional training.   Business oriented LMS systems have collaborative and discussion features but they have typically been used as an add-on’s or support for self-paced learning modules.  In contrast, higher education e-learning and distance education is grounded in the use of collaborative and communication features with fewer self paced interactive features.  Web 2.0 applications like wiki’s, blogs and social networking have made significant headway in higher education.

There is a huge opportunity to build more meaningful collaborative learning programs in business training.   Action learning environments, team case studies, and  problem based learning assignments have never fully been exploited in business e-learning.  The trend has been to reduce the duration of the training event (a good thing) without extending the informal elements of a learning program through collaborative learning environments.  This is not new–the methods to develop these environments exist.  I hope the renewed interest in informal learning brings them into the spotlight again.  Collaborative environments within formal learning programs of the type I’m suggesting is not purely informal learning but I have seen them extend beyond the duration of the learning program and take on a life of their own.  Use of social media tools should encourage this even more.

A Management Development example

When I was at IBM I was involved with a successful management development e-learning program with significant collaborative learning elements. It was one of the first business programs I’d experienced  that didn’t just use collaboration as an “add on” to a self-paced e-learning program. The program ran over 6 months or so and managers worked on case studies in teams in an on-line environment (Lotus Learning Space at the time).  A “four tier” program framework also included a performance support tier with rapid information to guide JIT management activity, a series of “simulators” which had managers make decisions and experience consequences of their choices and a classroom component where they came together to debrief the case study and learn some advanced topics.  I haven’t really seen a management program like it since.  It’s a little dated now but you can learn a bit more about the program from a conference presentation I did here.

There are many areas in which Higher Education could learn from business e-learning but that’s another post 🙂

Has anyone had experience (as learner or designer) of effective collaboration and social learning features in business training programs?

Learning in Action

In preparation for a presentation I’m doing on how the learning function can introduce more informal learning services to their repertoire, I’ve been exploring methods that build on the Natural Learning cycle that I mentioned in this post. Action Learning is one such method. It is essentially the process of reflective learning while solving real problems.

My personal experience has been helping quality and process improvement teams use variations of the plan-do-study-act cycle to identify and solve process issues. The methods of Action Learning offer a similar facilitated approach to help develop leaders and professionals through the natural learning that occurs while solving real business problems.

The method has many variations but the general process as described by the World Institute for Action Learning is based on six important components. They are:

1.  A Problem (project, challenge, opportunity, issue or task)
The problem should be urgent and significant and should be the responsibility of the team to resolve

2. An Action Learning group or team.
Ideally composed of 4-8 people who examine an organizational problem that has no easily identifiable solution. The group should be diverse in background and experience.

3. A process of insightful questioning and reflection
Action Learning tackles problems through a process of first asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem, reflecting and identifying possible solutions, and only then taking action. Questions build group dialogue and cohesiveness, generate innovative and systems thinking, and enhance learning results.

4. An action taken on the problem
There is no real meaningful or practical learning until action is taken and reflected on. Action Learning requires that the group be able to take action on the problem it is addressing. If the group makes recommendations only, it loses its energy, creativity and commitment.

5. A commitment to learning
Solving an organizational problem provides immediate, short-term benefits to the company. The greater, longer-term multiplier benefits, however, are the learnings gained by each group member and the group as a whole, as well as how those learnings are applied on a systems-wide basis throughout the organization.

6. An Action Learning coach
The Action Learning coach helps the team members reflect on both what they are learning and how they are solving problems. The coach enables group members to reflect on how they listen, how they may have re-framed the problem, how they give each other feedback, how they are planning and working, and what assumptions may be shaping their beliefs and actions. The Action Leaning coach also helps the team focus on what they are achieving, what they are finding difficult, what processes they are employing, and the implications of these processes.
You can see the how the process builds on the natural cycle of taking action on a problem, observing and monitoring the consequences and impact of the actions, making adjustments and trying again. My own biases lead me using the method for continuously improving business processes and have a results focus, but the method can be used in all areas of organizational life.

Technology can help

The small group nature of the process does not restrict the process to a physical location. Collaborative technologies, e-workspaces or dedicated communities of practice would in fact enhance the process by capturing the emerging practices and making knowledge and reflective processes visible.

Emerging best practices can also be used to build learning simulations for broader training purposes and disseminating learnings across the organization.

Challenge and reward

Learning functions could do worse than hiring or developing Learning Consultants to use the action learning process to work closely with teams, professionals and leaders to solve sticky problems, generate best practices, and build organizational capability. Consultants will need to be effective and respected to earn the trust of the organization. They will be positioned in the middle of real problems, with real constraints and experience real human behaviour. Not for the weak of heart–but the learning and performance benefits will be superior to more easily implemented classroom learning programs.

How am I doing? Performance feedback as informal learning

Ask employees where they learned how to do their job and the answer is usually some variation of “at work”. Studies like the one below usually identify “on-the-job experience” and “interaction with co-workers” as the main learning vehicles.

employee perceptions of how they learn at work

employee perceptions of how they learn at work

Informal learning tends to focus on collaboration and knowledge exchange

Although, training functions are coming around to the idea that most learning takes place informally, many seem stymied as to what to do about it. Efforts focus mostly on facilitating collaboration, coaching, mentoring, and sharing knowledge in communities of practice or informal learning networks. This targets the “interaction with co-workers”, but is there anything we can do to influence on-the-job the job experience beyond these efforts. I think so, but it means getting more directly inside the jobs.

Performance feedback as informal learning

What people usually mean by “on the job experience” is that they try something and receiving feedback to determine if it works.  It’s a natural part of our existence and essential for learning in all aspects of our lives.

We can harness this natural learning effect at work much more than we currently do. One way is to design performance feedback into jobs and roles.  Performance feedback is frequent, specific and objective information to individuals (or teams) regarding how well they are performing against job requirements/standards. I’m not talking about the annual performance review–which is anything but frequent and specific and is usually connected to assessment for compensation purposes. I mean building a reliable mechanism or tool that provides ongoing (ideally visual) feedback of performance against job standards. To build such a tool, four factors need to be addressed:

  • A focus on job output

The feedback should communicate performance against valuable results or outputs needed from a job or role. Usually “feedback” targets personal behavior, not results. (“Alison, you need to be more assertive when dealing with your co-workers”) Feedback should help the employee answer “how am I doing?” in terms of what they produce not how they behave. I understand that ends don’t always justify means. Feedback on individual behaviour is important but more suited for personal coaching and performance review settings.

  • A standard of desired performance

It’s tough to answer “how am I doing?” when there is no standard of excellence or target as a benchmark. How well compared to what? Standards can be derived from existing metrics, business goals, top performers or (ideally) receivers of the output.

  • Objective measurement

The tool must objectively measure what individuals produce–the results of their work. The best measures are organizational measures cascaded down to individual jobs or roles. They will usually be some combination of quality, timeliness, quantity or cost.

  • A meaningful communication vehicle

I don’t mean personal coaching or mentoring. I’m getting at something more like a personal or team scorecard, similar to organizational scorecards. Since most job output can be quantitatively measured, it can also be charted, graphed or visualized in way that will provide a snapshot of performance over time. In this way performance trends are made visual. Performance change over time is at the heart of learning especially in a business context. I always liked this chart from Marvin Weisbord’s book “Productive Workplaces”.

what learning looks like

Often this type of performance feedback can be team or unit based and self-monitored. If a team is responsible for producing a common result/output, then a common weekly or monthly performance chart can be both motivational and educational. Visual charting of performance for use as a learning/ performance improvement vehicle is not new. It has been a key element of team based quality improvement methods for years.

Technology and Performance Feedback

Because you are quantifying job output there is no reason performance feedback cannot not be automated. A well designed EPSS could pull existing business data and use it to automate and individualize performance feedback in visual format. Confidential behavioral reports can also be automated, as long as clear competency statements are in place. Most LMS and HCM systems already have competency analytics that can generate all the reports you might need.

I noticed an interesting web 2.0/social media application called Rypple recently that promises “painless feedback that helps you improve”. I think it has potential to turn performance appraisal on it’s head and seems to be getting some traction.



Formal training should take notes

Formal training can learning from this. The best formal training compresses experience as realistically as possible so that people can learn and improve from their errors. Excellent training should simulate work processes and allow learners to see the consequences of their decisions and actions (performance feedback!) before they start making decisions and taking actions in their real job. Simulations are a powerful approach to mimic feedback based learning in classroom or e-learning settings.

The training function needs find ways to help employees improve and develop while they work. You can’t make them learn, but you can surround them with resources and information they can use to learn and improve, sometimes without even knowing it.  Working with teams and managers to build visual Performance Feedback tools into jobs is one way to do this.

Source: Stevenson, the New Yorker Magazine

Source: Stevenson, the New Yorker Magazine