Ba - Knowledge Management and Innovation

"Ba" is a Japanese management concept developed by Ikujiro Nonaka at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, building on the original work of the Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida in the 1903s.  The Japanese word "Ba" roughly translates into the English word "place", but not necessarily just a physical space.  Ba is the shared space that serves as a foundation for knowledge creation, and knowledge is embedded in BA.  If knowledge becomes separated from Ba it becomes information.  Information can exist in media or networks; knowledge cannot, it is intangible. 

Kowledge is boundary-less, dynamic, and if not used at a specific time or place, is of no value.  Use of knowledge requires the concentration of knowledge resources at a certain space or time.  Ba is the place for resource concentration of knowledge assets and intellectualising capabilities within the knowledge creation process; Ba collects applied knowledge and integrates it.  An example of Ba is a project team, a place where people of several different capabilities are brought together in order to generate knowledge.

Ba as originally envisaged by Nonaka is not a "thing", or a system, but an ephemeral, active process of relating.  Knowledge itself cannot be stored, nor can intellectual capital be measured, and certainly neither of them can be managed.

Ba can form the basis of both knowledge management and discovery.  Entrepreneurial and innovative creativity can proceed through Ba.  The dialectical assembly of evidence in each case needs to spiral around the tact-explicit dimension of problem, thus creating new knowledge, and the interaction space is Ba.

The original ideas of Nonaka were presented in terms of the SECI model, SECI standing for Socialisation, Externalisation, Combination and Internalisation.


Toyota developed a creative-adaptive approach called "Obeya" (a Japanese word meaning "big-room") which they applied in both design and manufacturing.  Toyota seeks to identify all possible problems and resolve them early in the design process.  By nature, this process is messy and given to ambiguity, uncertainty and negotiation.  During the critical period of the design phase, product engineering, manufacturing engineering, purchasing and quality have representatives located in the Obeya under the leadership of the chief engineer.  This leads to the development of a team atmosphere, with one experienced engineer present from each division.  As major problems are resolved, and solution sets are refined, the Obeya is dismantled, and meetings occur less frequently, moving the process towards more formal communication.

The Obeya system of working-in-the-same-room is one form of "Ba".  Most invisible assets reside n the collective organisational mind, and are fostered by the circumstantial framework - the Ba(field) - enabling closer mutual informative action.

Problems in adopting Ba and Obeya

Many companies have attempted to adopt the Ba and Obeya processes, but the results have often been mixed or poor.  There are three principle reasons for this occurring in Western companies:

  1. Ba and Obeya are systems, not simply a collection of best practices; failure to adopt the complete systems thinking and associated processes often proves fatal.
  2. Often, the Obeya process remains in the combination quarter of the SECI model (where people feel more comfortable).  The Obeya process must cycle through all four parts of the SECI model.
  3. Ba and Obeya are critically dependent on culture - both organisational and individual.

Nonetheless, there are examples where Ba and Obeya have been successfully introduced in the West. The way forward is to identify the values and beliefs in which Ba and Obeya are grounded, and explicitly incorporate the necessary structures and systems within organisations to allow them to flourish.

With direct experience of introducing Ba and Obeya into industry, and relevant contacts in Japan, otbSolutions is ideally positioned to help your company to assess their potential for your company, and, where appropriate facilitate their adoption.