Knowledge Conversion and the Knowledge Spiral

As noted in the Essence of Knowledge Management, managing knowledge means dealing with both tacit and explicit knowledge. One of the challenges is deciding how best to share tacit knowledge: what to share through tacit-to-tacit (person-to-person) processes, and what to convert to explicit knowledge, so that it more easily transferable. The work of Nonaka and Takeuchi[1] again gives a good conceptual background to consider these options, and others besides. They enunciated two key concepts - that of knowledge conversion processes and the knowledge spiral.

Knowledge Conversion Processes

Nonaka and Takeuchi defined four types of conversion processes which they describe as "fundamental to creating value". The four are the combinations of conversion of explicit and tacit knowledge (see diagram).

conversion processes
  1. Tacit-to-tacit (socialisation) - individuals acquire knowledge from others through dialogue and observation
  2. Tacit-to-explicit (externalisation) - the articulation of knowledge into tangible form through elicitation and documentation
  3. Explicit-to-explicit (combination) - combining different forms of explicit knowledge, such as that in documents or databases
  4. Explicit-to-tacit (internalisation) - such as learning by doing, where individuals internalise knowledge into their own mental models from documents.

Our research into KM success indicates that the conversion from one type to the other (i.e. tacit-to-explicit and vice versa) gives the most added value. Thus, knowledge once in explicit form can be more easily distributed, but then it does need converting and assimilating into another person's tacit knowledge for application in a different context.

The Knowledge Spiral

In their book, Nonaka and Takeuchi say that "the key to knowledge creation lies in the mobilisation and conversion of tacit knowledge". They go on to describe how organisational knowledge is created through processes in the knowledge spiral (see diagram).

knowledge spiral

Organizational knowledge starts at the individual level with thoughts or understanding (internalization). It them moves upwards through socialization, where individuals dialogue with their team colleagues. The ideas are then articulated (externalization) and become more widespread through diffusion of explicit knowledge (combination). As knowledge moves up the spiral knowledg is more widely spread and the spiral gets wider.

What also happens is that as individuals access organisational knowledge, they apply it and internalise new knowledge, thus setting the stage for an enhanced piece of knowledge to work its up the spiral.

The Concept in Practice

The terms socialization, externalization etc. are not in everyday use in knowledge management. The diagram below illustrates these processes (numbered as above) with decriptions that are more representative in practice.

knowledge processes

Thus the tacit knowledge of an organisation in embodied in its people and the team and communities within which they operate, while the explicit knowledge is in various information repositories (databases, intranet pages etc.) A KM programme should therefore consider a range of strategies and practical techniques for each of the core conversion processes, which we have grouped under the broad headings shown - knowledge transfer mechanisms, knowledge harvesting, information management and the learning organization.


1. The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Comapnies Create the Dynamics of Innovation, Ikujior Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi, Oxford University Press (1995).

Last updated: 1st March 2011



Our resources section has articles and presentations that show how the concepts in this section can be put into practice.


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