Last month we explored how social collaboration platforms could breathe new life into knowledge management, bringing practical knowledge management back into vogue. Now I'd like to back up my argument by mapping it to an existing model, in this case a popular KM model called SECI.

Two KM academics, Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi, devised the SECI model in 1996. Often referred to as the "knowledge spiral," SECI is a model for converting and sharing knowledge.

SECI stands for Socialization, Externalization, Combination and Internalization. The model speaks about tacit and explicit knowledge, so first, a definition:

  • Tacit knowledge: Intuitive, hard to define knowledge, that is largely experience based. It is contextual, personal and hard to communicate. It is often referred to as "know-how"
  • Explicit knowledge: This type of knowledge is formalized and codified, making it easier to store, manage and transmit. It is often referred to as "know-what." Traditionally, this type of knowledge has been the focus of IT based knowledge management systems

Basically, tacit knowledge can be thought of as being the highly valuable knowledge that resides in the heads of your most experienced employees. Explicit knowledge is differentiated from "information" by the formalization and codification — think categorization and other metadata — and therefore is easier to capture in documents or other media. 

Got that? So let's take a look at how social collaboration technologies can facilitate these elements of the knowledge spiral.


This is the transfer or sharing of tacit knowledge via social interactions — mostly face to face interactions, working together and shared experiences. Nonaka described tacit knowledge transfer as being via traditional methods of apprenticeship, where the apprentice learns from the master through hands-on experiences rather than through study of manuals or text books.

So how does social collaboration or any form of media help in this situation? People have accused early knowledge management systems of failure for concentrating too much on the IT mediated storing and sharing of explicit knowledge. Social collaboration can help an organization focus on the people, in whose heads that explicit knowledge resides. 

This help may come in the form of a "supporting" role, via the use of a modern socially enabled HR platform, or the use of an enterprise social collaboration platform. If there are a small number of master craftsman and a large globally distributed group of apprentices, the use of both live and recorded video, with highly interactive discussions via the social collaboration platform might suffice for electronic mediated attempts at knowledge socialization.


Externalization converts tacit to explicit knowledge, in effect articulating the knowledge. This can be done through publishing documents, developing concepts, drawing diagrams and flow charts, etc, providing media representation of the knowledge assets that assists in the transfer. The Wikipedia page on SECI states that the externalization of knowledge "crystallizes" it, allowing it to be shared and reused in the creation of new knowledge.

To me, this is a key use case where a social collaboration platform, perhaps linked to, or in conjunction with a content management system is better than an old style "knowledge base" system. If we accept the difficulty involved in getting tacit knowledge out of peoples' heads and into a form which is easy to share and digest, then the value of using a social platform to facilitate a back and forth discussion with the "author" — whether in text, graphics, video or a mixture of all — becomes clear. 

Learning Opportunities

You don't understand the concept being shared? Ask a question. When you ask a question, all member of the community or users of the system benefit from seeing it and the answer (and understanding why you asked it can also enhance their comprehension). A dialogue can take place until you feel that rather than just "reading information" you are absorbing the knowledge and understanding the concepts.


In this stage, explicit knowledge from inside and outside the organization is collected, categorized, organized, edited and processed to create new knowledge. An example is the process of building prototypes.

The value add of a social collaboration platform is clear in this scenario: sharing resources, pointers to information and/or expertise, valuable lessons learned in previous combination efforts, or pitfalls and even warnings and discussions about what has not gone well in the past.


Here individuals process explicit knowledge or information, solidified by experiences such as "learning by doing" and the ability to recognize patterns and make sense of concepts; forming knew tacit knowledge in our brains.

There is perhaps, a lot less any system can do to help us internalize knowledge, except present us with easy access to explicit knowledge and information in a timely fashion; as and when we need it. Social platforms "signals" in the form of notifications, and subscriptions to topics of interest can perhaps help in this final stage of the knowledge spiral.

Perhaps the key thing any social collaboration platform brings to a KM context is usability. This ease of use could relate to good interface design, but more importantly, the ease of use that comes from being embedded into day to day tasks and workflows. This embeds KM itself into the work of the organization instead of being foisted off as some "side of the desk" task which no one wants to do (please fill out the 14 page 'lessons learned' template, and don't forget to fill in the 23 fields of metadata ...).

What do you think ? Can social collaboration become the real workhorse of KM, enabling the knowledge spiral? I, for one, am keen to give it a try.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  subarcticmike 

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