The Nonaka and Takeuchi Knowledge Spiral Model

By: Iavjot Kaur,

Japan is currently the third-largest economy in the world, after the United States and China. But how did Japan gain such economic power and become a world-leader in the automotive and electronics industries? What is the secret of their success? The answer lies in Nonaka and Takeuchi’s (1995) Knowledge Spiral Model. The following report will first review the Knowledge Spiral Model and discuss what we can learn from it. Then, the report will suggest some practical ways of applying the model in education, especially in a classroom where peer learning often takes place.

In 1995, two business school professors Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi published The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation which provides insight into how Japanese companies work and most importantly, what enables the Japanese businesses to create new knowledge. As the title of the book suggests, Japanese companies are successful because of their innovations which are created from new knowledge. According to Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), there are two types of knowledge, namely explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. As explicit knowledge is often found in manuals and procedures, it is formal and systematic and easily communicated (Nonaka, 2007). On the other hand, tacit knowledge is highly personal as it is learnt through experience only (Nonaka, 2007). This makes tacit knowledge difficult to formalise as one often cannot find the words to express the technical principles behind what they know (Nonaka, 2007). Thus, tacit knowledge can only be communicated to others indirectly, such as through metaphors and analogy (Nonaka, 2007).

According to Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), the creation of new knowledge is a spiralling process of interactions between explicit and tacit knowledge. However, a lot of US companies have shown to be heavily reliant on explicit knowledge such as “benchmarking” and “best practices” to help further their businesses (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). In contrast, Japanese firms often focus more on tacit knowledge and on the real-life application of creating knowledge (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). Nevertheless, Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) argue that that the secret behind Japanese firms’ success is that they have mastered how to utilize tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge to create knowledge in any organisation, whether it is from tacit to tacit, from explicit to explicit, from tacit to explicit, or from explicit to tacit. This led to Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) proposing the Knowledge Spiral Model.  

The Knowledge Spiral Model is also known as the SECI model, which stands for socialization, externalization, combination and internalization (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). Firstly, socialization is the process of creating knowledge from tacit to tacit (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) describe socialization as the “process of sharing experiences and thereby creating tacit knowledge such as shared mental models and technical skills” (as cited in Siu, 2006, p. 497). Tacit knowledge can be shared in social interactions through “observation, imitation, practice and participation in formal and informal communities” (Yeh, Huang & Yeh, 2011, p. 147). Secondly, externalization refers to the “process of articulating tacit knowledge into explicit concepts and metaphors” (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995, as cited in Siu, 2006, p. 497). Yeh et al. (2011) describe externalization as “the key to knowledge creation” (p. 147). It is only when one is able to articulate their tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge that it can be shared throughout an organization (Nonaka, 2007). Thirdly, combination is the transference of explicit to explicit knowledge as it refers to the process of integrating and systemizing concepts into a knowledge system with the help of different media, such as review reports and trend analysis (Siu, 2006; Yeh et al., 2011). This allows the facilitation of passing on explicit knowledge (Siu, 2006). Lastly, internalization refers to the “process of embodying explicit knowledge into tacit knowledge”, which promotes the concept of “learning by doing” (Siu, 2006, p. 497). If one is able to internalise their explicit knowledge, then they will be able to convert it into tacit knowledge (Siu, 2006). Therefore, the Knowledge Spiral Model proves that explicit and tacit knowledge are in fact not completely separate entities as the four processes continuously interact with one another.

As stated by Siu (2006), Nonaka and Takeuchi’s SECI model “highlights organizational learning as a social process” (p. 497). Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) also emphasise creating new knowledge in a cyclical way to create a competitive advantage. Through organizational learning, one can establish a set of recurring set of activities which facilitate the conversion of one type of knowledge to another, such as explicit to tacit knowledge and vice versa. However, it is important to recognise that some processes favour explicit knowledge while some favour tacit knowledge (Siu, 2006). As externalization and combination rely on structural knowledge, they favour explicit knowledge (Siu, 2006). On the other hand, informal knowledge processes such as socialization and internalization favour tacit knowledge as these processes are often “spontaneous and voluntary in nature” (Siu, 2006, p. 497). This makes it easy for certain organizations, especially those that rely heavily on information technology which is limited to the transfer of explicit knowledge, to dismiss tacit knowledge (Siu, 2006). Nevertheless, research has proven that tacit knowledge is just as valuable, if not more valuable, than explicit knowledge in organizational learning (Siu, 2006). Therefore, Nonaka and Takeuchi’s (1995) Knowledge Spiral Model can provide businesses with valuable insight into organizational learning and how to effectively combine explicit and tacit knowledge to create new knowledge for a better competitive edge.

            Although the Knowledge Spiral Model stemmed from business management, it can be applied to education as well, especially in peer learning. Peer learning is considered to be one of the most effective ways for students to learn as it is a two-way reciprocal process where peers have the opportunity to learn from one another. The following report will recommend some practical examples of how to apply Nonaka and Takeuchi’s Knowledge Spiral Model (1995) in both face-to-face and online peer learning.

            Firstly, socialization is performed by “interpersonal communication and/or intrapersonal insights” (Hvorecky, 2012, p. 4). Research has shown that socialization is a key element when it comes to collaborative activities (Minocha & Roberts, 2008). As socialization is the most basic form of learning, there are a number of ways it could occur in a classroom. Whether it is a physical or a virtual classroom, socialization can give the students a chance to get to know each other, especially at the beginning of a new course (Hosseini, 2011). This can be done by devoting the first few sessions to icebreaker either in face-to-face or online meetings (Hosseini, 2011). During these meetings, “the facilitator can ask students to talk about themselves, their experiences, preferences, and targets for attending the class and to share their current models, thoughts, and perspectives” (Hosseini, 2011, p. 266). In fact, students can also be asked to write a brief autobiography about themselves and post it in the e-classroom where everyone has access to it (Hosseini, 2011). It would be even better if students can attach a photograph of themselves along with the autography as it allows other students to view their photographs which can assist in developing interpersonal relationships (Hosseini, 2011). Giving the students a chance to get to know each other on a personal and professional level is key in establishing a climate of openness and interpersonal trust (Hvorecky, 2012). Under socialization, tacit knowledge can be attained through dialogue, which the students can begin by introducing themselves and then through participating in discussion forums as the class progresses (Kassem, Hammami & Alhousary, 2015).

            Secondly, externalization happens when “tacit knowledge turns to explicit form through discussion and storytelling among students” (Hosseini, 2011, p.267). However, for externalization to take place, students first must become aware of the tacit knowledge they possess (Hosseini, 2011). This could be done through codifying and turning tacit knowledge into pieces of information that can be communicated to other classmates (Hosseini, 2011). Once the information is received, students must “go through the de codification process to understand and digest the information” (Hosseini, 2011, p. 267). Thus, one could do a crowd-sourced glossary activity either in face-to-face or online classes to help facilitate externalization. Doing a crowd-sourced glossary requires “each participant in an exercise to build a glossary of new terms in a particular area, e.g. accounting” (BECKSearch, 2020). To do this activity, students should first find a news site where they are likely to find jargons, such as Harvard Business Review, and then write the unfamiliar terms on a shared class google document (BECKSearch, 2020). Each student will then look at the terms other students have put down and they will have to try to explain the terms in their own words or using a definition they found on the Internet (BECKSearch, 2020). Therefore, through this activity, students can get familiar with new jargons and contextualize the new theoretical terms they have just learnt (BECKSearch, 2020). As pointed out by Hosseini (2011), “having shared terminology and jargon among members help smooth the codification as well as de codification process” (p. 267).

Thirdly, combination is activated when information is systematized into a knowledge system and different bodies of explicit knowledge are integrated (Kassem et al., 2015). For this reason, activities such as treasure hunt and Venn diagram work really well for combination. Treasure hunt is a fun and interactive way for students to conduct online research in a group (BECKSearch, 2020). Each member in a group have to search for a piece of information on the same topic, such as “share price”, and then they have to report back the findings to their group (BECKSearch, 2020). Then, the group can compare and contrast the information each group member has obtained and generate a case study out of it (BECKSearch, 2020). By doing so, all the knowledge that the students have gained from this project can be discussed, analysed and synthesised in the form of a case study (Hosseini, 2011). Alternatively, students can also draw a Venn diagram which can help them to “evaluate the key similarities and differences between elements of [a] topic” (BECKSearch, 2020). Through this activity, students can integrate the knowledge they have about a topic and the information they found on the Internet into a knowledge system that is presented visually.

Lastly, internalization occurs when students’ “explicit knowledge is internalised into individual’s tacit knowledge bases in the form of mental models or technical know-how” (Chatti, Klamma, Jarke & Naeve, 2007, p. 781). One way of “learning by doing” is role-playing (Chatti et al., 2007). Role-playing allows students to apply the explicit knowledge they have learnt from their class to real contextual situations (Sweeney, 2020). By doing so, students can improve their understanding of the content being learnt or discussed (Sweeney, 2020). However, at the same time, “internalization is also a process of continuous individual and collective reflection” (Chatti et al., 2007, p. 781). Thus, students can be asked to write reflections after the completion of a project, or even after the completion of each step in the SECI model (Sudtho, 2018). Students can be guided by prompts such as “What I have learnt is that…”, “The challenges I faced were…”, and “Sharing ideas with my group made me…” (Sudtho, 2018, p. 34). This sort of reflective process aims at providing deeper learning to students “by looking at situations through a different lens and by asking them critical questions that challenge [their] assumptions about the world around them” (Sudtho, 2018, p. 35).

All in all, Nonaka and Takeuchi’s (1995) Knowledge Spiral Model is highly effective in helping businesses create new knowledge. Nevertheless, this model is also applicable to other fields, such as education. By applying the SECI model in peer learning, it allows for a “strong and integrated systematized knowledge creation path that leads to practical knowledge creation process” (Hosseini, 2011, p. 270).


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