Initial Publication Date: November 16, 2023

SECI Model of Knowledge Creation: Socialization, Externalization, Combination, Internalization

See more Change Theories »Summary written by Charles Henderson,Western Michigan University, and Kadian M. Callahan, Kennesaw State University,

The SECI model describes how organizations grow and manage knowledge through four processes that involve the interplay between explicit and tacit knowledge.


The SECI model describes four knowledge creation processes within organizations, involving the interplay of tacit and explicit knowledge. This model emerged from studies of successful innovation in Japanese companies in the 1980s and 1990s (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). Tacit knowledge is "acquired with little or no direct instruction," is "practically useful," and "cannot be fully articulated" (Nonaka & von Krogh, 2009, p. 641).  By contrast, explicit knowledge can be expressed in terms of words or formulas and easily communicated. SECI includes four knowledge creation processes that can occur at the individual, group, or organizational level.

Socialization is the process of spreading tacit knowledge, which often occurs through shared experience, such as spending time together, working in the same environment, and informal social meetings. An example is a traditional apprenticeship, where apprentices learn the tacit knowledge needed in their craft through hands-on experience, rather than from written manuals.

Externalization is the process of articulating tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. When tacit knowledge is made explicit, knowledge can be shared by others, and it becomes the basis of new knowledge. Examples include employees making improvements on the manufacturing process by articulating tacit knowledge accumulated through experience on the job.

Combination is the process of converting explicit knowledge into more complex and systematic sets of explicit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is collected from inside or outside the organization and then combined, edited, or processed to form new knowledge. The new explicit knowledge is then available to other members of the organization as well as external audiences.

Internalization is the process of converting explicit knowledge into tacit knowledge. For example, in training programs new employees can read about their jobs and the organization, and incorporate these ideas, through reflection, into their tacit knowledge base. When knowledge is internalized it becomes part of an individuals' tacit knowledge base in the form of shared mental models or technical knowhow. Tacit knowledge accumulated at the individual level can set off a new spiral of knowledge creation when it is shared with others through socialization.

Figure 1. The SECI (socialization, externalization, combination, and internalization) model of knowledge creation from Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995). There are two basic types of knowledge (tacit, explicit) and four basic knowledge creation processes (socialization, externalization, combination, and internalization).

Example of Use

The SECI model has been used to conceptualize how the Accelerating System Change Network creates and amplifies knowledge by fostering interactions between two basic types of people who are working to improve postsecondary education: change researchers and change agents. While there is some overlap in these groups, they mostly operate independently. And, more importantly, each has access to different ideas and types of knowledge. We argue that actively seeking out tacit knowledge about how to support change in different higher education contexts and making it explicit is essential to developing a strong base of tools and practices to support change, because there is still limited research-based knowledge to guide the actions of institutional change agents, and experimenting with change processes through "traditional" research practices is frequently not feasible. The following are examples of how ASCN supports the four knowledge creation processes:

Socialization occurs as ASCN working group members meet regularly and discuss ideas about how they think about, design, enact, and promote systemic change based on their practices and contextual experiences.

Externalization occurs when an ASCN working group recognizes areas where there is commonality in their tacit knowledge and that this tacit knowledge is not yet a part of discussions about systemic change (articulating tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge).

Combination occurs when a working group relates their externalized knowledge with existing theories to strengthen and expand both, for example by creating a resources list that articulates the group's perspective on the topic.

Internalization occurs when working group members have developed new shared mental models based on their interactions, allowing conversations about how they design, enact, and promote systemic change to move to a more sophisticated level.

This ASCN blog post describes a very example of the knowledge generation processes and their interplay within one ASCN working group:

Assumptions & Limitations

The SECI model is a framework for thinking about and facilitating knowledge development within organizations. There are three important assumptions:

  1. Knowledge creation is a key feature of organizational success that can lead to innovation and change. 
  2. Knowledge creation is a social process that occurs through interactions and relationships among individuals. 
  3. Knowledge creation is an ongoing process. Successful organizations or groups continue to create stronger knowledge and/or new knowledge to adapt to changing environments.

Given the focus on group or organizational knowledge development, the SECI model is likely most useful for planning change at the level of an academic department, or, using the Henderson et al. (2011) categorization (see also a summary here), for any shared vision change strategy.

Original Publication of Theory

Nonaka, I., & Takeuchi, H. (1995). The knowledge-creating company: How Japanese companies create the dynamics of innovation. Oxford University Press: New York, NY.

Other References

Farnese, M. L., Barbieri, B., Chirumbolo, A., & Patriotta, G. (2019). Managing knowledge in organizations: A Nonaka's SECI model operationalization. Frontiers in Psychology, 2730.

Henderson, C., Beach, A., & Finkelstein, N. (2011). Facilitating change in undergraduate STEM instructional practices: An analytic review of the literature. Journal of research in science teaching, 48(8), 952-984.

Nonaka, I., Toyama, R., & Konno, N. (2000). SECI, Ba and leadership: a unified model of dynamic knowledge creation. Long Range Planning33(1), 5-34.

Nonaka, I., & Von Krogh, G. (2009). Perspective—Tacit knowledge and knowledge conversion: Controversy and advancement in organizational knowledge creation theory. Organization Science20(3), 635-652.

Note: This summary is written as a secondary resource to help researchers and practitioners learn about potentially relevant change theory. We encourage authors to read the original references rather than citing this summary in published work or grant proposals.