Creating new knowledge about change by combining research-based knowledge with the wisdom of practice

Charles Henderson
Western Michigan University
Kadian Callahan
Kennesaw State University

Charles Henderson, Western Michigan University

Kadian Callahan, Kennesaw State University

published Feb 28, 2023 3:31pm

One of the core ideas behind the formation of the Accelerating Systemic Change Network (ASCN) is to create and amplify 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.
Through knowledge creation and amplification, ASCN builds capacity within and across these two groups to more successfully enact change in undergraduate STEM education. Specifically, ASCN uses the model of a "Knowledge Creating Company." This way to think about business organizations was first published by Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) who credited it for the success of Japanese companies in the 1980s and 1990s. It has since become highly influential in focusing businesses worldwide on the importance of knowledge and knowledge creation. In contrast to the Western approach to knowledge management, which views knowledge as explicit, Japanese companies place significant value on tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is context-specific practice knowledge, which each of us builds over time as we engage in our professional responsibilities. 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. Rather than a Western-based organizational approach where new explicit knowledge is built from prior explicit knowledge, the Japanese organizational knowledge creation model builds new knowledge based on the interplay between tacit and explicit knowledge. This is known as the SECI (socialization, externalization, combination, and internalization) model. 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 SECI Model

The SECI model "is recognized as the most relevant and comprehensive theoretical proposal in the field of knowledge management" and has been the subject of at least 108 studies between 1994 and 2018 (Farnese et al., 2019, p. 3). ASCN is the first and only organization that we are aware of that has used the SECI model in the context of higher education change.

The following descriptions of the four knowledge creation processes are adapted from Nonaka et al. (2000). Note that while the processes below are described at the individual level, they also operate similarly at the group (e.g., working group) and organization levels. That is, just like individuals, groups and organizations "have" tacit and explicit knowledge that can be used and modified. Also note that the SECI knowledge creation process is a spiral that, when functioning well, continues to lead to more and better knowledge creation.

Socialization is the process of spreading tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is typically acquired through shared experience, such as spending time together or working in the same environment. 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. Socialization also occurs in informal social meetings where tacit knowledge such as world views, mental models and mutual trust can be created and shared. Within ASCN socialization occurs as 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 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. Concept creation in new product development is an example of this conversion process. Another example is a quality control circle, which allows employees to make improvements on the manufacturing process by articulating the tacit knowledge accumulated through experience on the job. Within ASCN, externalization occurs, for example, when a 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 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. An example is when the comptroller of a company collects information from throughout the organization and puts it together with relevant context to make a financial report. Within ASCN, this 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 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. Explicit knowledge can also be internalized by an individual who repeatedly follows a set of instructions to perform a task. When knowledge is internalized it becomes part of an individuals' tacit knowledge base in the form of shared mental models or technical knowhow. This tacit knowledge accumulated at the individual level can then set off a new spiral of knowledge creation when it is shared with others through socialization. Within ASCN internalization occurs when working group members have developed new shared mental models based on their interactions within the group, allowing conversations about how they design, enact, and promote systemic change to move to a higher, more sophisticated level.

An Example of the SECI Model in Practice

Let's take a more concrete example of how the SECI model works in practice. The ASCN Working Group on Guiding Theories has a mission of supporting knowledge development about change theory through collaborations with and for the benefit of both change agents and change researchers. In 2018, Daniel Reinholz and Tessa Andrews took over as leaders of this working group. With support of the ASCN Hub, they wrote a small NSF conference grant to support a conference called Breaking Down Silos (Reinholz & Andrews, 2019), with a goal of bringing together a diverse group of scholars to make progress on organizing and synthesizing theories relevant to change in STEM higher education. Twenty-four participants attended the meeting and came with differing ideas about definitions and uses of theory in planning and enacting change. These conversations revealed that each participant arrived with their own conceptions about what sort of "theories" are needed to support change initiatives (socialization). Through discussion it was realized that there were two basic ways that theory was talked about: change theory refers to generalizable knowledge relevant to achieving change, and theory of change refers to a description of the logic behind a specific change initiative (externalization). Additional work after the conference put this new understanding in the context of existing change work in STEM higher education in a way that it could support the advancement of ideas (Reinholz & Andrews, 2020) (combination). The recognition that initiatives may be using change theories and theories of change differently is an opportunity for change researchers to further examine these differing approaches in change research and patterns in the results of those studies. For change agents, this work suggests that change efforts need to develop their own theory of change that is consistent with change theory. Finally, this clearer way of thinking about change became embedded in the working group and permitted more focused discussions about change theory (internalization). With this new shared understanding, the working group could sharpen their focus on change theories that are used in STEM higher education.

Through more working group conversations, the group realized that there were many applicable change theories and each member had their own experiences with and personal ideas about change theories (socialization). The group decided that individuals or small groups would develop short 1-page summaries of change theories that they were familiar with (externalization) and also organized them in a way that is useful for change researchers and change agents (combination). In this case, they organized them in terms of the target of change (individuals, organizations or systems, cultures). These resources are one of the most widely used of the 270 resources on the ASCN website and have helped to shape ongoing work of the working group as well as external change agents (internalization).


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

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

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.

Reinholz, D. L., & Andrews, T. C. (2019). Breaking Down Silos Working Meeting: An Approach to Fostering Cross-Disciplinary STEM-DBER Collaborations through Working Meetings. CBE Life Sciences Education18(3), mr3.

Reinholz, D. L., & Andrews, T. C. (2020). Change theory and theory of change: what's the difference anyway?. International Journal of STEM Education7(1), 1-12.

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