From humble beer can to photo-sensitive copier drums

13 October 2011
By Ralph Adam
image of an aluminium beer can

Can you think of a link between copiers and beer? If you’re familiar with the work of Ikujiro Nonaka you’ll know the answer! Ralph Adam reports.

Selenium drums had for many years been the source of 90 per cent of photocopier failures: machines needed regular servicing by trained technicians. Only large organisations could afford that. A Japanese camera-maker thought it could change this by designing a highly-reliable, yet disposable, photo-sensitive copier drum for homes and small-businesses. It took a drinks can to show the way and help the company escape from the dying camera industry.

Innovative Japanese ‘knowledge-creating’ companies encourage their staff to diagnose problems by asking ‘why?’ For example, a drug company sent researchers into hospitals to understand how elderly patients use medicines, while a soft-drinks manufacturer asked why slow-selling lines were being rejected and investigated the opportunity cost of having disappointed customers.

Hiroshi Tanaka is a follower of Nonaka, the man who has changed the image of knowledge management from a branch of information science, concerned with the efficient capture, storage, indexing and retrieval of data, to an enabler of in-depth learning. During a work break, Tanaka ordered some beer. Studying the can set him thinking: would a similar manufacturing process work for aluminium copier drums?

While companies employ consultants to design product information systems and develop service innovations aimed at generating growth, the important question remains: what do we really know about how knowledge is created and shared across organisations? This implies a personal commitment to the company and its mission.

That is the starting point for Nonaka’s work. Through an emphasis on knowledge-creation and an understanding of users’ behaviour, he has devoted his life to investigating how those Japanese companies with consistently good results, develop products and services. Nonaka has studied industries ranging from car production and refrigeration to soft drinks and pharmaceuticals, as well as education. Taking concepts from both eastern and western philosophy, his idea of a ‘knowledge-creating company’ resembles the type of community in which generosity is prevalent, people feel recognised for who they are and informal, honest communication is commonplace. For him, data management is a minor, almost incidental, aspect of the recipe for business success.

The key to Nonaka’s approach is his use of tacit knowledge – knowledge that is hard to transfer between people. Unlike factual or explicit knowledge it cannot be expressed verbally or written down easily and consists, on the one hand, of the beliefs and models which we take for granted and, on the other, of informal personal skills and ‘know-how’.

Nonaka follows a tradition which sees all knowledge as tacit and people as individuals, instead of as merely factors of production. He considers pooling everyone’s ideas and skill-sets to be the central activity of the knowledge-creating company – rather than processing information, it should tap the insights and hunches of employees, making the content of their minds available for testing and use by the company as a whole. An interesting approach to innovation.

Tanaka’s beer-can inspiration is a case in point: without it, the personal-copier market might never have developed.

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