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Ba: Introducing Processual Spatial Thinking into the Theory of the Firm and Management

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Abstract

Over the last two decades, the Japanese notion of ba, introduced by Ikujiro Nonaka and his associates to the West, has come to play an important role in management theory. This notion, which has been roughly translated as ‘place’ or ‘topos,’ stresses the importance of processual spatial thinking for economics and management alike. As such, it echoes and amplifies recent voices in the business world, which argue that we must understand business strategy in terms of space, that is to say, as an expression of the dynamics of social interaction which involves such factors as connectivity, information flow, external versus tacit knowledge, etc. Despite many efforts, the barriers for fully integrating ba into the body of Western management literature will remain for as long as its underlying assumptions are defined by ontologically static categories. This article is an attempt to overcome this theoretical bottleneck, first by critiquing the sub optimal approach to processual problems generated by conventional Western business theories, which can neither recognise their hidden background assumptions about space nor transcend them, and second, by explaining, within the framework of comparative analysis, how ba leads to a new processual and dynamic account of business life. Our overall aim is to demonstrate how a new processual notion of space enables a deeper, more integrated understanding not only of the nature of the firm, but also of the role managers play within firms.
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... In Ba, self and other co-emerge (Von Krogh et al., 2013) with multiple participants mutually forging each otherindividual self is bound to the collective self. It is possible, and natural in Ba, to transcend ideas of subject and object to become pure unselfconscious experiencing (Graupe and Nonaka, 2010). Ba and its notion of place guide us to look across and around the group not simply between individuals inter-subjectively. ...
... The Japanese Kanji for Ba is 場. Kanji is a symbolic language, and meanings are not fixed and are better described than defined (Graupe and Nonaka, 2010). Ideograms symbolise the idea of a thing and require us to understand an essence, not an exactness. ...
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Scholars within the field of Leadership-as-Practice (LAP) address the way that individuals ‘transcend their own immediate embeddedness’ to achieve volitional coherence known as collaborative agency. The process of collaborative agency is described as inseparable from LAP, yet it remains a nascent field of enquiry requiring additional empirical research. This article presents an investigation of collaborative agency through an abductive case study using video ethnography and interviews. To interpret our results, we turn to the Japanese ideogram for ‘place’, known as ‘Ba’. Rather than a physical reality, Ba is considered an existential space in which leadership groups weave together to create and ripen collaborative agency. Ba guides us to look across and around a group and its socio-material practice. We find that collaborative agency is trans-subjective in nature and sits on a spectrum on which we identify the outer reaches, from one end where Ba is woven through to the other end, called Collapse. We suggest that the place of leadership is within the warp and weft of collaborative agency, including but not limited to a special place woven in Ba where collaborative agency is high and where the group reports they are able to transcend their individualism.
... What is more important is that ba is a dynamic context with implicit meaning and as such is a shared space from which knowledge emerges (Nonaka, Toyama, & Konno, 2000). This dynamism has interesting implications for leadership development practices which are based on ontologically static assumptions (Graupe & Nonaka, 2010). ...
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