In another posting, I noted some definitions that show how fragmented our understanding of the relationship between KM and learning are. Shirley Hazlett et al. suggest that KM is in a state of pre-science and we lack understanding of the underlying assumptions: “…attempts to develop an optimal KM methodology are misplaced unless the underlying assumptions and paradigms are identified and understood…KM is currently in a state of ‘pre-science,’ wherein proponents of different paradigms have their own beliefs and values and often disagree with others about fundamentals within the field.” I believe this is true. I see it in the discussion groups I’m a member of. For me, the confusion and conflict is what makes KM such an interesting problem to solve. It’s a time when everyone’s voice is equal to everyone else’s, and while we are coming up with applications, approaches, and solutions right and left, the core statements of what KM is and what it does are still very much undefined. There’s a kind of “we know it when we see it” dynamic at work.
To me, there is significant overlap in the processes of knowledge management and learning, but they are distinctly different processes. It is worthwhile for us to understand where they overlap and where they are different in order to help organizations use the benefits each offers effectively. For example, both focus on people and use or create content, but learning creates courses to close knowledge gaps, while KM measures what is already known and creates processes to capture it. Verna Allee said in 2000 “eLearning could be a cornerstone of knowledge management but most elearning companies have failed to master the basic theory and practice of knowledge management. They not only cannot intelligently speak about knowledge management practice from a marketing perspective, they donâ€™t even have a coherent internal understanding of knowledge management or a serious knowledge management strategy of their own.”
G.P. Huber identified four integral elements linked to knowledge in the organizational learning process, and suggested that knowledge is essential for learning. Those learning elements are:
Knowledge acquisition. Knowledge may be acquired intentionally (searching) or unintentionally (noticing). Knowledge/information distribution Information/knowledge from various sources must be shared: the wider the distribution, the greater the ability to learn. Distribution may be through formal processes or through informal contacts and learning by doing. Information interpretation. Information is given meaning and shared understandings are developed. This may occur through formal meetings and discussions, or through recursive and informal, intuitive experiences. Organizational memory. Knowledge is stored for future use, either formally codified (reports, memos and so on) or institutionalized in cultural values.
With a nod to the first President Bush, I have been known to say “It’s the people, stupid!” in response to business managers who get excited about KM and then lurch into action immediately to create new repositories of content in order to “capture knowledge”. Information is simply the input. Human insight is the output that changes information into knowledge.
Knowledge is critical to organizational success, as noted by Nonaka and Takeuchi, but people are the critical component in KM, not databases. I’m not saying that databases, information management and intellectual capital are not important. They are. I’m saying they are not “knowledge”. Knowledge is always the tacit wisdom contained in the head of someone with experience related to the topic. For that reason, expertise location and knowledge sharing are more important to KM than information/content management, even though both are needed. From the dawn of the species, humans shared knowledge without databases and indices.
There is a strong correlation between the importance of knowledge to organizational success and the need to nurture employees, as evidenced in the early 1990s by Buckman Labs. Nurturing so-called knowledge workers occurs through providing an environment in which they can both develop new knowledge (learning) and share what they know. Steve Barth wrote, “A knowledge worker is an asset that appreciates over time. Knowledge itself is more often a depreciating asset.” There are abundant examples of the importance of nurturing knowledge workers in the extensive internal learning and KM programs of all the large consulting and professional services organizations today, where people are the product they offer.
People are the key to both learning and knowledge management, and cultural readiness is an important component of any KM program. Providing technologies for knowledge sharing, motivating people to share what they know, and improving knowledge sharing processes are the realm of KM–for example, in efforts to “enable the knowledge worker”. Identifying knowledge gaps, and providing curricula for education and to create personal knowledge are the realm of learning.
Learning and KM Alignment â€“ the point of divergence
I posed the question of the relationship between learning and KM to a discussion group recently, and here are some of the comments. Joe Firestone, who has written books that cover this topic said, “KM is not a subset of learning, but is the set of management activities intended to enhance learning processes.” Matt Moore, with IBM’s Business Consulting Services division, said “most of those involved in learning…know that most learning does not occur within classrooms – but rather on the job. Coaching and mentoring programs can help here, but increasingly they are looking to knowledge management for support around ‘just in time’ learning programs.” Some educators see learning as a product that they produce. Euan Semple commented that his organization named their KM program “Informal Learning” and it was difficult for some in the training group (where the KM initiative reported) to accept. “You are right though that some in training found this a challenge. The idea that the best knowledge is out there, current and manifest in conversations, can be challenging to those who have made a career out of dispensing it as a product. ”
Matt Moore further highlighted the strain of differences in a KM or a traditional learning approach: “People tend to fall back on what they know, and if you are a fantastic workshop facilitator or a great instructional designer, then nuturing a community of practice or running ‘lessons learned’ activities can be an alien experience. The tensions between JIT Learning & prescriptive curricula are also becoming apparent.” In another communication that presents a positive relationship between knowledge sharing and learning, Mark Spain said he advised a small business owner to use structured team discussions of unusual occurrences to enhance organizational knowledge and create a learning organization. “If you learn to review critical incidents with respect, openness with each other and a willingness to improve by tackling the difficult or embarrassing aspects of the conversation, you are starting to be what the theory describes as a Learning Organisation. You will know you have the opportunity to learn (or change) if you feel uncomfortable in parts of the process but get support from each other to continue because it adds some value to each other.”
F. J. Miller provides some finetuning for learning, saying that training is explicit (i.e., information delivery) and learning is tacit (i.e., the making of personal meaning). Experiments conducted by BHP Engineering attempted to understand the meanings people attach to certain key words in the workplace. When the word training was thrown into the ring, surprisingly, it typically evoked negative reactions. Words like teaching, classrooms, schedules, assessment, authority, competency measurement, control, accreditation, dependency, tests, discipline, boredom, and manipulation covered the white board in the room. Learning, on the other hand, generated a quite different and more positive list, evoking such responses as: self-direction, understanding, enthusiasm, self-pacing, independence, open discussion, success, commitment, freedom, ease of access, excitement, maturity, and honesty. Despite these very different perceptions and responses, organizations still continue to use the language of training and learning virtually synonymously.
Knowledge management and learning work in tandem for greatest organizational and individual effect. In a nutshell:
Knowledge exists only in a person’s brain and it is unique to each person. Learning is a building process for creating knowledge. Knowledge is the product of learning. Knowledge in a person’s head becomes information as soon as it is written or transmitted. Information is used to develop learning modules. The learning process passes structured information to brains, where it is selectively converted to knowledge as the information gains personal meaning. Information can be organized and managed; knowledge cannot. Knowledge management is an oxymoron, but using KM techniques to enhance learning initiatives results in a wide range of organizational benefits.