closing the learning-knowledge loop

For 10 years Jane McConnell has been researching organizations in the digital age. The latest report surveyed 311 people from 27 countries, representing a variety of global companies from 18 market sectors. Participants responded to an in-depth online survey of over 100 questions. I was a member of the Advisory Board.

I would like to focus on one finding that Jane discussed recently on LinkedIn Pulse.

11. Learning is easier than remembering.

Learning in the natural flow of work is becoming easier. E-learning, real-time access to experts and communities of practice facilitate learning while working. 56% now say it is easy, compared to 23% three years ago. Responsibility for learning lies primarily with people themselves, rather than their manager or the HR department.

Remembering, or retaining knowledge and know-how when people leave the organization is extremely difficult. In the last three editions of the report, fewer than 15% of organizations expressed confidence in retaining knowledge and know-how when people leave. These organizations differ from the others in several ways, but two primary distinctions are that people tend to work out loud and leadership styles in the organization are open and participatory.

Learning in organizations seems to be easy, while remembering and using knowledge is hard. This highlights the difference between the disciplines of ‘Organizational Learning’ and ‘Knowledge Management’.

“They differ partly in their starting point: the starting point for KM is that knowledge is valuable and should be managed; the starting point for OL is that learning is valuable and can be managed at the individual, group and whole organization level. As learning is the ‘receiving’ part of knowledge, there is often little difference between KM and OL, and in some ways, KM is the management system through which Organizational Learning is attained.” —Nick Milton

Five years ago I presented to a joint group of both organizational learning (OL) and knowledge management (KM) professionals. Very quickly it was apparent there were two distinct camps. For example, the KM group was interested in technology while the OL group did not want to discuss it. But it was not just technology that divided them. The OL group seemed to be defensive while the KM group appeared to be much more inquisitive. For me, it meant balancing my presentations so that I could connect with both camps.

This is a generalization, but I see the prime difference is that a lot of OL work is event based. It includes workshops, courses, and classes. Even fads like micro-learning are event based. On the other hand, KM looks at knowledge flow, curation, and retrieval. KM is more systemic.

It is time these two groups start to work together and close the learning-knowledge loop. This has been my focus with personal knowledge mastery. While people learn from formal instruction, they also learn in the workflow and outside work. Developing a discipline of seeking out knowledge and knowledgeable people, making sense of our experiences, and sharing as needed, is a continuous loop. Jane McConnell’s research has highlighted this disconnect. Nick Milton has succinctly described the ’chicken and egg’ situation between OL & KM. Now organizations need to help close the learning-knowledge loop, or risk becoming laggards in a digital economy.

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