KM Principle: Be both a learning organization and knowledge driven

By Ron Young

(First published as an article in KM Review September 2009.)

Having recently returned from a conference in Indonesia on the subject of learning organizations, author Ron Young, director and principal consultant of Knowledge Associates International, and founder of, considers how these entities differ from knowledge-driven organizations and asks whether the two approaches can coexist.

Learning is about the acquisition of knowledge, he says, while KM should be about having access to, and applying, that knowledge. So are learning and KM two sides of the same coin?


Is yours a learning organization, a knowledge driven one, or both?

In June 2008, I had the great privilege and pleasure to be a keynote speaker and facilitator at a study meeting held in Bali, Indonesia, which focused on the subject of “Learning Organizations”. This event gave me an opportunity to critically review recent developments in organizational learning that have taken place all around the world, and especially throughout Asia, since the concept was popularized in the early 1990s.

But while reflecting on these developments from the luxury of my hotel balcony, I couldn’t entirely forget a prediction that I made back in 1995. As co-author of the book, Upside DownManagement: Revolutionizing Management and Development to Maximize Business Success1, I claimed, at that time in my thinking, that the learning organization, although vitally important, was merely the “warm-up act” for the “star turn” that was about to take the stage – KM for knowledge-driven organizations.

At the time, I saw the knowledge-driven organization as the natural evolution from the learning organization

So it was great to spend four days in Bali studying the principles and characteristics of learning organizations alongside those of knowledge-driven organizations – and to compare their associated concepts, developments and benefits.

As a management consultant who specializes in organizational learning and knowledge management, I’m often asked what the differences are between these approaches; what benefits they bring, both individually and together; and whether KM can help in becoming a learning organization? More importantly, I’m often asked, “Why should we become a learning organization and practice effective KM?”

In this article, I will attempt to answer these questions and draw some conclusions. Before I launch into that discussion, however, I have a word of warning on the subject of labels. As Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, said: “If you label me, you destroy me.”

In an age of holistic organizational development, we know that if we consider just one perspective, we run the risk of losing sight of the whole picture. The label “learning organization” is very useful to help us study and improve an aspect of our working environments, but most workplaces are far more than just learning organizations. So beware of making learning too much of a focus, to the point that you start to lose sight of your organization’s true meaning and purpose.

Getting back to basics

When this topic is up for debate in the boardroom, the first question should be: “Why do we want to become a learning organization?” The only answer should be: “To help us better achieve or exceed our objectives.”

In fact, I would go a step further and suggest that, unless it will make a significant difference to achieving your objectives, becoming a learning organization may not be worth the effort.

The case for becoming a learning organization must be based on value creation and measurable results.

Over the years, I’ve been taught some sound, evergreen business principles. For example, ask yourself the question, “For how long have senior management been interested in increasing productivity, improving relationships, developing quality, innovating and making better decisions?’

The answer, of course, is forever.

And for how long have they been interested in increasing sales or growth, reducing costs and increasing profits or value creation? The answer, again, is forever.

These are perennial items on the boardroom agenda. But what is it that fundamentally underpins productivity, relationships, quality, innovation, better decision-making, increased sales, reduced costs, increased profits and/or value creation?

The answer is the acquisition of knowledge and its wise application.

Organizations are, and always will be, as good as their knowledge, and their ability to transform that knowledge into valuable and successful competencies, products and services.

This knowledge might take the form of new and revolutionary ideas, or it could be knowledge of competitors and industry sectors. It could be process knowledge and good/best-practice knowledge. It could be knowledge of a change in the environment, or knowledge that demands a change in the environment.

The list goes on.

Knowledge fundamentally underpins everything we do in organizations.

Larry Prusak, a KM thought leader (and member of the KM Review editorial board), put it better when he said: “The only thing that gives an organization a competitive edge, the only thing that is sustainable, is what it knows, how it uses what it knows and how fast it can know something new!”

And you may also appreciate the perspective of Jack Welch, when at General Electric, who said: “Learning inside must be equal to or greater than change outside the organization – or the organization is in decline and may not survive.”

What is a learning organization?

So what is a learning organization?

In simple terms, it is one that is able to effectively tap into peoples’ commitment and capacity to learn, at every level in its hierarchy.

At the recent Bali study meeting, Arnold Chan, chief learning officer for Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore, told me that his company’s learning agenda involved:

• Aligning learning and development strategies/initiatives to business strategies through the Bank’s “strategic people agenda”;

• Implementing a strong engagement model to solicit commitment from stakeholders;

• Integrating high-impact learning processes into the Bank’s people-development program;

• Creating a seamless learning portal to offer a wide range of learning opportunities, catering to different learning styles;

• Transforming to sustain the Bank’s competitive advantage in the marketplace.

And Praba Nair, director of consultancy company KDI Asia, and my colleague and fellow keynote speaker at the event, defines some key characteristics of a learning and knowledge organization as one that is committed to:

• Lifelong learning;

• Creating a learning environment;

• Fostering a climate of openness and trust;

• Encouraging free exchange and flow of information;

• Learning & personal development.

The five learning disciplines

But an article on becoming a learning organization would not be complete without mentioning the five learning disciplines described by Peter Senge in his landmark 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline: 'The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization'.

The five learning disciplines outlined by Senge are:

1. Personal mastery – Learning to expand our personal capacity to create the results we most desire and creating an organizational environment that encourages all its members to develop themselves toward the goal and purposes that they choose.

2. Mental models – Reflecting upon, continually clarifying and improving our internal pictures of the world, and seeing how they shape our actions and decisions.

3. Shared vision – Building a sense of commitment in a group, by developing shared images of the future we seek and the principles and guiding practices by which we hope to get there.

4.Team learning – Transforming conversational and collective thinking skills, so that groups of people can reliably develop intelligence and ability greater than the sum of individual members’ talents

5. Systems thinking – A way of thinking about the forces and inter-relationships that shape the behavior of systems. This discipline helps us see how to change systems more effectively and to act more in tune with the larger processes of the natural and economic world.

What is learning?

So what is learning?

Personally, I like simple definitions that are easy to understand. The best definition of learning for me came from KM specialist Hubert Saint-Onge who, at a KM conference in London in the mid-1990s, simply, but profoundly, said that “learning is the process of turning information into knowledge”.

There we have it:

Effective information management, together with embedding the best learning processes and culture throughout the organization, will inevitably lead to the much better creation of organizational knowledge.

But is it really that simple?

Whilst consulting with General Motors (GM) in 1993, I was struck by the company’s approach to transforming its culture into a more collaborative and knowledge-sharing one. Executives at GM asked themselves the question, “Is it possible to bring about a more ‘naturally’ flourishing knowledge-sharing culture?”

In other words, are there any natural principles that we can apply to learning and knowledge driven organizations? We concluded that:

• Trust is the lifeblood of any organization, and when sufficient trust is developed, people will “naturally” want to communicate.

• Open and frequent, two-way communication will develop even more trust and people will “naturally” want to collaborate and work better together.

• More open and more frequent communication of information “naturally” brings about more rapid, more accelerated learning.

• Increased and continual learning will “naturally” increase peoples’ levels of confidence and competence.

• Confident and competent people “naturally” want to share their knowledge.

• Sharing knowledge, naturally, is enjoyable.

Building a virtuous KM cycle

We also concluded that these principles all build on one another and interrelate to form a “virtuous circle” . That is to say that, if you improve in any one area, it will impact and improve all the others. Conversely, if any one principle is neglected, it will also impact all the others, to create a vicious circle of doubt, fear and distrust.

A virtuous circle, will lead to much better “knowing what we know”. A vicious circle, by contrast, leads to “not knowing what we know”.

So GM tried to implement the principles to naturally bring about more trust, improved communications, faster learning and natural knowledge sharing. They sent me and members of their senior management team, to outdoor experiential learning camps in Europe, Asia and the USA where we set about learning how to trust one another more through exercises such as “trust falls” and team activities.

Although we were all blood brothers and sisters in the bar each evening on these trips, that bonding didn’t last in all cases. After returning to work for just one month, it was “business as usual”.

Trust must be earned, not just learned. It develops over a long period, but can be destroyed in seconds.

The next principle was to improve communications by implementing the best communications and information technologies.

But if there is not sufficient trust, this won’t work either. People must want to learn and share knowledge. They cannot be forced to do this.

What worked best, and remarkably well, at GM were the initiatives undertaken to help people learn faster and develop their own personal competencies. And why did these work best? Ithink it’s because this approach answers the key question that most people involved in a KM project ask:

“What’s in it for me?”

Everybody, or certainly most people, want to improve themselves, to develop and grow and to become more marketable and successful. Capturing new learning and ideas as they occur (through both direct work experience and formal training) transforms an organization from an environment of 'episodic learning and innovation' to one of 'continual learning and innovation'.

People are also far more likely to naturally share their knowledge in that environment. As a result, making the principle of improved learning the primary focus was the most successful approach at GM.

Without doubt, learning organization initiatives can work extremely well and can reward individuals, teams and organizations handsomely.

So where does KM fit in?

I claimed earlier that the key contributor to organizational success is the acquisition of the best knowledge and its wise application. The two key words here are “acquisition” and “application”.

Learning is about the acquisition of knowledge, turning information into knowledge. KM should be about having access to, and applying, that knowledge.

So I see learning and KM as two sides of the same coin.

If we look at the roots of the learning organization, it is predominantly about enabling individuals and teams to learn. It began as a bottom-up approach and is primarily a people-centric one.

If we look at the roots of KM, it is predominantly about categorizing, storing, sharing and applying organizational knowledge in a collective and systematic way. It started as a top-down approach and was, initially, more technology centric.

Both complement one another. In fact, they’re highly synergistic. So much so that, over the years, the learning organization has made significant and natural inroads into KM, and vice versa.

Today, I look at mature and highly successful learning organizations, such as Standard Chartered Bank, and see the principles and characteristics of KM embedded throughout the organization.

There’s no doubt in my mind that organizations with strong learning-organization roots will wish to continue their initiatives and efforts in that direction, perhaps under the direction of a Chief Learning Officer (CLO). And organizations that have strong KM roots will similarly wish to continue their initiatives and efforts in their chosen direction, perhaps led by a Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO).

Some organizations may wish to continue initiatives and efforts that embrace both disciplines. It doesn’t matter at all. These are simply useful labels, and maybe one day, someone will invent a new label that embraces both.

What does matter is that we constantly remind ourselves of the evergreen business principles that will naturally lead to organizational success and then apply the best strategies, processes, methods, tools and techniques available at any given time to bring those principles fully to life.

Summary Key Points

The case for becoming a learning organization must be based on value creation and measurable results.

Organizations are, an always will be, as good as their knowledge and their ability to transform that knowledge into valuable and successful competencies, products and services.

Learning is about the acquisition of knowledge. KM should be about the wise application of that knowledge. In that sense, both complement each other and are highly synergistic.

What do you think?

Share this page: