Knowledge (& KM), Learning (& OL) & Change

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Knowledge (& KM), Learning (& OL) & Change


  • Simone
  • Catherine
  • Michelle
  • Mare
  • Geoff
  • Dan
  • Susie
  • Alim
  • Karin
  • Michael

Why this discussion?

We formed an Open Space discussion group on this topic from a sense of frustration that the intersection between organisational learning and knowledge management had not been explored during the workshop. People coming from an OL perspective and the people coming from a KM perspective all shared this sense of frustration.

From the OL perspective, we felt sad that KM practitioners were taking responsibility for major organisational changes, when our (OL) understanding is that knowledge and information play a tiny part in the way organisations actually change and develop.

From a KM perspective, we felt that there had been a missed opportunity for more structured input on what “Organisational Learning” really is – for example, a discussion on the introductory paper for the workshop.

We all felt that there are relationships between KM and OL. Some of us embody this in our own work (e.g. as ‘OL people’ in KM jobs, or in teams or posts which combine OL and KM functions), and we wanted to explore these relationships more deeply.

Some organisational learning perspectives on change

In response, we tried to give some OL perspectives on one of the big topics in the workshop – how organisations change:

  • Change happens all the time – it is an ongoing process within all organisations
  • Change is driven by big internal and external forces

So maybe the idea of ‘change projects’ – managing neat chunks of change with a defined beginning and end point – doesn’t really make sense. Different change metaphors might be more helpful.

We explored the idea that change is like a river. We are being swept along on the fast flowing water, and generally all we can do is to make little adjustments to the steering, so that we go slightly to the left or the right. This metaphor generated lots of thoughts:

  • We need a proper boat – something that helps us hold together
  • Even if we have a boat, everyone needs to row in the same direction – otherwise we will cancel each other out and just be carried along by the river
  • Steering involves making little adjustments all the time, but at the same time looking at the bigger picture – are there rapids ahead? Is there a landing place?
  • A lot of change projects seem to involve someone else standing on the bank, designing a speedboat and telling us ‘oh, if you had one of these it would be much better’ – but that’s not much help if we’re already in the river on our raft!
  • Can we go where the river doesn’t flow? Is that what we’re trying to do?
  • Similarly, how much can we go against the flow or change the course of the river?

The metaphor of steering suggested a sporting metaphor – curling, where the players brush the ice in front of a moving ball (or puck, or something!). Working with change is about trying to smooth out certain possible paths (and scuff up others?) so that the moving object changes course slightly. If this is the level of influence we actually have, let’s recognise it and do what we can, as well as we can. After all, every time the ball veers in one direction or another, that opens up some new possibilities (and closes others).

Some OL perspectives on OL

We asked: “If Organisational Learning has happened, how would you know?”

One answer is that OL isn’t really like that – it isn’t a ‘product’ that can be finished, but more of an ongoing process. The sign of OL within an organisation is that the organisation “does learning” (behaves in a learning-oriented way) – people reflect, decisions are based on lessons, projects and processes adapt to changes in the context.

A second answer can be found in academic work on OL – e.g. the Centre for Organisational Learning at MIT, the Journal of the Society for Organisational Learning [(] etc. This academic tradition is partly about understanding how organisations change and the complex interactions between different factors that lead to change. It is also about making this understanding explicit and using it to change how organisations change – to bring in more learning.

We talked particularly about Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline, which we described as “the Bible of OL”. Although Senge’s book comes from academia, it actually aims at inspiring people in real organisations to learn. (The five disciplines are: systems thinking; mental models; personal mastery; building shared vision; and team learning. Also important are the ideas of ‘adaptive’ learning – responding to events – and ‘generative’ learning – imagining/visioning a new future. I looked up some of these details after the workshop at [1]). We also mentioned that Senge’s work has come in for lots of criticism too, like all Bibles!!

Another answer is that OL is about reflective practice. This could suggest that it is all about individuals – the metaphor of reflection implies holding up a mirror and seeing yourself in it. OL does have a strong emphasis on individual learning and reflection – e.g. the recognition of different learning styles. But OL people also want to look wider than this, at systems and organisational change.

We all agreed that ‘reflection’ is and has to be wider than looking at your own individual experience – it is important to look around at what else is going on. Equally it is not just about looking backwards at what has happened in the past – if we go back to the metaphor of the river, it is more important to look at what is happening now (where the boat is going), and at what’s going to happen (what’s down the river).

This brought out another answer. From an OL perspective, learning isn’t just about knowing, it’s about doing – acting on what you know. Learning is decision-making based on reflection.

So we could say that Organisational Learning is about the ongoing practice of reflection (internal and external, backward and forward) in structured ways, and making reflective decisions.

KM & OL – two sides of the same coin?

Some of us felt that OL and KM were different ways of looking at the same thing – two sides of the same coin. From a KM perspective this is attractive because if we can show that KM contributes to OL and so to better decision-making, this is a stronger business case.

For example, we talked about expertise – defined as the ability to apply knowledge. We could say:

  • KM facilitates expertise, by making or enabling connections
  • OL builds capacity for expertise, by promoting reflective practice/decision-making

In terms of their roots, perhaps:

  • KM is an information approach to learning
  • OL is a people approach to learning / decision-making

From a KM perspective, we felt that KM is moving from its roots in information into a middle ground, somewhere between information management and organisational learning.

From an OL perspective, we felt that OL is about systems – how organisations work – so we have also moved from our roots, but not necessarily into the same middle ground as KM! We are trying to move towards the bigger picture of change.

From a KM perspective, we identified a stronger emphasis on making connections between organisations, and bringing different kinds of knowledge together from different places/levels. OL is interested in looking at what else is going on, but perhaps more in terms of how to take account of the wider environment in decision-making, and less about linking to other organisations.

KM & OL – nearer their roots than they think?

Despite the overlaps, there was also a shared sense that KM and OL people don’t find it easy to talk to each other.

From an OL perspective, we find lots of KM discussions (e.g. on the email list) are about tools and systems for generating or disseminating information, not about processes of learning, how people use information or how organisations change. The KM jargon like ‘wiki’ excludes us and makes us feel uncomfortable.

As much as KM people want to move towards learning, for many of us information management is still our main day job:

    Information Mgt	<--------------> KM <------------>   Organisational Learning
       This is what we do every day                 This is what we talk about at conferences!

On the other hand, from a KM perspective, we said that “KM people are knocking at the door of OL people, but OL people don’t want to open it.” There were experiences of learning initiatives being very resistant to what they see as IT-led initiatives.

We all shared experiences of IT/systems development that wasn’t fit for purpose (often because the purpose hadn’t been defined!). There was a sense that we tend to leave the IT people to get on with it, and then work around what they have and/or develop our own solutions (e.g. an organisation officially using SharePoint, but where staff actually use a blogging website to share with each other). Yet we also recognised that vast sums of money are spent on IT systems development. This led us to ask whether there are ways of harnessing IT development to OL or even KM??

KM & OL – worthy but peripheral?

Our reflections led to two related questions:

  • “Are KM-ers overexcited librarians?” (asked the KM-ers)
  • “Are OL-ers overexcited HR people?” (replied the OL-ers)

In other words, are OL & KM both worthy but essentially peripheral to organisations’ core business?

If learning is really about decision-making, we need to recognise that decisions are shaped by lots of big organisational and practical factors. It isn’t just a question of presenting the ‘right’ information to decision-makers and then they will change what they thought before.

To take just one of these organisational factors, how can KM and/or OL play a role in enabling more iterative approaches in a development sector largely governed by linear thinking (e.g. logframes) and management practices?

So our original question about the relationships between KM and OL grew into a bigger question – How do knowledge and learning relate to change?

Knowledge, learning & change

We agreed that we wanted to keep exploring this question.

Specifically, the group agreed to:

  • Share our existing resources on the overlaps and relationships between OL, KM and change
  • “Knock our heads together” on what this means for us – i.e. think together in a challenging and constructive way
  • Produce a practitioner reflection on KM/OL/change for the wider community

The initial explorers are Simone, Catherine, Mare, Dan, Susie, Jan, Ben, Carl, Mark & Nancy.