posted 2 Apr 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 7
Your Say: KM and knowledge creation
Traditional knowledge-management programmes have focused primarily on the process of capturing and sharing knowledge and information, at the expense of that of knowledge creation and learning. Simon Lelic talks to representatives from Fujitsu Services, Macroinnovation, Pfizer, Simcorp Consultants and SimuLearn, and discusses how organisations should act to redress this imbalance.
Though knowledge management has evolved immeasurably since the mid-1990s, the majority of KM programmes continue to focus primarily on re-using knowledge – how to capture and then share those intellectual assets that already reside within the organisation. This is not necessarily a bad thing; few firms can claim to have come anywhere near to mastering this process, and, in a bear market, the search for new ways to utilise resources already at your company’s disposal makes perfect sense. But to concentrate exclusively on this aspect of knowledge management is to ignore the broader values encompassed by the discipline. KM is, or should be, about the entire knowledge lifecycle – how to create knowledge, how to identify and distribute this knowledge, and how to exploit and protect it. This is something of an oversimplification, of course, and each process presents a unique set of organisational challenges. Yet many businesses seem to have overlooked individual stages in this cycle; in particular, that of knowledge creation – facilitating innovation, staff training and development, and identifying and filling knowledge gaps – has not received the attention it warrants.
Most initiatives in this area have thus far revolved around the concept of the ‘learning organisation’. Put simply, says Clark Aldrich, a consultant and co-founder of SimuLearn, a learning organisation is one that proactively manages its employees’ development, in the same way that customer-focused organisations work to manage the customer’s experience. It is a concept made famous by the likes of Peter Senge and Arie de Geus, one that has influenced the work of innumerable KM practitioners in recent years. De Geus, as Tom Knight, principal consultant for Fujitsu Services says, has put forward the argument that there is an inherent contradiction between managing for short-term shareholder value and the stewardship of organisations as ‘living’ entities looking to secure their long-term future. “De Geus noted that, almost uniquely, long-lived organisations retained an ability to ‘sense’ the need for change and to react to it,” Knights says. This, he argues, is the key point embodied by the concept of the learning organisation. “To have any chance of long-term survival, organisations need to be able to learn from the environment in which they operate, and from the activities they undertake on a daily basis. Whether the label itself is useful depends on how well it manages this learning.”
In a sense, and as Mark McElroy, CEO and president of Macroinnovation Associates, suggests, all organisations are learning organisations, in that their members engage in collective knowledge production and integration. The proviso, he adds, is that not all organisations learn equally well. The creation of an environment that supports and encourages learning is of course critical in this respect, but according to Aldrich, most organisations do this so badly that a deliberate attempt often proves worse than no attempt at all. Knight agrees, suggesting that few organisations have really taken the message about learning to heart. “The Investors in People badge, which all too often tends to be about training courses rather than organisational learning, is usually the focus of efforts within the HR department, but is scarcely an issue elsewhere,” he says. This is something businesses need to address if they are to secure and reinforce their position in such a competitive economic climate. As McElroy puts it, “It is the key to survival and adaptation. Learning to learn well is, in the end, the strategy that matters most in business, for without learning there is no capacity to adapt.”
It is perhaps not surprising, though, that so many companies have overlooked this imperative, for knowledge management as a discipline has also tended to ignore the subject in the past, something the business press, industry consultants, vendors and practitioners must all bear some responsibility for. “The management of knowledge has tended to be seen as an area of technology rather than as a definitively different way of thinking about delivering new market value,” says Victor Newman, chief learning officer at Pfizer Research University. As a consequence, adds McElroy, KM has focused mainly on the management of knowledge-processing outcomes (ie, documents and electronic content), and not on the organisational processes that account for the formulation of new ideas contained within them. “I believe this is largely due to two things: first, managing outcomes, or work products, is a whole lot easier than managing collective social processes; and second, there has historically been a lack of consensus about how organisations learn in the first place, thereby making the management of the related processes problematic.”
Should an enterprise actively attempt to establish an environment that is conducive to learning and personal development, though, it will soon reap the benefits. “First,” says McElroy, “it will help businesses to attract and retain passionate and inspired employees. People are drawn to environments that make it possible for them to learn and to develop and apply their own ideas.” In addition, he continues, a learning environment will enhance an organisation’s capacity to detect and solve problems, as well as improving accountability by making management’s ideas more open to scrutiny and criticism from stakeholders. “It will also enhance an organisation’s capacity to adapt and to perform more competitively in the marketplace,” he adds. Indeed, it is only by actively working to create such an environment that an organisation can hope to identify the gaps in knowledge that exist among its employees and, subsequently, to plug these holes.
In devising a strategy to fulfil the learning needs of an organisation, Newman maintains it is essential to begin with what type of company you wish or need to become, and then to work backwards. As Knight puts it, “It’s all about context. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. A focus on the outcome, on the end benefits required from any strategy, will always determine the best way forward.” There are, though, a number of guiding principles that organisations can follow. Menno Thijssen, marketing manager for Simcorp Consultants, highlights the following:
· Encourage the active role of human creativity and imagination;
· Embrace the opportunities presented by new technologies in supporting communities of practice;
· Ensure that your organisation is able to move away from ‘the way things have always been done’.
Having first evaluated the specific organisational context, there are numerous options open to businesses in terms of individual tools and techniques that can help facilitate knowledge creation. McElroy emphasises the value of self-directed learning programmes that allow employees to pursue learning agendas of their own choosing with full management support. “Contrast this with training programmes that dictate learning agendas,” he says. “Under self-directed programmes, organisations learn more often from the inspirations of their workforce. Under conventional training programmes, the learning agenda is much narrower, and the opportunity to learn from the bottom up, so to speak, is dampened.” In a similar vein, McElroy advocates what he calls free employee presses (FEP) – publishing programmes, such as that used by the US Forest Service, that allow all the stakeholders of an enterprise to have access to management ideas and employees’ reactions. “An FEP enhances an organisation’s capacity to learn because it supports collective discussion and debate about important issues in the bright light of day,” he says.
Business games and simulations are also gaining in popularity, as the success of Ark Group’s recent conference on the subject serves to testify. “Business simulations facilitate the absorption of knowledge, teamworking, entrepreneurship and creativity,” says Thijssen. “They are the perfect way for an organisation to learn as a group. Each independent group member is able to demonstrate their own capabilities in a simulated business environment. Individuals become aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, in addition to those of their colleagues.” Thijssen points to the experiences of KLM in using simulations as testament to the value of such techniques. “At KLM, cabin crews attend management simulations in order to learn to work together, to identify strengths and weaknesses of groups and individuals, to visualise their place in the organisation, and to better understand everyday operations within the company.” Particularly when augmented by mentoring and coaching techniques, Thijssen is convinced of the contribution business games and simulations have to make to the broader process of organisational learning.
Technology obviously also has a role to play. “E-learning tools offer enormous potential for disseminating standardised bodies of information, and for getting large numbers of people up to basic skill levels in particular activities,” says Knight. Initially popular in larger organisations because of its potential to reduce training costs, e-learning has since demonstrated a number of other attractive characteristics, notably flexibility, timeliness (‘learning at the point of need’), consistency and standardisation of content, and ease of assessment. That said, e-learning is not without its share of detractors, and Knight is quick to accept its limitations. “We are social animals, and while we can absorb basic bodies of knowledge from a screen, more complex matters are better communicated through discussion, debate and human interaction. Face-to-face or classroom-based training is not likely to disappear any time soon.” And as Newman puts it, “The technology and the product are only as good as the thinking behind it. As we know from portals and intranets, just because we build it, doesn’t mean anyone will come.”
The key point, though, is that organisations are faced with myriad opportunities and techniques by which they are able to enhance their ability to learn and to fill the gaps that exist in their collective knowledge, if they so choose. While any initiative in this area needs first to be carefully considered and effectively targeted, the costs of failing to redress the imbalance that typifies so many KM programmes will continue to mount until either action is taken or the enterprise is forced to pay the price for its inaction. As McElroy puts it, “We don’t need any more managers of documents and other work products. What we need are managers who know how to enhance the organisational processes that account for knowledge production and learning, not just knowledge sharing.” It is this capacity of an enterprise as a whole to learn from and respond to its external environment, and to adapt accordingly, that will differentiate those businesses that experience sustained success from those that fall by the wayside.
Clark Aldrich is a consultant co-founder of SimuLearn. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tom Knight is principal consultant for Fujitsu Services. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Mark McElroy is president and CEO of Macroinnovation Associates. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Victor Newman is chief learning officer at Pfizer Research University. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Menno Thijssen is marketing manager for Simcorp Consultants. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Senge, P., The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation (Random House, 1993)
2. De Geus, A., The Living Company: Growth, Learning and Longevity in Business (Nicholas Brealey, 1997)
3. See also McElroy, M, ‘Ethics, innovation and the open enterprise’ in Knowledge Management (Ark Group, September 2002)