Knowledge Management: How to Create a Learning Organization

November 1, 2016 Brian M. Moon


Our first two blogs in this Knowledge Management series demonstrated the imperatives for knowledge management, introduced approaches for eliciting expertise, and suggested methods for leveraging it to accelerate expertise in others. With this final installment, we turn our attention to the necessity of readying the organization and its culture for implementing such guidance in order to drive collaboration, innovation, and create a Learning Organization (LO). 

Up, Down, and Sideways: Cultural Shaping and Gaining Buy-In

Simply put, Learning Organizations are those that proactively lead, direct, and support the learning pathways of their members. The success of any LO requires early and continuous effort directed at shaping the culture and gaining buy-in. These symbiotic processes must be worked at all levels of the organization and across all functional verticals.

Creating a learning organization starts in the C-suite. At a minimum, senior executives must understand the potential risks of losing knowledge and provide resources to mitigate those risks. More broadly, they must extol the virtues of actively developing expertise throughout the organization. Themes should stress both risk mitigation (i.e. protecting the intellectual assets and future capacities of the organization) and the achievement of individuals (i.e. becoming experts and building careers). Without executive buy-in, learning organization initiatives will never leave the station. Indeed, several successful knowledge management pilot projects initiated by operational stakeholders failed to gain traction once they hit the C-suite. Without leadership encouragement and nurturing, a learning culture will fail to take root.

Personnel at the management level hold the keys to success. They must understand that the success of their domain within the organization is inherently tied to the expertise residing in the heads of the experts they enable. Even more importantly, they must appreciate that tapping into such expertise requires time … time that they must carve out for the learning organization initiatives. Without their buy-in, the urgent work of the day will forever override the opportunities to elicit knowledge and share in its value. In some of my work, it has taken an initial knowledge management effort and output to help management learn to appreciate the long view. Of particular value have been knowledge capture products that sparked seeds of innovation, in addition to preserving the expertise.

Perhaps the most essential buy-in is that of your Franchise Experts. I have been fortunate to work with many of the world’s leading experts in a wide range of domains, and in my experience, nearly all of them have been very generous with their expertise. They understand that the future of the organization they have helped build is dependent on how well it learns. While some have expressed that true learning only happens when one “learns the hard way, like I did,” most have appreciated the value of articulating their hardest learned lessons. Some organizations have wisely included participation in learning organization initiatives as part of an expert’s job description and compensated accordingly, with pay, time-off, and/or other learning opportunities that their expert/life-long learners relish. Without the buy-in of your Franchise Experts, learning organization initiatives will be DOA.

The newbie experience must also be shaped. While most organizations provide onboarding to help new employees get acquainted, they typically leave “real” learning to the happenstances of on-the-job training. In a Learning Organization, newbies are helped to realize from day one that on-going learning is an expected, essential part of their responsibilities. They are encouraged and enabled to engage with the wisdom that came before them to understand the complexity of the environment in which they will succeed. Without new employee buy-in, learning organization initiatives will degenerate into just another paperweight on the shelf. We often foster this sort of buy-in by inviting junior personnel to sit in on knowledge elicitation sessions. They hear the expert’s words directly and offer up questions, which jumpstarts the ownership process.

Invest in Skill Development

Just like functional competency requires skill development, so does competency in the methods, processes, and tools required for efficient and effective learning organization initiatives. Helping experts articulate what they know cannot be achieved by simply requesting a “brain dump”. Skills must be developed in a range of knowledge elicitation methods so that the most appropriate approach can be applied to each situation. Mentoring, too, is a skill. Expert mentors must learn how to identify where new employees need help and various strategies for guiding their learning. Concept Maps and decision games are useful tools to quickly show where newbies struggle with complexity and nuance. Your new hires may have spent 16 or more years in school, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they know how to learn. Learning Organizations do not leave learning to chance. They take an active role in developing innovative learning skills early in their employees’ careers. For example, teaching newbies how to conduct knowledge elicitation is a solid strategy that services several needs and yields returns for years to come. The new hire learns both content (the expert’s knowledge) and process (knowledge elicitation technique) at the same time.

Now is the time to create a learning organization. Let’s talk about what you have in place today and what can be designed to protect and leverage your intellectual capital for higher performance both now and in the future. Check out the Knowledge Management webinar below where Dr. Leslie J. Morgan and myself discuss how to retain expertise in an organization.

About Brian M. Moon.:  Brian Moon is a recognized expert in the areas of Knowledge Elicitation and Expertise Management and author of the book Applied Concept Mapping: Capturing, Analyzing, and Organizing Knowledge. Mr. Moon’s portfolio of work includes the implementation of large-scale expertise management programs at Westinghouse Electric Company, the New York Power Authority, and J.M. Smucker for Big Heart Pet Brands, as well as redesign of the White House Situation Room.

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