Learning to learn (2/3)
The other day, I was walking through Rotterdam and came to a halt in front of one of the newest architectural experiments decorating the city. The building that you can see in the cover picture has rapidly risen from the ground and is now almost complete. It has an unusual shape and an even more unusual outer surface. It is covered in mirrors.
Now you may wonder, why am I starting an article about learning with a building covered in mirrors?
Let us not reinvent the wheel…again
When I stopped in front of this building, I realised its exemplary power. If you stand closely in front of the building and look around you, all you see is a construction ground and houses. However, if you look up into the mirrors, the mirrors reflect to you the whole skyline of Rotterdam. Standing there, I realised: sometimes, standing in the middle of the forest, it is easy to not see the forest for the trees.
Within development and humanitarian organisations, plenty of experience and knowledge can be found. However, connecting this knowledge, reflecting, and building on it to achieve long-term goals often gets lost in everyday work. Often, in development organisations, everyone is extremely busy with implementation work. However, taking the time to reflect on the implemented activities and the bigger picture is not taken regularly enough. As a result, ways to optimise work processes and avoid pitfalls are missed. And while the wish to ‘not reinvent the wheel’ all the time is clearly there, the challenges of systematically storing, accessing, and actively using gathered knowledge to learn from it are persistent. To tackle exactly these challenges, there is a need for effective knowledge management and organisational learning.
What is knowledge management and learning?
To implement knowledge management and organisational learning, it is important to first understand what these terms mean. But let me first set the stage: articles such as the ones by Harvard Business Review of 1993 and 2008 (“Building a Learning Organization” and “Is Yours a Learning Organization?”) reveal that while the importance of knowledge management and learning is widely recognised, it is a challenge to embed learning as an integral and ongoing process in an organisation. And it has been a challenge for a while.
The founding father of the learning organisation, Peter Senge published the Fifth Discipline already in 1990. He defined the learning organisation to consist of five elements: “systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning” (Senge, 1990). The question is how to put these concepts intro practice, and specifically how to do so in the context of development organisations. And so, while the idea of learning in organisations is by no means a new one, many organisations still struggle to successfully implement knowledge management and learning solutions. So, it is high time to bring the theory to the work floor.
To put the theory into practice, let us now shed light on the concepts involved. Three main concepts prevail when it comes to learning in organisations. While intertwined, a clear understanding of each of them and their differences is already a first step in the learning roadmap.
Three main concepts:
- Knowledge Management
Knowledge management refers to systematically gathering, storing, and creating access to knowledge. Knowledge refers to explicit as well a tacit knowledge and it comprises validated data as well as experienced lessons.
Let me illustrate: imagine you are starting a new role at a new organisation. You are still in the on-boarding phase and your task for the first week is to familiarise yourself with what the organisation has done in the past in your project area. If the organisation has a good knowledge management in place, you will be able to find all relevant documents and experience reports regarding your project and know who to ask for further insights. Quickly, you have the background knowledge to feel equipped to continue where your predecessor left off. But if knowledge management in that organisation is not that well organised, it will be an extremely tedious first week. Scraping all information from different corners of the organisation, not knowing who to ask what.
Good knowledge management is the basis for your organisation’s institutional knowledge and lets everyone in the organisation build on what is already there. It avoids duplication of work, and therefore, reduces the risk of wasting time and resources.
- Organisational Learning
Organisational learning builds on knowledge management and refers to applying the existing knowledge and insights into work processes and strategic decision making. So, in addition to the on-boarding described above, organisational learning creates the added value of knowledge management. By allowing everyone in the organisation to learn from each other’s activities and experiences, implementation work can be improved continuously. Hence, organisational learning means applying the lessons learned. Important to note is that lessons learned for learning are not only positive ones. Negative experiences are equally valuable to avoid similar pitfalls in the future.
- The Learning Organisation
Both preceding concepts are stepping-stones of a learning organisation. A learning organisation describes an organisation where learning is an integral, continuous process embedded in processes and behaviours across the whole organisation[i]. This definition means that it is an organisation in which knowledge management and organisational learning are institutionalised – so, a natural element of work and decision-making. It exceeds specific learning and knowledge management activities. Rather, it describes a cultural change in an organisation that strives for continuous improvement through learning.
[i] Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline. The Art & Practice of Learning Organization. Doupleday Currence, New York.
Now, that the basic concepts are in place, in the third and last part, I will tell you about how we put them into practice at STRHIVE.
So, stay tuned to find out how!