Knowledge Management and Learning; the eternal merry-go-round?

Knowledge Management and Learning; the eternal merry-go-round?

By Antonia Gillham (C.E.O. of Pinoak Consulting) and professor Zak van Straaten, of Pinoak Consulting.

This paper was delivered at the, Education, Training and Development: Learn, Perform, and Succeed Conference at the Radisson Hotel, Cape Town, Oct. 18, 2004.

This paper is about the integration of Knowledge Management and Learning Management. We use the metaphor of the merry-go-round to approach the subject matter. In section (1) we demonstrate what the conceptual and functional reasons are for the integration of Learning Management and Knowledge Management by appeal to a theory of knowledge, a theory of semantics and similarity of function in corporate practice.
In section (2) we look at issues of integration at the operational level.
Section (3) offers conjectures on what the integrated landscape of Knowledge Management and Learning Management might encompass in the next 5 years.

Knowledge Management and Learning; the eternal merry-go-round?

Yes, we are still at the fair, ladies and gentlemen, and as you step off the roller coaster of organisational learning, with knees like jelly, let me tempt you aboard the merry-go-round with its more contemplative pace and its gentle tunes.

The Merry-go-round

The merry-go-round spins round and round
The sky is twirling by
The glowing horses toss their tails
We laugh and know not why

The merry-go-round spins round and round
We feel the wind so free
Together we rise and sink while we cling
To the poles of uncertainty

The merry-go-round spins round and round
The stars hold hands with the moon
The music plays as we turn our heads
To hear the endless tune

The merry-go-round spins round and round
We feel the burning sun
Again and again we see its face
It’s a hundred suns not one

The truth I think lies in the last line of this poem. As we spin around and around we see the same things come up again and again but we often do not realise this and think erroneously that they are a hundred suns not one, a hundred different problems, not the same one that merely keeps coming round.

Hold on tight, while we spin; we will get there.

We all know that learning takes place whether we like it or not and that the challenge to organisations is, not just to ensure that it happens, but more importantly to ensure that the right learning happens. I am sure that all of us have witnessed people around us learning the wrong things, picking up bad habits, adopting ways of doing things that are ultimately counterproductive, just because they are there and the right way of doing things or the right knowledge is not.
The utilisation of Knowledge also takes place on a continuous basis, formally and informally and in the same way as with learning, the challenge is to identify the right kind of knowledge. Organisations need to ensure that people are not swamped by mountains of information, much of it out of date, irrelevant or incorrect.

Clearly what we need is the right learning and the right knowledge, and to do that, I will argue that the two separate functions of Knowledge Management and Learning should join forces with one integrated front end in order to support an organisation in all its objectives. I will argue that they are both on the same merry-go-round.
Section 1

Conceptual integration of Learning and Knowledge Management

Pre-history and Definitions

Knowledge Management and Learning have always existed, (they were not always so called of course) all the way from early hunter gatherer societies 40,000 years ago to the present.
In the 20th Century we saw the appointment of Training Managers or Chief Learning Officers and until fairly recently that seemed enough, until suddenly, Chief Knowledge Officers began to sprout all over the corporate landscape like fresh asparagus.
Why were these new people necessary? And furthermore are CLO’s and CKO’s not doing the same thing?
As is often the case historical precedence tells us little about logical precedence.

In my search for definitions of Knowledge Management and Corporate Learning I encountered a bewildering array of different statements. For our purpose today, I shall confine myself to the following two definitions:

definition one

“Knowledge Management” is the process of explicitly managing an
organization's knowledge assets and best practices. Knowledge assets consist of valuable knowledge about all aspects of the organization's business, including products, processes, services and customers. Knowledge assets have a complex usage cycle, since knowledge is sourced or created, validated, stored, used, continuously improved, transferred or discarded.

Knowledge management is closely linked to learning as it requires that the skills and competencies of your staff must be managed to support the use of knowledge throughout the cycle.

The point of effective knowledge management is that it enables an organization's knowledge assets to be optimally leveraged to maximize stakeholder value. In the new knowledge economy an organisation’s knowledge assets cannot be effectively leveraged if you manage finance, human resources, land, infrastructure and I.T. but do not manage your most valuable resource which is knowledge.

definition two

"Knowledge Management is deliberately treating business knowledge with the same managerial seriousness that is applied to managing strategy, finance, infrastructure and I.T. in order to achieve competitive advantage. The place where you do Knowledge Management is with those processes in your business where you add value — your products and services. (Both definitions of "knowledge management" by Pinoak Consulting, 2000)

So what then is Organisational Learning?

Organisational Learning consists of continuously “ managing change in the competency of individuals, teams and organisations.” so as to be able to compete, achieve strategic business objectives, and grow stakeholder value. (Definition adapted from Andrew Mayo, London Business School)

Please remember that these definitions do not in any way mean that both Learning and Knowledge Management only occur in formal ways, in a formal environment. As I said previously, people will learn, know and do whether we like it or not.

Let’s now briefly look at some examples of the integration of the two at a conceptual level.

I would like to begin with what can be called the dualities of both learning and knowledge.

When you get to grips with learning you need an object, i.e. you have to learn to do something- or you have to learn that some alleged state of affairs is true.
So in ordinary everyday life the concept of Learning splits into 2:
(i) learn how (like how to ride a bicycle or drive a 4x4 over mountainous terrain)
(ii) learn that (to learn that some fact or set of facts is true).

b) When you get to grips with knowing it also requires an object and it also splits into 2:
(i) to know how (like how to ride a bicycle or drive a 4x4 over mountainous terrain)
(ii) to know that (some fact or set of facts is true such as an opinion, falsehood or propaganda or some mixture of all like the content of a copy of the local newspaper or of the content of the www) (Ryle: 1949)

The similar behaviour of the concepts is a matter of semantic function. If the underlying reality which they are matched with, were dissimilar the concepts might be dissimilar, but they are not.

When we take a look at the purpose of both Knowledge Management and Learning in a corporate environment, we encounter a plethora of functional similarities.

In TABLE 1 below we attempt to demonstrate this.


Sources of Learning and Knowledge Management
When we examine the sources of organisational learning and compare them to the sources used for acquiring and using the right knowledge, we cannot but notice that they too are exactly the same.


Both functions source their content from the same areas as depicted above in diagram 1 and then make them available to those that require them.

A comparison of the roles of Chief Learning Officers and Chief Knowledge Officers demonstrates further examples of integration.


Ø Build and foster a positive learning environment and continuous learning culture & seek to transfer knowledge on appropriate best practices

Ø Ensure that either learning or the identification and use of knowledge are always tied to business strategy & business goals

Ø Promote the idea (with appropriate actions) that the organisation as a whole should be an intelligent learning organisation or knowledge enabled one

Ø Attempt to transform individual knowledge into organisation wide knowledge.

Ø Identify what makes the organisation competitive, through acquisition of knowledge, through the identification of competencies

Ø Devise an integrated system of Learning and Knowledge transfer to prevent duplication, and achieve consistency of communication etc,

Ø Research new models, methodologies, platforms and methods of improved learning delivery

Ø See that what is learned from clients (knowledge about:----client relationships & client decision making & models of best practice client contact) is analysed, assimilated and packaged for learning delivery, and inserted into relevant learning objects

Ø Measure business impact & ROI for all Learning

Ø Achieve a strategic partnership with other business functions to impact the bottom line of the organisation

And the list could go on and on…….

The point here is that both disciplines focus on achieving competitive advantage, both impact everything that an organization does, both must result in action and both are unable to occur and prosper without the other. Knowledge however great, without learning to embed it in the organisation, is a waste of time and effort, learning, however well presented without competitive edge knowledge of what is strategically required by the business, is a waste of time and effort. In short; - Learning without knowledge management is blind and knowledge management without learning is empty!

Strategically I refer here to the concept of Competitive-edge-knowledge which I think is an important one to note: CEK is the knowledge, which your company currently possesses, of its processes, products, and services which differentiates it from your competitors, makes the customers and market prefer your products or services, and thus confers competitive advantage on your company.

Section 2
Issues of integration at the operational level

So why do the two disciplines not get nice and close, share the same space and become more supportive of one another?

Let’s be blunt –
Ø Turf battles; - I have and need more power than you have, so I won’t share what I know, and what you need to learn, you can go and find for yourself – playground not fair ground rules!
Ø A lack of understanding that they both actually want and do the same things
Ø A lack of understanding as to what exactly Knowledge Management is – too academic –yeah!

Represented visually, the co-dependency between the two might look like this:


We manage knowledge by identifying or finding it, creating it, sharing it and using it in order to learn how to do things that best achieve the business objectives and strategies.
We manage learning in order to know the critical competitive edge knowledge and skills we need, to do things differently, to achieve bottom line success.
Back to our merry-go-round, we know, learn, do, know some more, learn some more, do some more etc.

So now, if I were to ask you what are the differences between the two, what would you say?
Sure there are some differences, there have to be!

I would answer thus. Although they both attempt to package knowledge for distribution:
Ø KM mostly discovers and creates the knowledge by managing research for new products or services and makes it accessible by means of Communities of Practice, Access to Databases, Yellow pages of Experts, Projects, Customer and Product data etc

Ø Learning mostly takes it as it finds it and distributes it through learning packages or objects and uses the usual learning methods: workshops, e-Learning interventions, action learning projects, Leadership programmes, learnerships etc. to do so.

No doubt some of you want to debate this distinction with me right now, but in order to meet our time allocated we need to keep spinning. So let the music play on and round and round we continue.

Practical suggestions for achieving integration at the operational level

If it is true that the two are so conceptually similar, then it follows that we should be able to integrate them at an operational level. So I embarked on a search of what companies are doing, and was gratified and delighted to find that there were quite a few instances where real integration between Learning and Knowledge Management was already happening.

Examples are:

1. The creation of action-learning projects that require active searching out of competitive edge knowledge around the organisation, in order to be completed

2. Leadership projects used for presentations in brown bag sessions(informal knowledge sharing sessions), even those not implemented.

3. The use of people that know, to teach the people that don’t know in workshops, as well as to coach and mentor.

4. Access to a voluntary panel of experts

5. Leadership programmes that use real time knowledge, for example, the Engaging with Strategy programme implemented at Old Mutual in 2002.

(C) Copyright Old Mutual AND Pinoak Consulting 2002

In this one programme, the actual strategies of the organisation are presented by the strategy drivers or leaders and then debated with those that need to implement them, resulting in co-creation, cross functional knowledge sharing and the emergence of a new way of learning, namely through challenge and questioning. The point of the programme is to learn and understand the thinking behind the usual, so glibly presented, slides.

6. The use of technology for learner sites or pods, with FAQ’s, chat room access and links to content sites containing past projects, papers, past presentations etc.

7. “Park Benches” which are boards in classrooms specifically used to park valuable knowledge as it arises in workshops, for further communication.

8. Sites accessed by learners containing lists of all current projects, strategy presentations, experts, orientation information, organisational structures and profiles etc

9. The use of real storytelling, about things that actually happened in the organisation, in learning events

10. The writing up of case studies for use in learning content and in the company's Knowledge Bank.

Section 3.
The Future of Knowledge Management & Learning;
What will the next 5 years bring?

3.1 The I.T. industry will produce new Integrated Groupware that will seamlessly encompass both K.M. and Learning
Many in the learning technology and e-Learning sector think that the future of the market will be determined by developing systems similar to current LMS (Learning Management Systems), which incorporate knowledge management I.T. technologies into e-learning systems. In other words they plan to operationalise the integration ideas between K.M. and e-Learning.
The 1st International Workshop on Learner-Oriented Knowledge Management & K.M.-Oriented e-Learning is to be held at Kaiserslautern in Germany in April 2005.

Issues that will be debated and explored are:
Ø Learner oriented knowledge structuring
Ø Integration of instructional design models and pedagogic principles into K.M.
Ø Stimulating learning processes with K.M. systems
Ø Greater use of K.M. systems in linking learners
Ø Methodologies to optimize inter-operability and improve search and navigation tools

3.2 The motivation NOT to share knowledge will erode
To get individuals who possess valuable organisational knowledge (capital) to share it, remains to date, something of a problem. The new integrated Knowledge Management and Learning systems however will possess groupware features, which will force individuals and business units to share knowledge.

3.3 Turf Battles will be resolved
One of the current roadblocks to corporate experiments in integration is that K.M. is usually a strategic partner with the business units and senior executives. In house training departments are usually owned and deployed by senior H.R. executives who are often quite wrongly, I might add, regarded as not being essential to the business. So one is confronted with yet another turf battle. Consultants often see this much more clearly than internal staff. Any real integration will require suitable restructuring.

3.4 Traditional evaluation measures will be re-modelled and adapted
Although both Learning and Knowledge management are attempting, independently of each other, to measure business impact, Learning is still using the current model of “O.K. Show me what you know” rather than “O.K. Show me what you can do by using and exploiting knowledge for shareholder value”. Integrating them both under the same measures will result in a much better fit with the strategic needs of the business in a dynamic fast moving knowledge intensive economy.

3.5 Traditional control of content will shift from training departments to “user hubs” and “user experts” in the front line of the business.
As learning moves ever closer to where it is needed, access to knowledge via learner hubs or pods will become commonplace and content production and selection become a decentralized shared responsibility between the business and the learning functions.

3.6 What will the future look like?
It will be the result of taking the recommendations for effective integration below and implementing them. – This will take courage!

Ø Place the Knowledge Management and Learning functions under one roof, under one
leader with one front end into the organisation

Ø Call the whole lot “Learning”. Or, if you like, something like Learning and
Knowledge for Sustained Competitive Advantage

Ø Create one common governance structure for both at executive level

Ø Link your learning content management system to the necessary technology databases i.e. your strategy website, your projects, database, your CRM system, your finance dashboard so that you and your learners can access real up to date knowledge

Ø Have one marketing strategy and one combined budget for both and there will quickly be a stronger focus on co-creation and on focusing on achieving visible business impact

Ø If possible resist turning them into profit centers, something that seems to be all the rage at the moment. Bravely position them as a central corporate expense. They are not a cost, they are an investment in the bottom line of the organisation.

Ø Use every opportunity to make them strategy formulation partners. Bad strategies are legionary when knowledge and learning are not at the table.

Ø And most importantly, let them be measured as a whole with the focus on evaluating business impact

So finally the merry-go-round can stop spinning and a fully integrated Learning and Knowledge Management for Sustained Competitive Advantage function will climb down and walk the walk and talk the talk together, united in the pursuit of real and continuous competitive advantage.


Ryle G. (1949) The Concept of Mind, Hutchinson, London 1949


1. KNOWLEDGE UNPLUGGED (The McKinsey & Company Global Survey on Knowledge Management) by a team of 9 authors; the principal ones being; Jurgen Kluge, Wolfram Stein & Thomas Licht. (Palgrave, London 2001). A good general survey.
2. INTELLECTUAL CAPITAL by Leif Edvinsson & Michael S. Malone, Piatkus, London 1997.
The inside story of how a major assurance and financial services company operating in Europe and in 24 countries uses km to maximum advantage.
3. THE WEALTH OF KNOWLEDGE: INTELLECTUAL CAPITAL AND THE 21st CENTURY ORGANISATION, by Thomas A. Stewart, New York 2001. Clearly written in a zippy FORTUNE magazine style, with loads of interesting ideas.
4. INTELLECTUAL CAPITAL: The New Wealth of Organisations, by Thomas Stewart, (Doubleday 1997).
5. THE KNOWLEDGE DIVIDEND by Rene Tissen, Daniel Andriessen and Frank Lekanne Deprez, (Financial Times-Prentice Hall 2000). The inside story of how BP became a major km player.
6. VALUE BASED KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT: CREATING THE 21st CENTURY COMPANY: KNOWLEDGE INTENSIVE, PEOPLE RICH by Rene Tissen, Daniel Andriessen and Frank Lekanne Deprez, (Financial Times, 2001). An updated version of #5.
by Philip Evans & Thomas S. Wurster. How the new knowledge economy differs from the old industrial economy.
8. THE KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT FIELDBOOK by Wendi Bukowitz & Ruth Williams, Financial Times, London 1999. Good on the human face of km.
9. KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT: A State of the Art Guide, by Paul Gamble & John Blackwell, (Kogan Page 2001).
10. THE KNOWLEDGE CREATING COMPANY: How Japanese Companies Create the dynamics of innovation, by Ikujuro Nonaka & Hirotaka Takeuchi, (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1995. One of the early trail blazers; how innovation works for the Japanese.
11. ENABLING KNOWLEDGE CREATION: How to Unlock the Mystery of Tacit Knowledge and Release the Power of Innovation. Georg Von Kroch, Kazuo Ichijo and Ikujiro Nonaka. (Oxford University Press 2000). An updated version of #10.