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KM and OL: Rx for OD

December 19, 2009

Knowledge management (KM) and organizational learning (OL) are interrelated concepts such that individual learning and knowledge creation processes feed the formation of knowledge and directly affect the ability of an organization to improve its performance (Nonaka, 1991; Song & Chermack, 2008; Myers, 1996). KM and OL are critical to organizations in that “the degree to which any organization can expect to be successful in the future will depend primarily on the levels of knowledge and innovation it can sustain” (Hyde & Mitchell, 2000, p. 57).

Nonaka (1991) defined tacit to tacit creation of knowledge as individuals sharing knowledge with one another on a relatively informal basis. Explicit to explicit creation of knowledge could involve synthesizing pieces of information from various sources into a form of new, explicit knowledge such as a financial report (Nonaka, 1991). Tacit to explicit creation of knowledge can involve taking observations of a process and using those observations to develop a new model or approach. Finally, explicit to tacit knowledge creation is based upon individuals using organizationally explicit knowledge to “broaden, extend, and reframe their own tacit knowledge” (Nonaka, 1991, p. 99).

Zack, McKeen and Singh (2009) define KM practices in their review of the literature as being “observable organizational activities that are related to knowledge management” (p. 394) which include the following dimensions:

1. “the ability to locate and share existing knowledge;
2. the ability to experiment and create new knowledge;
3. a culture that encourages knowledge creation and sharing; and
4. a regard for the strategic value of knowledge and learning.” (p. 394)

The fourth dimension identified by Zack, McKeen and Singh (2009) inextricably binds KM and OL together providing a competitive advantage for organizations through continuous performance improvement and ongoing individual and organizational learning. Further, the researchers found a direct relationship between KM and an organization’s financial performance (Zack, McKeen and Singh, 2009).

The concept of the learning organization is also well-established in the literature. Senge (1990) points to the importance of OL by stating “the organizations that will truly excel in the future will be the organizations that discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization” (p. 4). Senge (1990) protracts the concept of OL to include “changing individuals so that they produce results they care about – accomplish things that are important to them” (p. 48). Systems thinking is part of Senge’s (1990) concept of the learning organization and as such, processes must be examined and memorialized such that others can learn from the collective point of view and not only from the individual point of view.

Pucik (1988) argues that “organizational learning is not a random process” (p. 81) and that it must be tied into the overall strategic priorities of the organization. “By gaining an independent know-how, a firm can avoid becoming hostage to the uncertain future of the partnership” (p. 85). In agreement with Senge (1990) and Nonaka (1991), Pucik (1988) asserts that organizations should leverage their abilities to learn beyond the demands of the current market to ensure they will remain competitive and viable in the face of volatility and change.

Therefore, the need to harmonize KM abilities of an organization with OL strategy is clear. In order for organizations to continue to build upon learning that has already taken place whether in tacit or explicit forms, knowledge must be captured, memorialized and leveraged to enhance the organization’s ability to survive the challenges it will face in the future (Zack, McKeen and Singh, 2009). Because all learning begins from an individual point (Nonaka, 1991), it is important to confront the fact that such knowledge is “difficult to turn…into useful knowledge” (p. 102) or explicit knowledge is required to reap the benefits from such learning in the future.

Hyde, A., & Mitchell, K. (2000). Knowledge management: The next big thing. The Public Manager, 29(2), 57.

Myers, P. (1996). Knowledge management and organizational design. Newton, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Nonaka, I. (1991). The Knowledge-Creating Company. Harvard Business Review(Nov/Dec), 96-104.

Pucik, V. (1988). Strategic alliances, organizational learning, and competitive advantage: The HRM agenda. Human Resource Management, 27, 77-93.

Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.

Song, J., & Chermack, T. (2008). A theoretical approach to the organizational knowledge formation process: Integrating the concepts of individual learning and learning organization culture. Human Resource Development Review, 7(4), 424-442.

Zack, M., McKeen, J., & Singh, S. (2009). Knowledge management and organizational performance: An exploratory analysis. Journal of Knowledge Management, 13(6), 392-409.

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