Learning and Continuous Improvement

One of the key benefits of doing a systematic evaluation of your KM activities is that you reflect and learn. Indeed, one of the core practices of KM is 'lessons learned'. The lessons, such as what would you do differently next time, create a pool of updated or new knowledge and start you around the knowledge cycle once more. As you apply this new knowledge, you improve on your previous 'best practice', and so embark on a path of continuous improvement. On this page we consider:

The Learning Organization

Some years before knowledge management emerged as a core management discipline, the concept of 'the learning organization' was taking hold. David Garvin describes a learning organization as:1:

"A learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge, and modifying its behaviour to reflect new knowledge and insights."

Another way of putting this is that knowledge management and organizational learning are two sides of the same coin. You apply knowledge, you learn, you gain new knowledge, you learn some more ... and so on. Garvin sets out five conditions that an organization needs in order to learn from their past experience:2:

  1. Ensure that the learning is purposeful
  2. Set aside the time to conduct these activities
  3. Cultivate a culture that encourages self-assessment and critical thinking
  4. Create performance measurement and evaluation systems that recognise this and do not penalise employees for mistakes
  5. Build mechanism to convert learning into policy and practice.

The After Action Review we outlined earlier is one of the tools used for learning. (Incidentally it was David Garvin who brought this US Army method to more widespread attention.) Of the five conditions, my experience suggests that it is number 2 that is the one that is hardest to achieve (though it does go hand-in-hand with 3). Many organizations put their people under so much pressure with deadlines to meet. Yet, taking time out to reflect could well pay back dividends in the future in the form of higher productivity in future. One of my former managers who was keen to give us space and time for reflection once aptly commented:

"The problem with many managers is that if they look at you sitting at your desk and you're not twitching (e.g. typing at your keyboard), then they don't think you're working!"

From Benchmarking to Benchlearning®

Benchlearning® is a term created by Bengt Karlöf to describe his methodology that combines business improvement with organizational learning. We like it because while the term benchmarking tells you how well you are doing, it does not tell you how to improve. Just as measurement provides a baseline for action, so does benchmarking provide a baseline for benchlearning. Here in outline are the steps in the benchlearning® process:

  1. Identify areas to investigate, e.g. areas of poor performance as identified by your benchmarking
  2. Set up an effective learning team - a small team of complementary skills
  3. Analyze the present situation - review your key performance indicators and carry out perform supplementary analyses
  4. Acquire learning and inspiration from good examples - this is akin to the KM practice of 'sharing best practice'
  5. Develop new solutions - your peers in other organizations are often good sources of inspiration; but aim to go one better
  6. Undertake improvements - at each step review and reflect (in fact, review and reflection is a key aspect of all 7 steps
  7. Follow up and create new initiatives -"change takes time, improvements take longer."

Finally review the learning process. Has knowledge increased? Are people using their competencies? How well did the project go? Are you ready to press on and use good examples (best practice) in other situations?

For a full description of the method you can buy the book.3

In one sense, it does not matter what approach you use, as long as you recognize and take time to address the 'learning' side of knowledge management. In this respect the KM team should act as an exemplar for the KM and learning approaches of the rest of the organization.

Notes

1. 'Building a Learning Organization', David A. Garvin, Harvard Business Review, pp. 78-91 (July/August 1993)

2. 'Learning from Experience' David A. Garvin, Knowledge Management '96 Conference, Business Intelligence (December 1996)

3. Benchlearning® is a registered trademark for the method developed by Bengt Karlöf. It is decribed in the book:
Benchlearning: Good Examples as a Lever for Development, Bengt Karlöf, Kurt Lundgren, and Marie Edenfeldt Froment, John Wiley (2001).


Last updated: 19th March 2011

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presentation

A presentation that reviews the development of knowledge management. Initially delivered to a group of MIS directors, it is the first of several presentations covering ten key themes.
(Download presentation - PDF format)

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