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Fosway 20

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People, Learning and Knowledge

As the popularity of e-learning in organisational L&D grew in the early 2000s, its overlap with Knowledge Management soon became apparent. This caused much debate around strategy and technology and the ‘best’ way forward at the time. Interestingly, e-learning prevailed where Knowledge Management declined. This article from 2003 demonstrates some of the overlap and the differing views on the disciplines at the time.

August 2003

An old debate gaining new interest is over the relationship between learning and e-learning, and the whole area of knowledge management. With the growth of organisational interest in knowledge management over the past five years or so, there is a growing perception of overlap between KM and other initiatives in the learning arena, and a further set of initiatives in the e-HR arena.

I remember talking to a CEO of a major company a couple of years ago, who was complaining of initiative-overload. He had three distinct groups of people (the HR people, the e-learning people, and the knowledge management people) all knocking at the board’s door with proposals for multi-million pound investment in corporate projects and systems. The problem? Firstly, they all showed a lack of understanding and involvement of what the other teams were working on. But worst of all, they all looked like they were trying to tackle different aspects of the same problem! The result, predictably, was for them to all go away and talk to each other. No-one got the go ahead until they could come back with a single coherent approach covering each of their perspectives.

And that’s a key part of the problem. Historically, if your organisation has had these initiatives, they have come from different parts of the organisation, with a different focus, a different vested interest, and a different type of solution. But why?

At the core, they all seem to relate to much of the same problem – how to leverage existing knowledge or expertise, and how to actively develop it within the organisation. This is explicitly the goal of knowledge management and e-learning, and implicitly the goal of many HR initiatives around competencies and talent development. The difference seems mainly one of ethos and approach.

I can also remember another conversation with a friend of mine who headed up the knowledge management consulting business for a major systems integrator. He was told that their team should focus on providing services around corporate knowledge management but not on learning and e-learning. That was being done by another part of the business, and they didn’t work very closely with them. His reply, was that this was not possible. How could he ignore ’knowledge transfer’ i.e. learning, when building solutions for knowledge management? My question to him, was whether this was an issue of semantics or organisational politics.

Learning and development people often show the same kind of confusion. They are looking at e-learning, their HR colleagues are making decisions on HR systems with “training management and administration” components, and someone else is responsible for knowledge management, and L&D has no visibility of what they’re doing! Sometimes they find they’re even talking to the same vendor who knows more about what the other groups are up to than they do.

Clearly this is a ridiculous situation. If we drew a Venn diagram representing these three different perspectives, we’d end up with lots of overlap as well as some distinctive differences. We clearly need some form of integrated approach (crossing the different vest interests) that can result in a coherent overall strategy, even if the execution of that strategy is driven from different groups at different times. HR organisations are increasingly conscious of the need to develop a more coordinated approach to people, competencies and performance. These directly relate to learning of course; the skills gap analysis from my competency framework defines learning needs which can be managed and fulfilled via a learning management system (LMS). The LMS should track all forms of learning including assessment, and automate the management of my competencies in my HR system.

Learning comes in many forms, not just formal classroom training or on-line e-learning modules. If learning and knowledge transfer activities are viewed as two sides of the same coin, learning and knowledge management are closely related. It’s not just a question of formal and informal learning, tacit and explicit knowledge. Many of the knowledge assets within our knowledge management system, also become assets within our learning management system. The context for access is different but the asset and the event may be the same. Making a hard distinction between KM and LM is difficult, some might say artificial.

So get your act together guys. Start talking to each other and start laying out an integrated approach to people, learning and knowledge that spans all three domains. Even if all you achieve is to present connecting business cases to the board, that’s bound to be a step forward.

This article, written by Fosway’s CEO, David Wilson, first appeared in Training Journal in December 2002

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