Knowledge and Training
Most businesses recognise the importance of gaining, retaining and deploying knowledge effectively. To do so requires an ability to learn so that the corporate knowledge and ‘know-how’ can be effectively harnessed (Hamel, 2005). This Chapter explores the concept of knowledge and knowledge management, discussing the issues surrounding organisational learning.
Information is essentially raw data placed in some form of context. When this is shaped by judgement then a position of knowledge has been reached (Chaffey and Wood, 2005). Knowledge can be situated, abstract, implicit, explicit, distributed and individual, physical and mental, static and developing, verbal and encoded (Blackler, 1995). ‘Knowledge types’ include:
- Embedded knowledge - such as that captured in corporate technologies.
- Encultured knowledge - a collective understanding and shared values.
- Embodied knowledge - practical, activity-based knowledge (competences and skills).
- Embraced knowledge - that encapsulated by ‘subject matter experts’.
(Armstrong & Taylor, 2014)
A knowledge hierarchy can be described, starting from data (the basic, agreed facts), which once processed to generate meaning delivers information, which in turn provides knowledge once it is put to productive use (through the addition of relevant skills and competences (Henry, 2011). Data is codifiable and explicit, knowledge is contextual and tacit (requiring learning to take place to share it), whilst intelligence involves the application of judgement (Skyrme, 1999).
Explicit knowledge is that consciously held by individuals and groups and as such it should be relatively easy to share. Tacit knowledge is more internalised and individual in nature and is often described as intelligence or wisdom (Nonaka, 1994). The challenge is turning critical tacit knowledge into a form that can be easily shared. This requires a knowledge management strategy recognising how human interaction provides the best way of moving tacit knowledge across an organisation.
Epistemology is the essential theory of knowledge. Core concepts include:
- How knowledge and perceptions of facts can be shaped by beliefs and attitudes.
- The challenge of cognitive dissonance i.e. only seeking or accepting information that reinforces existing attitudes and beliefs.
- The importance of intuition - taking decisions that feel right.
Knowledge Management is the promotion and formalisation of learning with the aim of aligning training with the needs of the business (Mullins & Christy, 2016). It is usually focussed on activities that identify, create, distribute and share knowledge (Armstrong & Taylor, 2014). These codification strategies are essentially people-to-information approaches, whereby knowledge is taken from the person or group that developed it, made independent in some form and then access to it by others is provided. Because of tacit knowledge, effective corporate approaches also support personalisation - building networks and face-to-face interactions (Mullins & Christy, 2016). The effectiveness of these knowledge management mechanisms can be affected by a range of factors such as organisational culture, power structures, leadership and management.
Learning is about increasing the capability and capacity to take action through the acquisition and application of new knowledge. Learning can only be stated to have taken place when those involved are able to take more effective action as a result (Argyris, 1993).
If knowledge transfer is to be effective, the mechanisms used should reflect preferred learning styles - the way in which people perceive, conceptualise, organise and recall information (Huczynski & Buchanan, 2013). Four distinct preferences or approaches have been suggested:
- Visual. Using images and graphics to process information.
- Auditory. Learning through listening and speaking.
- Reading/Writing. A preference for note taking and reading around the subject.
- Kinesthetic. Preferring a more tactile, ‘hands-on’ approach to learning.
Behaviourists consider observable and identified changes in behaviour following learning. The concepts are rooted in the work of Pavlov, Skinner and Watson who suggested that learning is the formation of new connections between stimulus and response on the basis of experience, which they called conditioning(Clegg, Kornberger & Pitsis, 2011). Responses to stimuli are modified based upon previous feedback and experience. In the workplace this translates into the application of positive reinforcement through incentives to encourage repeat behaviour and/or negative reinforcement (through deterrent and sanctions) to prevent similar behaviour (Beardwell & Thompson, 2014).
Cognitive theorist are more focussed on understanding how people think and how that shapes what they understand and know. Attention is given to motivation and how learners are likely to derive meaning from their experiences. There is an emphasis on development (learning to learn), considering how people can absorb information and then decide how they choose to apply that learning (Armstrong & Taylor, 2014).
Constructivists examine how personality and past experiences shape attitudes to learning. Everyone has the potential to view or understand a learning intervention differently depending on the unconscious meaning they have applied when faced with similar situations (Torrington, Hall, Taylor & Atkinson, 2011). Constructivists seek to create learning experiences that aim to address such barriers whilst also stimulating involvement that encourages people to share knowledge and skills by building learning groups (Armstrong & Taylor, 2014).
Social learning theory focuses on development within a social context and how people can learn from one another through observation, imitation and modelling. Seeking to capture this dynamic through the creation of communities of practice (discussed below) challenges constraints presented by organisational culture and power dynamics. Mentors, role models and peer support groups are often used to give staff the opportunity to challenge the learning they are being given and help avoid embedding undesirable or institutionalised behaviours (Bandura, 1977).
Kolb’s cyclical model of learning outlines how learning is a process creating knowledge through the transformation of experience (Kolb, Rubin & McIntyre, 1974). This involves:
- Concrete experience or DO - active learning.
- Reflective observation (OBSERVE) - considering the effectiveness and significance of that learning.
- Abstract conceptualisation (THINK) - developing concepts and ideas to consider when facing a similar situation.
- Active experimentation (PLAN) -testing these concepts and ideas in new situations. The cycle then repeats.
(Armstrong & Taylor, 2014)
Kolb also considered the importance of learning preferences, identifying:
- Accommodators - those prepared to learn by trial and error.
- Divergers - those keen to reflect and consider a situation from different perspectives.
- Convergers - those comfortable with experimentation and translating theory into action.
- Assimilators - those keen to create their own theoretical models.
(Armstrong & Taylor, 2014)
Honey and Mumford noted how individuals displayed clear preferences for each element of Kolb’s learning cycle (Honey & Mumford, 1989). The essential patterns of behaviour they developed are:
- Activists - those keen to take on new challenges, but who can become bored with routine and not always consider longer term consequences.
- Reflectors - preferring to think about new situations and can sometimes be considered over-cautious.
- Theorists - taking a logical and disciplined approach and can sometimes be seen as perfectionists.
- Pragmatists - keen to try out new ideas to see if they work in practice, but can lose focus when involved in long-term discussions.
(Mullins & Christy, 2016)
In creating project teams, it may be prudent to include individuals with a mix of learning styles in order to create an appropriate balance that maintains the required corporate focus.
A business seeking to develop effective learning and knowledge management structures can build action learning sets. These involve a small, engaged group of learners meeting regularly to consider the challenges presented by real work situations. Action learning seeks to use group dynamics and reflective practice to find viable solutions to problems through review and experimentation (reflection in action) and a consideration of how activities have shaped outcomes, particularly when things have gone wrong (reflection on action) (Linstead, Fulop & Lilley, 2009).
Action learning approaches aim to create a shared knowledge base by bringing together a pool of relevant subject matter experts to solve specific problems, forming the foundation for cross-functional, multi-disciplinary teams (Beardwell & Thompson, 2014).
The learning curve refers to the time it takes an inexperienced person to reach the required level of performance in a job (Armstrong & Taylor, 2014). Learning may not be a steady, incremental process as employees will require time to reflect, absorb and master what they have already learnt before moving on to the next aspect of the role or task. This requires the transfer of learning and the time required to do so shapes the learning curve (Business Essentials, 2013). Diagram 4 provides an illustration of this concept:
(Adapted from Armstrong & Taylor, 2014)
Organisational Learning considers how a company builds a collective or shared knowledge base, developing mechanisms to retrieve and disseminate that knowledge (Hora & Hunter, 2014). Two contrasting learning philosophies exist - a predominantly instructional approach focussed on remedial action to correct errors and a more comprehensive lifelong learning perspective (Beardwell & Thompson, 2014).
As a company grows and adapts to its operating environment it generates a store of institutional knowledge that can deliver a business benefit exceeding that provided by employees operating individually. Collective learning combines formal systems with the shared experiences of employees (Johnson, Whittington, Scholes, Angwin & Regnér, 2014). This requires a culture supporting challenge and review if businesses are to benefit from this expanded knowledge base. Knowledge and know-how is possessed by the ‘collective’ (i.e. all staff) and not just managers and leaders (Cohen & Sproull, 1996). A business requires its employees to possess/develop skill in the person (built on training and experience), skill in the job (meeting competency/role requirements) and skill in the setting (relating personal knowledge to corporate interests and company culture) (Johnson et al, 2014).
Effective organisational learning requires:
- Personal mastery - linking individual aspirations to company goals.
- Mental models -creating a culture of reflection and enquiry.
- Shared vision - creating a collective/common purpose.
- Team learning - building group t interactions focussed on shared goals.
- Systems thinking - Understanding key interdependencies to refine and simplify corporate systems.
The intent is to use mission and vision statements (underpinned by shared objectives) to create a collective framework which shapes corporate learning interventions. The aim is to maximise the return by combining ‘know-why’ (best practice), ‘know-who’ (staff possessing the expertise and skills needed) and ‘know-how’ (a learning environment sharing ‘know-why’ and ‘know-who’).
Communities of Practice seek to use the informal, more social interaction of groups to create engagement rather than rely on more structured knowledge transfer approaches. These groups often demonstrate the ability to capture essential tacit knowledge (a particular weakness of more formal mechanisms) as staff feel more involved in the decision-making process. Many businesses now create teams that work across organisational boundaries to drive corporate innovation and solve emerging problems (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder, 2002).
When considering organisational learning approaches, key challenges need to be understood:
- Superstitious learning. It is too easy for a company to learn the ‘wrong’ things if the links between actions and outcomes are not clearly specified.
- Ambiguity of success. Where the measures of corporate success are constantly changed, it is difficult to measure what has actually been learned.
- Competency Traps. Improving procedures or practices that do not deliver any real competitive advantage or operating efficiency create an illusion of organisational progress.
(Hatch & Cunliffe, 2006)
Effective knowledge management and good learning practices go hand-in-hand. If a company wishes to maintain an enduring competitive advantage in a modern economy built around technology and innovation then they will need to work harder at gaining access to the tacit knowledge held by their staff. The challenges presented by corporate culture must be considered, as well as the broader operating environment (e.g. sharing knowledge and learning across the supply chain). A company must also be prepared to allow staff to challenge established business practices if organisational learning is to take place.
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