© H-X Technologies

3 Ways of Ensuring Culture Doesn’t Eat Knowledge Management & Learning for Breakfast

FROM: Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 28. May 2020
© H-X Technologies

The COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t mean less work. Despite this fact, the practice of reflecting, documenting, sharing, and learning seemed to have increased during the pandemic. This presents an opportunity to establish new norms and behaviours previously thought impossible. Will this continue once, hopefully, the pandemic is contained, and people return to the ‘usual’ routine? Organizations can have well-written strategies for promoting knowledge management and learning. However, the culture of (wrongly) taking knowledge management and learning as an add-on and ‘nice-to-have’ will eat such strategies for breakfast. To avoid this, organizations need to proactively stimulate and invest in making knowledge management and learning as part of what they do. Leaders hold the key, but others and mainly few ‘champions’ are also crucial for reinforcing the culture of knowledge management and learning among their teams. 

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I’m happy. Because many people, if not everyone, are now writing and sharing a lot—barring the overflow of information or misleading news. I heard some people saying that they have a little bit of more time, due to the COVID-19 restriction, to document and share, or use the pandemic as an opportunity to reflect. Things that were previously thought impossible have been achieved.

Many countries have begun to ease—or at least think about easing—restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The practice of writing and communicating may not continue once, hopefully, the pandemic is over, and people return to the ‘usual’ routine.

Maybe my fear is unfounded.

For more than a decade, I saw different people struggling to find the time and space to synthesize and share about what they do. Knowledge and learning has to a large extent been tacit—in most people’s minds. This isn’t new; countless publications, workshops, and websites discussed and wrote about it.

So, the question is: how can we continue the practice of reflecting, synthesizing, and sharing in a more consistent and improved way beyond the pandemic?

Understanding knowledge management & learning culture

By knowledge management and learning culture, I mean stimulating, developing, and strengthening the practice of synthesizing, refining, and communicating knowledge and learning. It’s more than writing or documenting what we feel, what we are doing, or our lessons. It’s rather about understating and accepting knowledge management and learning is part and parcel of what we do and not an add-on—an extra ‘nice-to-have’ thing.

Of course, I also realize that not every knowledge can easily be quantified. It’s far more complex because it’s derived out of human relationships and experiences. But we can generate, describe, realize, transform, and re-use it. To do this, there needs to be a shared understanding among people in an organization or any entity about the strong relationships between knowledge and learning, and the quality of results.

I hope you agree with me that in the age of rapid information technology and communication (digitalization), the culture of knowledge management and learning drives an organization’s sustainable competitive advantage. Knowledge and learning quickly becomes out of date if it isn’t upgraded, improved, and reinvented.

You may have read this before. Three decades ago, Peter Senge of MIT wrote a book titled The Fifth Discipline. Using systems thinking method, he nicely explained how organizations can become a learning organization through fostering aspiration, developing reflective conversation, and understanding complexity.

So, a culture of knowledge and learning exists when there is a conscious and consistent process and enabling environment for fostering sharing and reflection and realizing a dynamic and evolving improvement.

Leaders are critical…  

How many times have we all heard the importance of having leaders who are key for transforming their teams and making their programs or organizations ‘learning’? Indeed, the belief that only top management can cause significant change is wrong and disempowering.

True, leaders are critical for creating an environment necessary for fostering knowledge and learning. Without the proactive role of a leader, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to realize collaborative working and collective learning.

I also recognize that with all the demands on already scarce resources, there is a need to prioritize. Yet, it’s also flawed to see knowledge and learning as a second priority to others.

In other words, leaders who don’t see knowledge and learning as an investment, but as a cost kill innovation and motivation in the bud. I can assure you this from my experience of working for different organizations—from an academic institution to a multinational private company and an international development organization.

In a team, ‘champions’ inspire   

Many knowledge management and learning initiatives start strong, but lose momentum and effectiveness over time. They overemphasized the forest and paid little attention to the trees. Knowledge and learning is realized when there are shared roles and responsibilities. This may create ‘everybody’s job is no body’s job’. Additionally, while defined processes and structures are critical, they can also get knowledge and learning stuck in a mechanistic approach.

This is where cultivating champions becomes more important. By champions I mean people who are adept at synthesizing and communicating knowledge and learning. They embrace their own experiences as a learner and share them with others.

Champions may emerge organically as ‘natural’ knowledge and learning champions or acquire the skills over time with clear investment or see the opportunities as part of their career growth. There is evidence that being active in knowledge management and learning is linked to building prestige and recognition in the profession.

Most champions are keen learners. They are also passionate, responsive, and good relationship builders. They go beyond their ‘job descriptions’ to make the most of themselves on and off the job.

Equally important, organizations need to invest in knowledge management and learning champions to reinforce behaviors among their teams. Learning is much more than simply transferring something to someone who doesn’t know. Investment encourages champions to stimulate others to join in for building the culture of knowledge management and learning at scale.  

Conclusion

‘What is your main learning from the COVID-19 pandemic?’ A colleague asked me this question two weeks ago. It’s a good question. I replied, quickly, I learned this and that…

I later realized that it isn’t just learning that happened during the pandemic. We have also unlearned and relearned. Sometimes what we know may also be the cause of NOT knowing more. So, we tend to unlearn – challenging myths, assumptions, practices, and values. I also relearned a couple of things that I took for granted. Right now, there is a unique chance to understand and consolidate many things that we had thought before the pandemic were nearly impossible.   

Let me conclude by this powerful quotation:

‘The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn,’ wrote Alvin Toffler, the American writer, futurist, and businessman. It’s also fitting to say that in a time of rapid and complex changes, competitive and agile organizations capable of adapting more quickly and successfully are those that can build and stimulate the culture of knowledge management and learning.

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Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses, & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies