Organisational Learning

“The world today can really be described as a knowledge society. The ability to handle the knowledge has changed significantly during the last decades; the computers have made it possible to store it and Internet has made it possible for it to travel all over the world in no time. This has of course led to new possibilities for the companies, but also higher demands to succeed.”

What can be said for sure is that it is more important than ever for the companies to get the most out of themselves to survive and using the knowledge they got is a very important part of this. But one common problem in many companies is that the management does not know what the individuals in the company really know. This quote from an executive at HP really tells a lot about the situation in many companies: “If we only knew what we know, we would conquer the world”.

It can be easy to think that with all this new technologies it should be easy to know and share the knowledge that exists. But knowledge and organizational learning is more complex than that. One of the main reasons for this is that there exists different kinds of knowledge and different kinds of knowledge require special attention.

So, what is Organizational Learning?

Organizational learning is the science about how organizations learn and distributes knowledge within the organization. But organizations are of course built up by individuals and organizations learn through individuals acting as agents for them.

When looking at literature concerning knowledge types and organizational learning there are some different ways to divide and classify the knowledge. The most prominent types of knowledge are tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge.

Explicit and Tacit Knowledge

Knowledge, as we usually think of it, is information or experiences that can be moved around, be explained by an individual to others and that that can be made explicit. Explicit knowledge can be written down and is therefore easy to share and debate. It is also easy to keep track of and it can be documented where the knowledge lies. Common examples of explicit knowledge are anything found in manuals or other types of documents.

The other type of knowledge differs from explicit knowledge by not being easily transferable just by writing it down or explaining it. Individuals having this type of knowledge may not even always be aware of having it. It can be described as intuition or personal experience and is therefore often referred to as tacit. Tacit knowledge is often considered as obvious to the individuals having it and is drawn from a set of personal experiences and sensory information. A good example is speaking a language, something that for a native comes natural can be hard for a beginner to understand and equally hard for the native to explain.

Because of its nature, spreading explicit knowledge in an organization is, in reference to spreading tacit knowledge, quite easy. Explicit knowledge is spread with the help of formal organizational structures, defined processes, best practices, drawings and so on. Pieces of explicit knowledge within an organization can be gathered to a new whole, making it new knowledge but the new knowledge created does not exceed the organizations already existing knowledge base.

Spreading tacit knowledge is not as easy since it cannot be moved around without the individual that holds the information. Individuals become knowledge carriers. Tacit knowledge spreads in the same way as a craftsmanship was spread from a master to an apprentice in the olden days, by observations, imitations and practice. One problem that occurs here is that the knowledge is spread as tacit; it is equally difficult for the new holder to spread the knowledge further as it was for the old holder. The learning is not organizational but individual.

Organizational Learning Mechanisms

The importance of deploying knowledge throughout the organization is increasing due to rapidly changing environment and intense competition. It is not only spreading the existing knowledge in the organization but also acquiring and disseminating new knowledge is a crucial part of organizational learning. Organizational learning mechanisms are therefore of great importance since their prime objective is to systematically enable an organization to create, acquire, transfer and reflect on knowledge. Organizations may utilize several different mechanisms to interpret knowledge, to create new knowledge out of conversions between tacit and explicit knowledge, etc. Even extensive employee rotation and cross-functional teams are considered to be mechanisms that enhance organizational learning.

The Spiral Model

One of the most popular mechanisms is Nonaka’s Spiral Model (Nonaka, 1994). According to Nonaka, learning within an organization must include both tacit and explicit knowledge, as well as the interaction between them. Since organizational knowledge is achieved through a continuous dialogue between tacit and explicit knowledge, Nonaka proposes conversions between them (Nonaka, 1994). The four modes of conversion are the following:

1. Socialization (From tacit knowledge to tacit knowledge): This form of conversion creates tacit knowledge through shared experience. The most important aspect of this mode is that it requires a certain level of individual experience and social interaction between individuals.

2. Externalization (From tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge): It is argued that this mode of conversion is the most important and yet the least developed one. Articulating and translating tacit knowledge at the individual level into explicit knowledge to others in a comprehensible way is requires continuous dialogue.

3. Combination (From explicit knowledge to explicit knowledge): Here the organization has to create the appropriate environment for communication and diffusion of explicit knowledge which ends up in the systemization of knowledge. Combination involves the reconfiguration of existing knowledge through processes such as sorting, adding, recategorizing, etc. in order to create new explicit knowledge. At this point, information technology is of most importance since explicit knowledge can be deployed by documents, databases etc.

4. Internalization (From explicit knowledge to tacit knowledge): The process in this conversion is to understand and convey organization or group explicit knowledge into individual tacit knowledge. Internalization is particularly important because knowledge in tacit form is actionable by the owner. For instance, individuals can access the knowledge of the group and the organization by experimentation and learning by doing.

Figure 2: The Modes of Conversion – SECI Model (Nonaka,1994)

The SECI (see Figure 2) provides the amplification and deployment of individual learning, as well as crystallization of knowledge throughout the organization. A key issue here is to acknowledge that each type of knowledge can be converted and organizational knowledge creation can only start when all these four modes are organizationally managed.

The initiation of the learning spiral starts with the building of an appropriate environment for individuals to share experiences, ideas, perspectives (i.e. tacit knowledge) with others. This is the socialization mode and teams can be gathered to trigger the required social interaction between individuals.

Externalization forms the next step of the spiral model in which the use of metaphors, contradictions and analogies tacit knowledge is explicitly made clear to others in the team or organization in order to strengthen the learning.

The following step in the spiral is the combination process. The explicit knowledge gained through the externalization process is disseminated, discussed and modified. Combination mode is triggered by coordination among the team members and documentation of existing knowledge.

In the final stage, internalization, every individual in a team gradually finds a chance to translate the shared explicit knowledge into tacit knowledge of their own. Again in this stage, interaction plays a crucial role and it triggers trial-and-error processes which make the conversion possible.

Well, Learn Then!

When it comes to classifying different knowledge types in a company, the widely spread division with tacit and explicit knowledge is good to be aware of. To be able to spread the knowledge, one important prerequisite is that the management gives the authorities and encourages people to learn, gather and spread knowledge. To make this in a structured way it is also important to have a shared plan or view on how this should be achieved.

Sources researched for this article are shown below. They are pretty useful if you are looking for further information about Organizational Learning.

Argyris, C. (1982) Organizational Learning and Management Information Systems ACM Sigmis Database Vol. 13 Issue 2-3, pp. 3-11

Argyris, C.; Schon, D. (1978). Organizational Learning: A theory of action perspective. Addison-Wesley.

Berends, H., Boersma, K., Weggeman, M. (2003) “The structuration of organizational learning” Human Relations. Vol. 56, No. 9, pp. 1035-1056.

Bergman, B., & Klefsjö, B. (2004). Quality from customer needs to customer satisfaction. Studentlitteratur AB

Brown, S., Duguid, P. (2001) Harvard Business Review on Organizational Learning Boston: Harvard Business School Press ISBN: 97815785161 55

Christenssen, P. H., (2007) “Knowledge Sharing: moving away from the obsession with best practices” Journal of Knowledge Management Vol. 11 No. 1 pp. 36

Ellis, S., Shpielberg, N. (2003). Organizational learning mechanisms and managers’ perceived uncertainity. Human Relations. Vol. 56, No. 10, pp. 1233-1254.

Medeni, T.D., Medeni T. (2004) An Experience-based Tacit – Explicit Knowledge Interaction Model of Action and Learning. Proceedings of New Information Technologies in Education, Second Biennial International Workshop. Izmir, Turkey 20-22 October 2004.

Nonaka, I. (1994). A Dynamic Theory of Organizational Knowledge Creation. Organization Science. Vol. 5, No. 1, pp.14-37.

Nonaka, I. (1991). The knowledge creating company. Harvard Business Review , 69, 96-104

O’Dell, C., Jackson Grayson, C., (1998) “If Only We Knew What We Know: Identification and Transfer of Internal Best Practices” California Management Review Vol. 40 No. 3 pp. 154

Sanchez, R. (2005). “Tacit knowledge” versus “Explicit Knowledge” Approaches to Knowledge Management Practice. In R. Sanchez, The Handbook of the Knowledge Economy (pp. 191-203). Frederiksberg, Denmark: Department of Industrial Economics and Strategy

Schwandt, D. (1993). Organizational learning: a dynamic integrative construct. Washington DC: The George Washington University Executive Leadership in Human Resource Development Program

Smith, M. K. (2003) ‘Michael Polanyi and tacit knowledge’, the encyclopedia of informal education, (100210)

Spencer, B. (1997). Knowledge Advantage Conference Notes. November 11-12, 1997.

Sun, Z., Hao, G. (2006). HSM: A Hierarchical Spiral Model for Knowledge Management. Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Information Management and Business (IBM2006). Sydney, Australia 13-16 February 2006. pp. 542-551.

Thompson, J.D. (1967) Organizations in action: Social Science Basis of Administrative Theory McGrah-Hill, New York

Yukl, G. (2009). Leading organizational learning: Reflections on theory and research. The Leadership Quarterly. Vol. 20, No. 1, pp.49-53

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