By John Hagel and John Seeley Brown for HBR.com
Many leaders see organizational learning simply as sharing existing knowledge. This isn’t surprising given that this is the primary focus of educational institutions, training programs, and leadership development courses. It’s the “sage on the stage” model, in which an expert shares what they know with those who are assumed not to know it. These “best practices” are presumed to work in a variety of different contexts and situations.
This view of learning was the key driver of “knowledge management systems” that came into vogue in the 1990’s. These systems sought to make existing knowledge more accessible to those who might need it in the form of knowledge repositories that collected and indexed documents as well as directories of expertise that could point employees to others who had relevant know-how. The obvious focus here: efficiency at scale.
Without diminishing the value of knowledge sharing, we would suggest that the most valuable form of learning today is actually creating new knowledge. Organizations are increasingly being confronted with new and unexpected situations that go beyond the textbooks and operating manuals and require leaders to improvise on the spot, coming up with new approaches that haven’t been tried before. In the process, they develop new knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work in specific situations. We believe the old, “scalable efficiency” approach to knowledge needs to be replaced with a new, more nimble kind of “scalable learning.” To foster the latter, managers should understand five essential distinctions:
Explicit versus tacit knowledge
In the world of scalable efficiency, the focus was on documenting in great detail the actions that should be taken in addressing specific situations. The iconic example is the process manual that all employees are expected to follow. Process manuals rely on explicit knowledge — knowledge that can be written down and easily shared with others.
However, in a rapidly changing world, much of the new knowledge comes in the form of tacit knowledge — knowledge that resides in our heads but that we have a hard time articulating to ourselves, much less to others. This tacit knowledge evolves as we confront new situations and it is often extremely valuable because it reflects our first-hand experience with the changes that are occurring around us, but it is much harder to access and spread. It typically can’t be written down and shared with others.
Scalable learning focuses on creating environments where new tacit knowledge can be created and evolve as workers confront new situations.
Individuals versus workgroups and networks
In an organization focused on scalable efficiency, the focus of learning is on sharing explicit knowledge. In this kind of organization, individuals are the primary focus of learning. But if leaders shift their focus to creating new tacit knowledge, then that kind of learning is best done in small workgroups that bring together people with diverse skills and perspectives and that help them to form deep, trust-based relationships with each other so that they can feel comfortable trying new things, even if they might not work, and reflecting collaboratively on what worked and what didn’t work.
These small workgroups can learn even faster if they are connected through networks with other workgroups. That way, they can draw in others and seek advice and help when they are confronting new situations that challenge the individual workgroup.
In this context, it’s important to remember Bill Joy’s famous advice that, no matter how smart the people are within your organization, you should always remember that there are a lot more smart people outside your organization. For this reason, if you are really committed to scalable learning, you should find ways to build deep, trust-based relationships within a broader ecosystem of organizations so that you can mobilize the relevant expertise and talent to address unexpected performance challenges whenever they arise. If you just focus on the people within your organization, you will likely confront serious limitations to the ability to scale learning.
Learning versus performance improvement
Many organizational leaders have a mental model that learning requires significant upfront investment to develop the course materials and take people out of their work so that they can go to the training program and learn. The hope is that there might be performance improvement down the road, but that comes after the initial investment and assumes you can retain the people in your organization.
Scalable learning shifts the focus to learning in the work environment as new performance challenges arise. In this context, addressing the performance challenge effectively can deliver performance improvement on the spot through new approaches and the learning is actually a by-product of having effectively addressed the performance challenge. So, the model flips — performance improvement leads to learning, rather than vice versa.
Learning versus unlearning
When we see the world around us as stable, learning can be viewed as the accumulation of knowledge over time. You just keep piling new knowledge on top of the knowledge you already have.
When we recognize that the world around us is rapidly changing, however, a pre-requisite for learning is the willingness and ability to unlearn what we already know. We need to be constantly challenging our assumptions and beliefs about what is required to achieve impact because, as the world changes, what used to work in the past may no longer work. If we hold on to these assumptions and beliefs without questioning them, we will likely never open up the ability to learn about new approaches that may need to replace old approaches.
Skills versus capabilities
When we assume that we’re operating in a static environment, we often focus on acquiring a given set of skills. Once we are certified as having mastered those skills, we can be assured of success.
But when we recognize that the environment around us is rapidly changing, skills have a shorter and shorter half-life. While skills are still necessary for success, the focus should shift to cultivating the underlying capabilities that can accelerate learning so that new skills can be more rapidly acquired. These capabilities include curiosity, critical thinking, willingness to take risk, imagination, creativity, and social and emotional intelligence. If we can develop those learning capabilities, we should be able to rapidly evolve our skill sets in ways that keep us ahead of the game.
Scalable learning requires us to challenge our conventional beliefs about learning, beliefs that were fostered in much more stable times. If we truly understand the new forms of learning that our rapidly changing world requires, we will need to be prepared to re-think all aspects of our organizations, including our strategies, operations and the ways we organize our resources.