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Organizational learning and knowledge management: the relations hip

Executive Information Systems, Inc, A lexandria, V irginia, USA , and

OL and KM: the relationship


Joseph M. Firestone Mark W. McElroy

Macroinnovation A ssociates, W indsor, Vermont, USA

K eyw or ds Learning organizations, Knowledge management, Workplace learning A bstr ac t T o many in the elds of organizational learning (OL) and knowledge management (KM), the relationship between the two is something of a small mystery. T he authors are practitioners coming from the KM side, who in the course of their work developed a process framework to delimit the scope of KM. T hey believe this framework also provides a context for viewing OL and for relating it to both social knowledge processing and KM

Actions and proce sse s Lets begin an outline of our framework with decisions and actions. Decisions are part of a sequence that has been described in the literature in slightly varying terms, using many names (e.g., the organizational leaning (OL) cycle, the experiential learning cycle, the adaptive loop, and others). We call it the decision execution cycle (DEC), which includes planning, acting, monitoring, and evaluating behaviors. Decisions are produced by planning and are embodied in acting. Decisions produce actions; and actions activities are the stuff that social processes, social networks, and (complex adaptive) social systems are made of. These are built up (integrated) from activities in ways weve explained in our books (See McElroy, 2003; Firestone, 2003; and Firestone and McElroy, 2003a, Firestone and McElroy, 2003b). Now lets distinguish three tiers of business processes: (1) operational business processes; (2) knowledge processes; and (3) processes for managing knowledge processes. Operational processes are those that use knowledge but, apart from knowledge about speci c events and conditions, dont produce or integrate it. For that, we turn to knowledge processes. There are two knowledge processes: knowledge production, the process an organization executes that produces new generalizing knowledge; and knowledge integration, the process that presents this new knowledge to individuals and groups comprising the

The Learning Organization Vol. 11 No. 2, 2004 pp. 177-184 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0969-6474 DOI 10.1108/09696470410521628

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organization. There are at least nine processes related to managing knowledge processes. Knowle dge proces ses Knowledge production is a process made up of four sub-processes: (1) information acquisition; (2) individual and group learning; (3) knowledge claim formulation; and (4) knowledge claim evaluation (KCE). Knowledge integration is made up of four more sub-processes, all of which may use interpersonal, electronic, or both types of methods in execution: (1) knowledge and information broadcasting; (2) searching/retrieving; (3) knowledge sharing (peer-to-peer presentation of previously produced knowledge); and (4) teaching (hierarchical presentation of previously produced knowledge). Individual and group learning is itself knowledge processing. It produces knowledge claims for consideration at higher levels of analysis of knowledge processing. But at the individual and group levels themselves, learning is knowledge production, and depending on the group level, all four sub-processes are involved at that level too. Lets call this the recursive nesting of knowledge processing in the enterprise. Knowle dge outcomes Knowledge processes, of course, produce outcomes. From our point of view, knowledge is an encoded, tested, evaluated, and still surviving structure of information that helps the adaptive system (agent) that developed it to adapt. There are two types of knowledge important in organizations: (1) tested, evaluated, and surviving beliefs or belief predispositions (in minds) about the world; and (2) tested, evaluated, and surviving, sharable (objective), linguistic formulations (knowledge claims) about the world. There are also other outcomes of knowledge processes, the most important of which are knowledge claims about the performance of other knowledge claims during KCE. We call these meta-claims, or claims about claims. Thus, knowledge consists of beliefs, belief predispositions, and/or claims that we believe are true (or truth-like), along with their corresponding meta-claims, whose content we regard as supportive of our positions on such beliefs, predispositions, or claims.


The various outcomes of knowledge processes may be viewed as part of an abstraction called the distributed organizational knowledge base (DOKB). The DOKB in organizations has electronic storage components. But it is more than that, because it contains all of the outcomes of knowledge processing in documents, and non-electronic media. And since it includes beliefs and belief predispositions, as well, it also includes all of the mental knowledge in the enterprise. How things w ork: KCE and the knowle dge life cy cle Here is how things work in organizations. Operational business processes are performed by individuals and groups using previous knowledge found in the DOKB, both their own mental knowledge and linguistic knowledge in organizational repositories; and also situational knowledge, the result of ongoing single-loop learning, to make decisions. Sometimes the DOKB and an agents perceived situation do not provide the answers it needs. If so, a problem has arisen an epistemic gap between what an agent knows and what it needs to know to perform its role in the business process. Such a problem initiates knowledge processing; speci cally, a new knowledge production (or double-loop learning) process. Once the problem is perceived, there is a need to formulate tentative solutions in response. These can come from new individual and group learning efforts to address the problem, or from external sources through information acquisition; or from entirely creative knowledge claim formulation efforts; or all three. Where the tentative solutions come from, and in what sequence, is of no importance to the self-organizing knowledge processing pattern of knowledge production. The only important thing about sequence, is that knowledge is not produced until the tentative solutions, the previously formulated knowledge claims, have been tested and evaluated in the KCE sub-process of knowledge production. And that sub-process is the way in which agents select among tentative solutions (competitive alternatives), by comparing them against each other in the context of perspectives, criteria, or newly created ideas for selecting among them to arrive at the solution to the problem motivating knowledge production. KCE is at the very center of knowledge processing and is the last sub-process in knowledge production. Think about it. Without KCE, what is the difference between information and knowledge? How do we know that we are integrating knowledge rather than just information? Or that the knowledge were using in operational business processes is of high quality? Absent a social process in organizations, be it formal or informal, through which competing claims can be held to tests of veracity or verisimilitude, how can we possibly make judgments about truth versus falsity? Knowledge claim evaluation, then, is what gives us the ability to know knowledge when we see it.

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Once knowledge and other tested, evaluated, and still surviving knowledge claims are produced by KCE, the process of knowledge integration of the surviving claims begins. There is no particular sequence to the integration sub-processes listed earlier. One or all of them may be used to present what has been produced to the enterprises agents or to store what has been produced. Those agents receiving knowledge or information dont receive it passively. For them, it represents an input that may create a knowledge gap and initiate a new round of their own knowledge production. Integration of the knowledge, therefore, doesnt signal its acceptance. It only signals that the instance of knowledge processing initiated by the rst problem is over and that new problems have been initiated for some by the solution. For others, the knowledge integrated is knowledge to be used: either to continue with executing the business process that initiated the original problem, or at a later time when the situation calls for it. Either way, the original problem that motivated knowledge processing is gone. It was born in the operational business process, solved in the knowledge production process, integrated throughout the organization afterwards, and, in this way, it ceased to be a problem, i.e. it died. This pattern is a life cycle, a birth-and-death cycle for problems arising from business processes and through which new knowledge is also produced. Since the life cycle gives rise to knowledge, both mental and cultural (linguistic), we call it the knowledge life cycle (KLC). Every organization produces its knowledge through the myriad KLCs that arise from its problems: KLCs at the organizational level and KLCs at every level of social interaction and individual functioning in the organization. It is through these cycles that knowledge is produced, and the organization acquires the solutions it needs to adapt to its environment. OL Where is OL in the above picture? Assuming a de nition of OL as the organizational processes through which individuals, groups, teams, communities, and the organization itself learn, it is addressed at various places in our conceptual framework. At the level of decisions and actions integrating into operational, knowledge, and knowledge management processes, agents engage in single-loop learning through the familiar pattern of the DEC, which involves monitoring the changing speci c conditions about the agents situation and self, and therefore acquiring knowledge about such changes using pre-existing knowledge and capabilities. We view double-loop learning as occurring when previous knowledge and new situational knowledge are not enough;when the decision maker recognizes that an epistemic gap exists that must be closed with new knowledge. At that point, the agent launches a KLC to learn (produce) new generalizing and/or situational knowledge that could not be produced using pre-existing

knowledge or the routine procedures of monitoring, and that solves the epistemic problem and supports the DEC. Of course, KLCs generally require numerous DECs. But the DECs constituting KLCs are different from operational DECs in that the motivation underlying them entails the motivation to learn, whereas the motivation underlying operational DECs is directed toward goals other than closing epistemic gaps. We stated earlier that KLCs and their processes are nested at every level of the organization. In fact, KLCs are the processes through which organizational agents produce (learn) new generalizing and speci c problem-relevant knowledge, both mental and cultural. So the relationship of organizational learning processes to knowledge processes in our framework is that they are one and the same in the area of double-loop organizational learning. But in the area of single-loop learning, OL corresponds to operational, KLC and knowledge management DECs in which new knowledge about speci c situations unrelated to epistemic gaps is generated. KM proce sse s Earlier we referred, a bit coyly, to the processes for managing knowledge processes. But this third tier of our organizational conceptual framework is, indeed, knowledge management (KM). More formally, knowledge management is the set of processes that seeks to change the organizations present pattern of knowledge processing to enhance both it and its knowledge outcomes. This implies that KM doesnt directly manage knowledge outcomes, but only impacts processes, which in turn impact outcomes. For example, if one changes the rules affecting knowledge production, the quality of knowledge claims may improve. Or if a KM intervention supplies a new search technology based on semantic analysis of knowledge bases, that may result in improvement in the quality of business forecasting models thanks to enhanced knowledge integration. Adapting Mintzbergs (1973) framework, there are at least nine KM processes: (1) symbolic representation; (2) building external relationships with others practicing KM; (3) leadership; (4) KM-level knowledge production; (5) KM level knowledge integration; (6) crisis handling; (7) changing knowledge processing rules; (8) negotiating for resources with representatives of other organizational processes; and (9) resource allocation for knowledge processes and for other KM processes.

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KM-level knowledge production and integration re ects the idea that KM may also involve responding to epistemic gaps arising from its own KM operational processes themselves. The Change in knowledge processing rules process, for example, may give rise to epistemic problems for KM itself. In that case, KLCs at the level of KM processing will be initiated and will produce and integrate new knowledge about how to change knowledge processing rules to enhance information acquisition, knowledge claim evaluation, or any one of the other sub-processes of the KLC. KM and OL: the relationship When we take a process view of OL, we see it as identical with organizational knowledge processing in KLCs and DECs. But when we take the prescriptive point of view often associated with the idea of the learning organization (e.g. Senges (1990) ve disciplines), we see things as approximating KM. The LO is the normative aspect of OL. It is the form of organization that according to some is best suited for double-loop OL, in the process sense, to occur. KM, however, is that management activity or process whose objective is to enhance double-loop knowledge processing in the organization by creating a sustainable innovation system. So it too is normative and its objective is to enhance double-loop organizational learning processes which it calls knowledge processes. KM has an organizational form that corresponds, at least loosely, to the idea of the idealized LO. That form is the open enterprise (OE) (McElroy, 2003; Firestone and McElroy, 2003b), a pattern of social knowledge processing and an end-state vision that we have introduced into KM. Lets look at the OE idea in the conceptual context of organizational complex adaptive systems (CASs). The ability of CASs to learn new knowledge is greater to the extent that their constituent agents are participating in problem solving and distributed knowledge processing environments marked by relative openness. The more openness in the distributed knowledge-processing environment, the greater the adaptive capability of the CAS, provided that the ability of its agents to learn remains constant. Also, openness must apply across the various aspects of problem-solving processes re ected in the KLC pattern. The kind of openness we speak of here has at least two important forms throughout KLC sub-processes. The rst is internal transparency (availability and accessibility of information across CAS agents). The second is epistemic inclusiveness (enabling of autonomous, distributed knowledge processing participation by and across agents). Both forms of openness are always found in high-performance adaptive systems. Regarding epistemic inclusiveness, it is important to understand that we are not talking about inclusiveness in political or managerial decision making authority, a sense of the term most often associated with the notion of

inclusiveness in organizations. Nor do we mean to use the term to involve, say, mere openness in membership in boards of directors or other such institutions, although for some rms, that may be a step in the right direction. Rather, what we have in mind here is equal opportunity for autonomous agents in an organizational CAS to participate and interact in the problem-solving and distributed knowledge processing affairs of the system. Although the OE idea corresponds loosely to the LO in that it has a prescriptive aspect and is meant to represent a form of organization that learns and adapts particularly well, the idea of the LO involves some confusion. That is, since all organizations are CASs, all of them are knowledge-based and learn to some degree or another: all organizations are, in fact, learning organizations. On the other hand, the OE idea is speci cally focused on the ideas of adaptation, sustainable innovation, and learning. It is a speci c type of learning organization intended to enhance adaptation, sustainable innovation, effective organizational learning, and problem solving, whose knowledge processing attributes (in the KLC) are set and managed accordingly. Conclus ion: le ts join up If our analysis is correct, the relationship of OL and KM is close enough to be termed intimate. The terminology may vary somewhat, but the concerns of both elds are largely the same. Why, then, are the two elds so often viewed as traveling on separate paths? We attribute this to a fairly narrow form of KM that we refer to as rst-generation KM. First-generation schemes are largely IT-based and are mostly about knowledge capture, delivery, and use. If they relate to OL at all, it is only in their obsession with single-loop learning, or the re-use of existing knowledge. We practice a broader form of KM second-generation KM according to which epistemic gaps do occur, and which takes on the corresponding and more challenging questions of how knowledge is produced, tested, evaluated, and integrated as a precursor to use. It is second-generation KM, not its more familiar rst-generation form, that takes KM squarely into the realm of double-loop learning. Further, this more recent and new variety of KM is advancing in ways that we think should be of considerable interest to the OL community. T he most effective strategies, to date, for creating high-performance learning organizations could very well be coming out of this school of KM theory and practice, and more speci cally out of the variant of second-generation KM that we call The new KM. The implication of the evolution of KM just described is clear. KM and OL should join forces and develop a uni ed discipline. KM needs OL and its expanding body of good research work. OL needs the practitioner base of KM and its abiding interest in problems and practice. Let us lose no more time. The problems of organizational innovation, integrity, accountability, and risk

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management all await. We will meet them best if we embrace our common concerns and work together toward solutions based on learning and the growth of organizational knowledge. To do this, we propose a coming together of three communities KM, OL and CAS theorists in the form of a conference aimed at exploring the nexus between them. If we can agree that organizations are complex adaptive social systems that collectively learn, then there is much to discuss and exchange between these three disciplines. Indeed, members of the KM and OL disciplines ought to be more actively involved in monitoring and evaluating each others promising new theories and practices, as should CAS theorists be interested in what KM and OL have to say about the dynamics of knowledge processing and adaptation in human social systems, and vice versa. The potential here for synergy and learning is huge. We invite readers and other parties who may have an interest in exploring this proposal further to contact us.
Re ferences Firestone, J.M. (2003), Enterprise Information Portals and Knowledge Management, KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, Burlington, MA. Firestone, J.M. and McElroy, M.W. (2003a), Key Issues in T he New Knowledge Management, KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, Burlington, MA. Firestone, J.M. and McElroy, M.W. (2003b), Excerpt # 1 from T he Open Enterprise: Building Business A rchitectures for Openness and Sustainable Innovation, available at: www.kmci.org, KMCI Online Press, Hartland Four Corners, VT. McElroy, M.W. (2003), T he New Knowledge Management, KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, Burlington, MA. Senge, P.M. (1990), T he Fifth Discipline, Currency Doubleday, New York, NY.