Learning to Learn: Can KM, OD and Education Find Synergies that Change What is Possible?

These days, the ability to achieve deep, meaningful learning seems more and more of a challenge.  Hamstrung as we are by an ever growing mountain of content, dwindling attention spans, fewer available hours of focused energy, and pressure to prove results, it’s a wonder anyone can truly learn anything anymore.

Some say we can’t, and that increasingly .. we aren’t.

Rather than piling more fuel on the pyre of discontent, I’ve begun to focus my energy on new ideas in the learning space.  For most of the last 4 years I have been reading, researching, and discussing the challenges.  Much of that has happened over at the #k12 #ecosys, where deep & insightful discussions continue.

The result?  It certainly remains a work in progress.  But I’ve begun to put increasing stock on how to drive a synthesis across professional practices that claim much of the high ground on what it means to learn:  KM, OD and Education in particular.  Here’s a discussion framework that has emerged out of these conversations.

What do I mean by these?  I’ll offer a working definition of each, in the context of “learning how to learn”:

  • KM – Knowledge management, a business practice from the 90’s that seeks to  define, capture, and reuse knowledge across an organization, helping its members to share and ultimately learn from past achievements
  • OD – Organizational development, a business discipline most commonly in HR (human resources) that seeks to increase the productive capacity of the people and teams within the organizations walls
  • Education – the immensely broad ecosystem of teaching professionals across K12, colleges and universities, deeply immersed in the art and science (mostly science) of helping our young people learn

Challenge me here. Is this a good foundation?

Assuming so, would cross-pollination of experts like this be unthinkable?  It seems daunting on the surface.  Getting experts working together is hard work, as I’ve explored throughout The DNA of Collaboration.  But to me, crossing these boundaries is precisely the challenge.  We must work together to redefine the problems in solvable ways.  It means changing the stakes so that all the generations around us .. Boomers,  X, Y, Z and beyond .. can embrace new ways to learn how to learn.

In the face of increasing pressures for results, seemingly ‘soft’ initiatives like these are often scaled back, reducing our capacity to learn and to innovate at precisely the wrong moment.

What are some of the requirements in gaining cross-disciplinary cooperation and teamwork?

  • Intention and focus – to define what it means to learn deeply, and to establish new benchmarks for what is possible and achievable
  • Cultures that evolve – fostering new levels of trust, risk-taking and collaboration, so they might earn a more venerable status: ‘cultures of learning’
  • Solution language – that help insights and ideas emerge and converge into fundamentally new possibilities
  • Releasing the flow of insight – surrendering structure to more organic and adaptive methods of exchange

Working across professional disciplines exposes visible fault lines.  Many are deeply entrenched in decades of research and practice, convinced that the only path to success is the one they learned in grad school.  For some, their deeply held convictions will need to be left by the door.

In terms of some key ideas, what might we be talking about?  Here’s just a starter list of topics, to spark the synapses ..

  • Social Capital – building skills, networks and resources to help ourselves to help others
  • Evolution of Teacher/Learner – teachers that learn; learners that teach
  • Learning Cultures – how do we foster them?
  • Weaving a Collaborative Learning Fabric – discussing 1Q13 at CDNA G+ Community
  • Self-Selection and Ownership – customization of the learning agenda
  • Motivation and Growth Mindset – removing fear of not-knowing
  • White space – exploring and exposing the creative urge
  • Social, Team & Project-based Learning – is all learning truly social?
  • Key Stakeholder Roles – including Community involvement, and the notion of Resilience
  • Open Knowledge Frameworks – via a 21st century read of Kant
  • Virtual Environments – the purposeful evolution of distance learning and e-Learning

Under the hashtag #cdna (for “collaboration DNA”) we have begun to explore what it means to learn deeply and learn together, across all the contexts described here.  To get at the issues more directly, we will use this space, related posts on the book site, and other spaces (join our CDNA G+ Community) to expand on what we mean by the practice of KM, OD and Education in the context of learning.

Change demands new thinking.  And as you likely know by now, that is the sort of discussion that  keeps me up at night.  I would love your input and ideas.

My fear is that increasing numbers will someday fail to learn how to learn.  It’s a slippery slope with serious implications.

We’ve got work to do.

26 thoughts on “Learning to Learn: Can KM, OD and Education Find Synergies that Change What is Possible?

  1. Great post Chris:

    You’ve raised so many provocative issues here, that I’m not sure my response can possibly do justice to your article, so I will likely submit a few replies targeted to different issues.

    The Inter-relationship Between KM, OD, Education

    One of the hurdles which needs to be overcome in both schools and in organizations is the “silo effect” – you’ve illustrated this above when you delineate between KM, OD and Education as if these were distinctly separate and distinct disciplines. I would argue, as others have done far more eloquently than I have, that these are all interrelated and if they are treated as such the result will be improved knowledge flows, richer collaboration, greater cultural coherence and alignment and better results in achieving goals, objectives and outcomes.

    If organizations have a vision to establish knowledge creation (KM) as a core mandate where knowledge is seen as a key competitive differentiator in the market in which they operate, then likely they will need to create a culture where these goals are reflected in the way all employees work. (OD,). And equally likely this will require a significant change management exercise to change the behaviors of existing employees. As well the organization will need to consider what structures they will need to change or create to support their desired outcomes e.g. onboarding / orientation programs, professional development programs, performance management and employee learning programs (Education) I cannot image hiring a KM person an OD person or a Educational consultant who didn’t have a deep understanding about the inter-relationship between these three disciplines.

    In schools we see the same thing – Subjects are siloed into separate and distinct bodies of knowledge. Students are not typically encouraged to transfer knowledge from one domain to another to support new understanding or t the creation of new knowledge. (I would argue there is a fundamental misconception within school system that students are incapable of creating new knowledge) Interestingly, the elementary model which (at least in Canada) last for 6 years), does foster students making connections between subject knowledge simply by virtue of the fact that elementary school teachers teach all the subjects usually in the same classroom.

    Classrooms are a microcosm of an organization and the same principles apply. Each classroom has a culture. If a teacher wishes to change the outcomes they must change the culture of the classroom and the behaviors of the students. They must develop supports (curricula) and of course they must be able to measure the performance of their students,

    • Thanks so much, Blake. Agree with everything you’ve shared. Yes, the frame of this post was a bit ambitious. .But to wrap our arms around the scope and scale of how we learn, it seemed important to cast the right sized net.

      Personally, as a parent of 3 kids in/out of college and +25 years in business, I can trace important threads that weave together how we learn .. how we perceive knowledge .. and how we deal with our abilities, limitations and aspirations as learners and knowers, not to mention would-be experts.

      I want to better understand the fabric of knowledge and learning ..

      Perhaps we can build better, more integrated looms .. ?

      I’m glad there’s substantial history to the KM, OD & Education discussion, and I’d love to bring some of that thinking forward into this thread. Maybe you can introduce some entry points?

      In the learning context, I’m up on my Senge and Wheatley ..
      And I’ve pored over both Bloom/Anderson on the Taxonomy of Learning ..

      So much more out there, I’m certain.

      I’m an avid, (dare I say) life-long learner, but I can’t claim expertise in the areas of learning science or pedagogy. But, like you, I have lots of thoughts in this space .. and I very much look forward to learning more ..

  2. Roots of Knowledge Management

    Before, engaging is a deeper discussion around the linkages between KM, OD and Education, I wanted to comment on Chris’ s statement that KM is a business practice from the 90’s.

    As part of the introduction to all our courses at KMIC, I spend time discussing the Roots of KM with our students.

    KM is not a new business fad, nor did it miraculously appear in the 90’s. KM (as a business practice) evolved from the Quality Movement dating back to the 1920’s, influenced heavily by theories of the quality gurus: Deming. Juran and Feigenbaum in the 1940’s.

    I’m over simplifying here, but early theories were focused on the application of statistical measures to ensure the production of quality products in the industrial line process of factories. Later theories, incorporated “Process” as a key component in the production quality goods e.g. Quality Control. As time progressed, quality control became Total Quality Control, defined by 3 basic principles (here’s where things start to get interesting for Kmers) 1. Customer focused (instead of just line focused), 2. Company wide (inclusion of process) and 3. Continual improvement (people)

    KM folks should have a look at Deming’s, Profound Theory of Knowledge, put forward towards the end of his life. you will notice familiar tenants of KM theory.

    KM evolved from the limitations of Quality Management which focused on “explicit information and documented processes” to support continual improvement. KM added the additional dimension of culture (people, communities) and the “tacit” knowledge gained through years of experience.

    Why is this Important?

    1. It helps to convey the value proposition of KM
    2. Understanding the roots of KM somewhat helps to overcome the discomfort experienced practitioners have with the name “Knowledge Management” (knowing that you can’t manage knowledge)
    3. It demonstrates innovation is an intentional learning process, which leverages knowledge (tacit and explicit) from many different and varied sources in order to address a defined need
    4. It illustrates the connection between KM, OD and Learning on a broad scale.

  3. This piece is almost 5 yrs old, and is in the context of bringing innovation to management principles and practices (replacing or reframing them based on OD principles) .. I see KM in ‘social era’ as ongoing learning and building / scaffolding knowledge to address problems / issues in real-time (in addition to useful ordering of existing ‘knowledge in context’ ), and learning 9constantly) is what we all need to do individually and collectively, on purpose and on objective.

    So, I guess I am saying that what I tried to say in this piece is (I believe) aligned with the direction and theme(s) that you are beginning to build in #cdna …

    As Harold Jarche has said numerous times “Learning is the work and the work is learning”. Clarifying and managing that in an hyperlinked environment demands the use of core OD principles and approaches such as Emery’s Participative Work Design (PWD), etc.


    All just opinion … ;-)

    • Loved this post, Jon .. and it’s closely aligned with my thinking. We can definitely build from the same point. Even Nilofer was on the same page in the 2010 comment .. just implicated her in a tweet ..

    • So many thoughtful ideas here, I’m not sure how or where to wade in – so I’m going to jump around a bit and see if some linkages emerge…Jon, I really like your description of KM in the social era – spot on imo.

      There certainly has been a shift in thinking in the field of KM over the past few years – away from technology and content, towards culture and context.

      In 2011 the Electricity Sector Council of Canada published a extensive 450 page KM/KT study where they boldly state KM is all about culture (I think the figure was 90% if memory serves). This is significant coming from a highly technical and very traditional sector.

      We are seeing the same kind of re-thinking taking place in Education – where there is a recognition that “Content” has diminishing value and “Context” is seen as increasingly more valuable. If this is so, and I believe it is, then the role of the teacher is fundamentally changed from a transmitter of content to an expert participant in the learning process, providing the context necessary to foster critical thinking. In an odd way, it’s almost a return the classical education model used by the ancient Greek Philosophers – teaching their students “how” to think, not “what” to think.

      Model for 21st C. Learning

      I have recently been involved in Stanford’s MOOC, Venture Lab (http:// http://www.venture-lab.org) in a course titled “Designing a New Learning Environment” There are approx. 20,000 students in this course from around the world. Underlying the course design is the assumption that it’s the responsibility of the students to access content and the responsibility of Stanford and the course instructors to provide the “context” for student learning. I would strongly recommend you check it out – it provides a clear indication of the future direction of Education – It has been a real eye opener for me, and great fun to boot. – Best of all, it’s free (democratizing knowledge), you can participate as much or as little as you wish and you decide where to come in and when to participate.

      Learning and Knowledge Building

      In the 90’s I had the very good fortune to work closely with Dr. Marlene Scardamalia and Dr. Carl Bereiter at the Institute for Knowledge Innovation and Technology (http://www.ikit.org ) Their seminal research around expertise (pre-Gladwell) and their theory of knowledge building (http://www.ikit.org/kb.html), had a profound impact on both my thinking as well as my approach to KM.

      Focus and Intentionality

      Bereiter and Scardamalia differentiate between learning (something that occurs naturally as a result of day to day experience) and knowledge building (an intentional, cognitive activity designed to build new knowledge)

      Stemming from well over 30 years of research into how “experts” learn, they discovered common learning patterns/behaviors which they distilled into 12 Knowledge Building Principles – I have adapted these over the years to suit business organizations (I will post this later). I believe these principles provide a possible framework for supporting OD.

      The Gap between Learning and Work is Over

      L. Perelman coined the term hyper-learning in the early 90’s stating that as a result of ICT the gap (separation) between learning and work has disappeared. We can no longer treat these as separate and distinct activities. Exponential change means everyone will be forever on a trajectory of continuous learning. Here’s a really good paper (short) on Perelman’s ideas:


      • Love how you and Jon are bringing this “up a level” to talk about KM, OD and Education broadly .. establishing similarities and differences .. sense-making and pattern matching, at its best ..

        Even as .. in the same thread .. Bas brings us back down to the practical and actionable .. to make all this valuable in the workplaces and schools where it is sorely needed ..

        I’m convinced all levels of introspection are valuable. I have improved (and written about) awareness (thank you Bas) on the need/ability to change context and our level of analytical abstraction on a dime. To me, it’s essential to fast track learning .. and knowledge building .. as defined by Blake above.

        I feel a grid coming on .. one that we will co-create in the commons, if all are willing .. that captures these key ideas side by side ..

  4. And .. I may be parroting Blake here ..

    OD has a long and honourable history; a bible for understanding that history and the application of principles can be found in M. Weisbord’s “Productive Organizations – Organizing and Managing for Dignity, Meaning and Community” (1987).

    I also find that this relatively brief paper (PDF) traces the origins and trajectory of STS & OD quite well .. points out that roughly around 1990 the wholesale ‘invasion’ of BPR to feed large and expensive ERP systems implementations basically ‘crushed’ the head of steam STS and OD had built up in terms of engagement, autonomous work groups, etc. (and poured the first layers of “electronic concrete” over a fair bit of information/knowledge-based work) … well worth reading IMO.

    Click to access Mumford.pdf

  5. Shameless sself-promotion plug alert !

    All of the above part of what fed and helped me ‘conceive’ the term and concept of ‘wirearchy’ .. I continue to believe we are seeing appear all around us the early (very early) stages of that emergent organizing principle. It will encounter (already has in a number of ways) significant resistance. Much of that resistance and antidotes to same has been much, much, much commented on. I refer to running conversations on ROI, benefits and drawbacks of social computing and / or ‘social’ business (which I basically think is rudimentary socio-technical systems theory dressed up in marketing language (and images). This stuff is not new .. but I fear it is rapidly becoming superficialized. Re-engineering Light (with some people stuff thrown in) or Re-engineering 1.5 (I hesitate to say 2.0 ;-)

    Apologies in advance if I sound snarky. I’ve been watching work organization and design and leadership and management development issues grind along slowly for two long. Plus ca change etc.

    • No apologies needed Jon, I’ve been a fan of wirearchy for some time, from the days we first explored your ideas with Bas Reus, John T and others .. I see a solid basis for it in Handy’s four cultural / org models http://bit.ly/povCL2 (2010 post); from his analysis, model #2 boils down to silos and #3 boils down to networks .. and the models are generally held (at least by us!) to coexist. Recognizing the value of both, I sense you are moving us aggressively into hybrid mode, far closer to reality ..

      And yet, we seem stuck ..

      Mired in dated culture, models, and mindsets, we struggle to imagine an organization less dependent on hierarchy, and more able to adapt in real time. We continue to ask leadership to engage .. but it can be difficult to navigate “the how”?

      In your 2008 post http://bit.ly/povLNjhu I thought you and Gary Hamel collectively nailed it:

      – 21st century technology
      – 20th century management process
      – 19th century management philosophy

      Time for a refresh. To me, it may be about “Learning to Learn” anew.
      Let’s tackle it, and see what we might discover ..

  6. Cool …

    Charles Handy has been perhaps my single greatest inspiration and/or role model since I got interested in this stuff in the mid-70’s. Drucker, Weisbord, Argyris, Schein and Senge important too.

    I ran across Handy’s early stuff and began devouring everything he had (and has since) written in the mid-80’s. Gosh, it’s been a long and often discouraging road ;-)

    • Yes, a long list .. I’m up on many of them, not all. But clearly some rich resources to pull from as we navigate the big shift .. from calcified bureaucracies to the adaptive learning organization ..

      And it’s been a long road ..

      Seems we have more tools and more ideas now, and better connected thinkers ..

      Let’s mull a loose frame to pull core elements together, for discussion.
      Themes from diverse conversations ..

      Above all, let’s keep the ideas flowing ..
      Appreciate your energy, Jon .. critical for path finding in deep jungles :)

  7. Chris, nice one.

    Apparently we are not able to learn what we think we can (or must) learn. There is too much unknown knowledge out there. The tools we have now make us aware of this, how unpleasant it might be. We learn and learn, and at the same time we don’t learn many other things. The world seems small now but it’s complexity becomes more visible.

    I like your attempt to write about this and also your line of thinking. However, there is a long way to go. Are we humans capable of keeping focus on what’s primarily important to us (and do it faster, as you note), and at the same time grow in learning and knowledge? I don’t know yet.

    My idea would be that being able to visualize and be aware of the network of knowledge around you can be a start. Keep your focus, and grow your awareness. Maybe then it would be possible to learn how to learn.

    • Welcome back Bas, so great to see u again; thanks for jumping in.

      Couldn’t agree more on the topic of focus, which of course presumes some prior effort to prioritize efforts and energy. That prior step I call that ‘intention’ and it allows us to answer increasingly difficult questions like: ‘focus on what!?’.

      It may sound trite but how many times a day do we struggle with that one?

      Deep learning imo requires creative space, time .. intention and focus ..

      I believe it was Williams James (regarded by many as father of modern psychology) who was first to point out that the main function of the human brain is to focus, discerning signals of the environment at an incredible pace. Taking charge of that flow is part and parcel to deep learning ..

      So intention / focus are clearly on the short list of critical factors ..
      As always, you quickly brought us to the heart of the matter.

      But regarding intention ..
      Does that not beg the entire question of motivation?

  8. I meant to specify this part of what Bas said:

    “My idea would be that being able to visualize and be aware of the network of knowledge around you can be a start. Keep your focus, and grow your awareness. Maybe then it would be possible to learn how to learn.”

  9. Thanks for commenting back :) and hello!
    Intention and focus are good words to describe what I mean in abstract terms. But there’s also a concrete, day-to-day problem: you need to choose what to focus on, and at the same time choose what not to focus on. Being aware of that is at least as valuable, I think.

  10. .. apologies ..

    .. my WordPress settings kick some comments out for moderation if they link to other pages. Blake has a post you guys need to see, about “half way” back, belatedly stamped 12/12 12:48pm .. I’ll see if I can change the moderation setting ..

  11. An interesting article I read recently is “Multiple Team Membership: a Theoretical Model of its Effects on Productivity and Learning for Individuals and Teams”. It addresses the pressure between productivity and learning in environments where people belong to multiple teams at the same time. Balancing both productivity and learning from both the individual and team perspective requires careful management of attention and coordination.

  12. Bas, you have identified an important challenge here – How do we balance the learning needs of the individual with that of the larger team?

    As well, you indirectly raise a question which I have been grappling with lately in the design of a new Knowledge Building Environment (KBE) – Can we design a single environment (digital) which supports both learning and work?

    Currently the best practice model in a good many organizations is to use 2 or more systems – One typically referred to as “Knowledgeware” for collaborative project related issues and another “courseware” for instructional learning.

  13. Chris,
    In this post, and the comments that follow, there has been a strong case made for the need to “break down silos”. I’m not versed in KM or OD theory, so I would be curious to learn, from those who are, if there is a place in either discipline for the process of Open Space Technology, or similar practices?
    From what I have read of Harrison Owen’s OST format, it invites a degree of participation that is not typical of more traditional conferences.

    In K-12 edu there have been a number of “unconferences” over the last several years, for example: http://www.edcampphilly.org/
    These conferences have their roots in OST. From my own recent experience with this style conference, the learning is self-directed and inquiry-based.
    Several of the key ideas you mention, such as Ownership, Growth Mindset, and White Space are a distinct part of unconference culture.
    And, thanks to the benefit of hashtags, Virtual Environment is an important, fluid element, both during and after the conference.

    Would be interesting to see what more face-to-face interaction across the three professional disciplines you’ve identified would yield.

    Meanwhile, the dialogue you’re generating through posts like this is marvelous. Thank you for that!

    • Yes, Kira, I believe the Open Space approach has introduced a significant change in how we approach large group collaboration, and it has certainly infused my thinking.

      The white space aspect has also been influenced by Google, who, I’ve heard (believe it was in E2.0 by McAfee) gives employees 20% downtime to research, experiment with new ideas, and otherwise seek innovation. That is pure “time” white space, but in the commercial context, that is also a significant investment of dollars. Most corporate cultures in my view still don’t allow that level of employee freedom, which carries with it both trust and a strong acknowledgement of employee value ..

      For growth mindset, I turn quickly back to Carol Dweck, who’s book Mindset makes a strong case for the psychology of how we perceive our potential ..

      Great inputs, Kira .. more food for thought .. I appreciate your insights ..
      Hope you’ll continue to contribute ..


  14. I definitely want to capture takeaways from this thread in a summary grid, comparing perspectives of OD, KM & EDU.

    I realize the contexts and objectives are somewhat different .. but with each claiming some of the high ground in what it means to learn .. it seems we can learn by looking across these silos ..

    Stay tuned ..

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