In my role as an executive of a company that delivers online e-reference content to large corporate enterprises, I meet many knowledge-management professionals responsible for the corporate library, learning programs or some combination of both. They support knowledge workers in learning organizations who are increasingly exposed to almost limitless choices of digital content, as described by Chris Anderson in his book, “The Long Tail.”
Knowledge-management professionals are sitting in the middle of a busy intersection, where the irresistible force (the learning organization) is on a collision course with the immovable object (the long tail). The results can be enormously positive or destructive.
If managed properly, the long tail is an incredibly powerful complement to the learning organization. If managed improperly, the long tail might offset the positive effects of the learning organization with a ripple effect throughout the enterprise. Consequently, knowledge-management professionals need to adapt.
There is less demand today for print information and structured learning programs. As a result, many learning leaders struggle to communicate their value, and they face declining budgets. This happens at a time when their companies are confronted with the increasingly difficult challenge and critical need to find, develop and retain their most valuable and scarce resource: the performing knowledge workers who make true learning organizations possible.
A true learning organization is made up of individuals who share a set of common principles and guiding practices, continuously strive for proficiency, and share and reflect on their own perceptions for the purpose of enabling open dialogue with others and team learning.
A learning organization enhances the best business re-engineering management principles and practices. For example, a learning organization encompasses adaptive or survival learning, consuming information about how to do something better for continual improvement. Further, a learning organization goes beyond adaptive learning — it enables generative learning to continuously expand its capacity to create its future and reinvent the company from within.
Capacity to create the future is not enough, however. Real value can come only from the execution of new ideas individuals generate. In a broader sense, organizational learning can occur only when an organization communicates and adopts what is being learned in its various parts.
Learning begins in isolation — one individual or one team learns something of value. As learning occurs, and knowledge is created, it has to be shared throughout the enterprise. This can result in new strategies, modified policies, redesigned processes, changed system requirements, competency models being adapted and redefined performance management.
Knowledge workers, by definition, are specialized. In today’s world of rapid technological change, it is challenging enough to become highly proficient in just one area. In most cases, knowledge workers have more knowledge of their specialization than their management, but only the organization can convert that specialized knowledge into performance.
It is not easy to create a true learning organization. Developing a shared vision, creating an environment that encourages open communication and empowering individuals are difficult undertakings, given the ever-increasing importance of the knowledge worker.
Enterprises are becoming increasingly knowledge-based. With the digitization and virtualization of content, ubiquitous access and the transformation of hierarchical management structures, the resulting power of knowledge in a learning organization is growing exponentially.
With the advent of long-tail distribution, knowledge workers increasingly are exposed to near-limitless choices of content. Isn’t that a good thing? Yes, if managed correctly. No, if managed incorrectly — or not at all.