Why social learning won’t work

social and informal learning

This post follows on from the post on ‘Social Learning and Knowledge Management‘ which compared both approaches on the assumption that they are attempting to achieve the same outcome – people in organisations sharing their knowledge, and learning from each other in order to improve performance.

In the L&D world social learning has become a bit of a fashionable fad. It’s not hard to see why. With increasing pressure to do more for less, and with the improved adoption of learning technologies the conventional formal classroom approach to learning feels a little outdated and is very much top down rather than bottom up. Social and informal learning based on the 70:20:10 idea and utilising some cool social media technologies seems like a no brainer for our 21st century digitally connected workforce. But though it appears pretty straightforward, getting learners to learn informally from each other (and let’s face it they are probably doing that already) opens up a Pandoras box of challenges for the organisation in general and for L&D in particular.

Knowledge management (KM) people often talked about knowledge management being an oxymoron. Knowledge was by its very nature difficult to tie down – explicit knowledge was tricky to codify and tacit knowledge was even more elusive. It’s true that managing an organisations knowledge was a big ask but in my view KM failed for more pragmatic reasons and those reasons are key for us to be aware of if we are going to have a chance of making social learning work. Here are nine things we need to address if we are going to have any chance of making social learning work.

1. KM was time consuming

KM required time and sometimes substantial effort on the part of those people who owned the really useful knowledge. KM was time away from the ‘real work’ and KM activities always looked bad on your time sheet.

2. KM suffered from a poor reward and recognition framework

In the early days there was substantial support and encouragement to invest time and to share stuff but once people realised that sharing wasn’t good for them personally all that altruism slowly drained away.

3. Many more people took rather than gave

In practice KM involved knowledgeable people (usually the experts) sharing stuff with less knowledgeable people. Most people realised it was easier to take rather than give. A few underwent the pain while the mass got the gain but this imbalance was unsustainable and the experts soon stopped sharing.

90-9-1 rule


4. KM was technology driven

KM was hijacked by ‘big IT’ and the vendors sold a misguided vision of a knowledge sharing utopia. You can imagine how it goes: ‘Buy our system and KM will be sorted in your organisation.’ Of course they were wrong. KM needed much more than a re-packaged document management system to succeed.

5. KM was encouraged and facilitated by a dedicated team

Most organisations employed people to support and encourage knowledge sharing (I was one of them). The idea was that these people would act as the catalyst for others to participate and that KM would then grow organically. However once KM lost its initial shine and failed to deliver on its early promises the KM teams were quietly axed. The reason often given was that ‘KM was now embedded in the business’.

6. KM wasn’t embedded in the business

In practice KM was never really embedded in the business and the KM team was seen as a sort of annoyance that could be dropped when appropriate (not unlike the position that L&D finds itself today).

7. The technology wasn’t up to the job

In 2000 we didn’t have social media. We hardly had a satisfactorily functioning internet. KM systems were primarily about information and document storage, and search. In an effort to connect knowledgeable people within large organisations they also included people profiles and discussion forums which were used by communities of practice (COPs) and communities of interest (COIs). The idea was that if you couldn’t find the answer in the knowledge base you could contact someone who could help, or ask a question in an appropriate community forum.

8. KM focused on explicit not tacit

Paradoxically KM focussed on the explicit (the know what) where there was least value, rather than the tacit (the know how and why) where the value was much greater. Explicit knowledge can of course be valuable – especially to novices – but the really valuable insightful stuff tends to stay locked up in expert’s heads.

9. Sometimes the knowledge within the organisation is not enough

Sometimes you need fresh thinking. Connecting your experts may simply result in more of the same or similar solutions. Sharing beyond the silos and boundaries of the organisation can be so much more valuable that sharing within.

In the third and final post, ‘How social learning can work‘,  I’ll explore some of the ways we can address these challenges and get social learning working for us.

Social Learning and Knowledge Management

The Nonaka and Takeuchi Knowledge Spiral

The Nonaka and Takeuchi Knowledge Spiral (click on the image to learn more)

For about five years around the turn of the century most of my days were spent helping clients manage their knowledge. Back in 2000 knowledge management (KM) was really big. Every year I’d head off to Amsterdam for the obligatory industry conference, KM Europe. We even had our own home grown conference, KM UK, with pretty much the same people but with less impressive venues. Then suddenly things went quiet – KM Europe was suddenly cancelled in 2005, KM UK limped along (and is still going today). KM had lost its way. The promises hadn’t been fulfilled. Of course KM just didn’t disappear overnight – it just degraded gracefully. One client, a very large UK multinational, shed their KM teams and announced that KM was now ‘embedded in the business’.

KM still goes on but it’s likely to be on the margins and not essential for peak organisational performance whereas in 2000 KM really was positioned as a game changer.

So what happened? That’s a good question and one which this post is my first attempt at exploring why KM failed to deliver on its early promises. And why do this sort of navel gazing now? Because knowledge management appears to be making a comeback but this time it has a shiny new suit and it’s called social learning.

The KM wave was initially driven by big tech – the idea that an organisation could somehow manage its knowledge was attractive in an economy where knowledge was as important as capital. But knowledge was elusive and the most valuable forms of knowledge refused to be stored in corporate databases. The response from most practitioners was a more people centric approach. The valuable knowledge resides in people’s heads so the best way to surface it is via conversations in communities – communities of practice and communities of interest.

Before I go into why I think social learning and KM are very closely related let’s take a very quick tour of the fundamentals of KM.

 What is Knowledge Management (KM)?

“Knowledge management (KM) comprises a range of strategies and practices used in an organization to identify, create, represent, distribute, and enable adoption of insights and experiences. Such insights and experiences comprise knowledge, either embodied in individuals or embedded in organizations as processes or practices.” Source: Wikipedia

Just like we love to debate the actual meaning of the word ‘learning’ KM people loved to debate the meaning of the word ‘knowledge’ and in particular how knowledge is different to ‘information’ and ‘data’. The knowledge pyramid graphic (see below) was seen frequently in KM circles. Most KM people used to work in ‘information management’ so you can see why the definition was so important. I don’t want to go into this debate here but one really critical thing to understand if you have any hope of applying KM is the difference between explicit and tacit knowledge.

Knowledge Information and Data

Explicit and Tacit Knowledge

Explicit knowledge is knowledge that can be codified in some way (written down, stored in a visual, or embedded in a process). Explicit knowledge is good because although it is created by people it can be stored in a system. In our case a KM system but more of that later. How does explicit knowledge differ from information? Good question (see the debate on information versus knowledge mentioned above).

Tacit knowledge is knowledge, sometimes called know-how, that resides in people’s heads and is hard to codify (write down). Why is it hard to write down? Usually because it is either complex or contextual or simply because those who have it don’t actually recognise its value (unconscious competence).

Systems Centric or People Centric?

The rise of KM was largely driven by the desire of organisations to capture as much explicit knowledge as they could and store it in a system so that it could easily be shared with others. This systems centric KM became dominant in the early days because it was fuelled by considerable investment from big tech who were re-positioning their information products as KM systems (OpenText, Documentum, Autonomy etc.). The problem facing systems centric KM was the fact that it relied on people to make it work. How could organisations get their people, and in particular their ‘experts’ to share what they knew?

To address the people issue we had people centric KM. This view of KM recognised that if people were to share knowledge it had to be both explicit and tacit and the best way to do this effectively was through direct communication in networks. Specifically networks that were created around a specific topic or area of interest or practice. These networks became known as communities of interest (COI) or communities of practice (COP). In fact the  term COP had been around before (see refs below) –  it was simply co-opted into the language of KM.

The Perfect KM System

The perfect KM system combined both the systems and people centric approaches and acted as a store for explicit knowledge and a connector for tacit knowledge. If you didn’t know something you logged into the KM system and did a search and that search would either tell you what you wanted to know or it identified someone who would have the answer. BP called it their ‘yellow pages’ and even spun a commercial product (called unsurprisingly ‘Connect‘) out of the ground breaking working they did in KM.

KM had sorted knowledge sharing. In future, organisations would be less reliant on people who knew key stuff but didn’t share that stuff effectively. In practice there were lots of problems when it actually came to making  KM work in practice and unsurprisingly most of those problems revolved around people’s behaviours and attitudes to sharing what they know.

In my next post, ‘Why social learning won’t work‘, I’ll look at what went wrong with the KM dream and why understanding why KM didn’t deliver on its initial promise has some useful lessons for those of us attempting to introduce social learning into organisations.

In the third and final post, ‘Why Social Learning Will Work‘,  I’ll explore some ways we might be able to get social learning working for us by starting small and looking for quick wins.

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