How do I explain knowledge management to the person sitting next to me on the flight to Amsterdam? Knowledge management is a peculiar term, rather confusing and misleading as it is not about managing anything. It is all about learning. Seen the advanced hour of our flight, it is maybe best to do it the metaphorical way.

Here we go…

A year marked of learning

Have you seen a tree stump and counted its rings? Each ring marks one year in the tree’s life. The pattern of the rings depends on the climate, and tells us if the conditions were good for the tree or not. It is similar with human beings. Throughout our whole life we are learning. Learning never ends. We learn new things time and again, sometimes a lot and sometimes less. Each year we add one ring to our body of knowledge.

We learn to walk and speak, we practice the names of the colours and animals. We learn to ride a bike. We go to school, join a sports club and discover music. We do a professional training, maybe higher education, more adult education, additional trainings and online courses. We learn with family and friends, in school and formal institutions. We learn informally from colleagues and peers and through social media. Step by step, our knowledge and know-how grows. We add layers of annual rings to our personal learning history.

Thick “learning rings” telling the story of knowledge management

Organisations learn too, through the people working in these organisations. Organisations want to be smart. In fact, they must, if they want to stay important, useful and fit. They want to make their products or services better, or create new ones. Sometimes they face new situations where they must find new solutions. Organisations must also ensure that the knowledge and know-how is passed on to new staff members.

What they do is organisational learning. It is also called knowledge management. They bring together people from different teams, or places, or even from outside the organisation. They examine what they did and what they can learn from this. They systematize their experiences and document important insights so that they can share it with the whole organisation. They create new knowledge and spark innovation. Most importantly, they develop ideas of how to integrate what they just discovered into their practice, plans, and strategy.

Smart organisations want to add thick “learning rings” to their body of knowledge.

Do you think this metaphor stands the test of my flight companion? 


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