Learning organization and best practices sharing processes

The development of high technologies has supported the expansion of businesses worldwide. As the result, in the modern business world, a company does not only compete with the local competitors but have to face the challenges from all over the world. In addition, the turbulence of the financial market, the changes in government policy, the existence and active performance of the communities and sub-societies have contributed to the tough competition. To survive and become wealth, the corporations need to be adaptable to cope with the changes and chaos in the surrounding environment. To do so, becoming a learning organization is a good strategy.

In learning organization, the individuals are encouraged to interact, learn and share knowledge with the others. The free flow of knowledge within organization helps to improve the capability of the organization (i.e in term of efficiency, effectiveness and productivity). Equipped by better knowledge, employees are more willing to cope with changes as well as make creation and innovation.

Learning organization spends time on transferring knowledge among individuals, groups, and generations. One of the important knowledge types to be shared is best practices. Acting as guidelines for more effective and efficient ways to perform a specific task, best practices benefit the organization is various aspects, include quality management, saving costs, minimizing wastes, et cetera.

Yet best practices are often in form of tacit knowledge, the transfer process should provide chances for the learners to not only know the concept, but also understanding it, absorb it, and be able to implement it. Among the common methods, knowledge bases, storytelling, mentoring and tutoring, after action reviews and communities of practices have proved their outstanding performance.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Page

LEARNING ORGANIZATION……………………………………….. 1

WHAT IS A LEARNING ORGANIZATION?………………………….. 1

THE BENEFITS OF BECOMING A LEARNING ORGANIZATION…. 1

BEST PRACTICES AND THE SHARING PROCESSES……….. 3

DEFINITION OF BEST PRACTICES…………………………………… 3

BEST PRACTICES SHARING PROCESS………………………………. 4

Stage 1: Get to know about the best practices………………………… 5

Knowledge bases……………………………………………………… 5

Storytelling……………………………………………………………. 6

Mentoring and tutoring……………………………………………….. 7

Stage 2: Practice the lessons learned……………………………………. 8

Stage 3: Enhance knowledge through discussing and sharing process… 9

After Action Reviews…………………………………………………….. 9

Communities of Practice………………………………………………… 10

CONCLUSION…………………………………………………………………… 11

LIST OF REFERENCES………………………………………………………………. 13

LEARNING ORGANIZATION

WHAT IS A LEARNING ORGANIZATION?

“Learning organization is one in which people at all levels, individually and collectively, are continually increasing their capacity to produce results they really care about”, said Richard Karash, an Organizational consultant and executive coach (http://www.humtech.com

/opm/grtl/loo/loo.cfm). Learning organization is the concept that all the members of the organization continuously improve and transform themselves in order to develop the organization and make it remain competitive in the business environment (O’ Keeffe T., 2002).

For example, Nokia was first started in nineteenth century in Finland as a pulp meal, and has metamorphosed into a giant multinational which is well known for its mobile phones handsets. In 1912, Nokia entered into a telecommunication business and since then, they have been making continuously innovations that maintain the leading position in the telecommunication world. Another example of learning organization is General Electrical which started as a bulbs and household gadget has changed into a multinational organization that has interest in finance, chemicals and nuclear technologies (http://thinkahead.net.in/

forum/learning-organization-prominent-examples-of-success.html).

THE BENEFITS OF BECOMING A LEARNING ORGANIZATION

One of the reasons for these organizations’ success is they always keep in touch with the changes of the business environment, government policies, and as well as the people within the organizations. According to Peter Senge, a leader writer in learning organization, the five disciplines must be mastered in an organization are: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, building shared visions, and team learning (Senge P., 1990). Following are some brief understanding about the five disciplines of Peter Senge.

Systems thinking: is the ability to view the big picture and identify the situation. According to Senge, systems thinking need the other four disciplines to create a learning organization. And there must be a form shift from unconnected into interconnected to the whole organization, so that the organization can realize how they perform in the business market.

Personal mastery: requires individuals to be more realistic, self-confident to be an active learner, and to focus on improving themselves to be better. An organization only learns when its individuals learn; thus, an organization needs people with personal mastery to improve their performance.

Mental models: is the perspective that influence individuals how they see the outside environment and what influence them making decision to take action. Moreover, mental models focus on fostering mental flexibility and openness.

Building shared vision: vision started from an individual employee, so it cannot be dictated. What an organization needed is the cooperate spirit between the leader and the employees to build a shared vision in both good and bad situation to bind the organization together.

Team learning: is the last discipline of Senge, this is all about team work and team alignment, and it is the most important discipline as all of the members in the team have to learn how to work together in an effective and efficient way to complete the common goal of the organization. According to Senge, this is the process of developing the ability to create desired results, to have a goal in mind and work together to achieve it (Senge P., 1990).

By promoting the learning organization cultures, the organization will adapted quickly to the rapid changing environment. Challenges will be considered as opportunities because the employees learned from solving problems. The more competitive an organization involved, the more experiences to be received, which is a good factor that support creativities and innovation to the organization. Moreover, a learning organization can save their cost of any formal training session, as they can use alternative methods that integrated with learning into work and these methods will not cost much and more effective for the organization. Another benefit of learning organizations is that they can improve the role of supervisors through the learning process. In this situation, supervisors play the role of the teachers and each employee is empowered to have responsibility for their own learning (http://www.humtech.com/opm/

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grtl/loo/loo.cfm).

With the benefit mentioned above, we can see how important for organizations to learn, also meaning to say that in order to survive and expand, organizations must always learn to adapt to the rapid changing business environment where there are lots of competition. Nowadays, the best source for the organizations to improve themselves is through learning from the best practices, which will be discussed in the next section.

BEST PRACTICES AND THE SHARING PROCESSES

DEFINITION OF BEST PRACTICES

Best practice is defined as the proven most efficient and effective way to improve the performance of the organization. In the explanation of UNESCO, best practices have four important characteristics: be innovative (i.e. as they initiate the solution for specific problem), make a difference (i.e. they have tangible and positive influences on the organizations and individuals), have a sustainable effect (i.e. the participants not only apply but also continuously improve the best practices), and have potential for replication (i.e. as the best practices prove their effectiveness, they become the models for organizations and individuals to imitate) (http://www.unesco.org/most/bphome.htm).

Best practices can be found in many fields such as technology development, quality improvement, consultancy, education, healthcare, and so on. The advantages of sharing best practices and lessons learned include: the improve in quality of the service / product, the upgrade in overall performance (of the organization, departments, groups, et cetera), the minimization of wastes and redo work, and the reduction in costs due to the increase in efficiency, effectiveness and productivity (http://www.library.nhs.uk/Knowledge

Management/ViewResource.aspx?resID=87817).

The following table shows some critical examples of how best practices and lessons learned benefit the corporations:

Corporation

Activities

Bottom line results

Xerox

Access to technicians’ lessons learned

5 – 10 % saving in labor and parts costs

Ford

Access to best practices

$ 1.25 billion in savings

Texas Instruments

Access to best practices

$ 500 million gained in “free” fabrication capacity in 1 year

Honeywell

Create, capture, share, and use organizational knowledge

46% increase in proposal win rate; costs cut by 35%

(Source: Figallo C. & Rhine N., 2002)

BEST PRACTICES SHARING PROCESS

Although the results of best practices are tangible (e.g. the achievement of an objective, the reduction in operational costs, et cetera); the best practices themselves are a form of tacit knowledge. Therefore, the process of sharing best practices involves more efforts. The absorption and implementation of a best practice is strongly impacted by the individual’s ability to access the knowledge, synthesize it, analyze it, understand it, and conduct an action. Therefore, the effective sharing process should be the combination of knowing (what to do and how to do), experiencing (try – out performance) and following up (to improve and strengthen the knowledge).

Stage 1: Get to know about the best practices

There are many ways for groups and individuals to access the best practices; yet the most common approaches include knowledge bases, storytelling, and mentoring and tutoring.

Knowledge bases:

Knowledge bases are the collections of recording knowledge which is stored in the organization memory and available for organization’s members to access, learn, and contribute. The contents of knowledge bases include reports, milestones, best practices, lessons learned, externalized experiences, and different other knowledge.

The main function of knowledge bases is to provide framework for exchanging knowledge, identifying problems identification, and creating solutions. For example, Xerox runs the Eureka System which consists of more than 50,000 solutions entries submitted by the Xerox’s engineers around the world. When there are innovative solutions for unpredictable problems related to a Xerox’s product, the engineers voluntarily input them into the databases, and the others engineers can benefit from these findings (Powers V. J., 1999, Lulla S., 2009).

It is important to note that a good knowledge databases does not ensure the improvement of the organization’s performance unless the organization’s members can access and use them. Today, many corporations utilize the advanced technologies such as intranet and wiki system to support the knowledge dissemination. Back to the case of Xerox Corp, each engineer is provided with a laptop that is loaded with a Eureka interface, electronic diagnostic tools, electronic documentation, and proper training, so that the engineers can make use of the Eureka System to improve their jobs.

Storytelling:

According to Dalkir K. (2005), organizational story is a “detailed narrative” of the interactions among people in the organization which are influenced by specific culture, understanding and situation. In Knowledge Management, storytelling is a one of effective methods to communicate complex ideas, share tacit knowledge, reinforce best practices and prompt a change (in behavior). The main advantage of storytelling is that it makes the knowledge become alive and can be easily absorbed and remembered by the listeners. Denning S. (2007) told how he used storytelling to influence the World Bank’s Change Management Committee to apply the new knowledge management system. Within only 15 minutes, instead of making complex presentation about the advantages of the new KM system, Denning told stories about how African Region, especially Zambia – a poor village, had benefited from implementing a best practice system. He mentioned the challenges occurring through the implementation; yet he ended the stories with the reinforcement of the existence of happy endings. The stories had strong impacts on the committee, and in few years, World Bank had developed effective email system, intranet and external web site. By 2000, World Bank was the “world leader in knowledge management”.

With the improvement of wiki systems and internet, the stories have gone to online and enhanced its power in supporting the knowledge sharing. Once a story is put online, it becomes alive as the author and audiences continue to interacting and expanding the story’s theme. Moreover, through these interactions, new ideas can be developed, analyzed and shared by those who are interested in the stories.

Mentoring and tutoring:

Although knowledge databases and storytelling are good methods in sharing knowledge, they are affected by the trust and ability to understand of people. Therefore, to disseminate the best practice and lessons learned, observing is necessary to supplement the sharing process. By observing the practices, the learners not only know what but also know how to perform more effectively and productively. There are passive and active observations. In passive observation, the learners can scrutinize the best practices through using audio, video clips and the like. This type of observing is often used by the sport teams when learning about the competitors’ strategies and tactics. Mystery shopper is also an example of passive observation.

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In active observation, the learners not only watch the process, but also interact with the knowers, asking and exchanging the understanding. Examples of active observation are mentoring and tutoring. For years, these two methods have been the most efficient and effective ways to pass on the tacit knowledge from knowers to learners. In mentoring and tutoring, the learners are provided just-in-time information as well as a systematic framework for developing the knowledge (Bartholomew D., 2008, p.120). Moreover, the frequent interactions between the mentor and mentees reduce the obstacles occurring during the sharing process (e.g. the mentees’ low ability in analyzing, synthesizing, and absorbing the knowledge), as well as help the mentees quickly gain insight into the knowledge shared.

Take Aedas’s mentoring program as an example. One of Aedas design director’s roles is to mentor for the architectures in the studio. The mentoring program involves working with the mentees every day, and developing their design skill through daily tasks. The outstanding point of this program is that the architectures have “free access and sustained contact” with the director, so that they can gain instant help if necessary and improve their skill with faster speed (Bartholomew D., 2008, p.127).

Stage 2: Practice the lessons learned.

Reading and observing the process or best practices just create the overall understanding or a “know” but not the “ability” yet. In order to close the gap between knowing and doing, it is essential to provide the learners chances to practice what they gain through the sharing process.

The try – out is the reflection of what learners have learned. When the learners practice what they have learned, they gain realistic experiences about the knowledge, get acquainted to it and embedded it in their minds. Furthermore, it also provides the instant feedback about how the knowledge has been shared to and absorbed by the learners. In case there are misunderstanding about or mistakes conducting, the sharers, trainers, or mentors can make instant corrections and modifications so that the best practices or lessons learned can be correctly pass on to the knowledge – receivers.

Toyota and its Global Production Centers is good illustration for the essential of try – out performance in sharing knowledge. Toyota operates three regional training centers called Global Production Centers to promote their best practices among its global plants. In these centers, the trainees are learned from the knowledge bases, videotapes, and personal training. The noticeable point is that after each skill learned, the trainees are asked to perform the task within the specified tolerances and time allowances. After the test, they receive the feedback from the trainer. If they fail, they have to go back to practice. If they pass, they can go on to learn the next skill (Liker J. K. & Meier D. P., 2007, p.22-23).

Stage 3: Enhance knowledge through discussing and sharing process.

In the book Know Can Do – Put Your Know How into Action, Ken Blanchard and the co-authors (2007) stated that one of the three basic reasons why people fail to apply what they know into practice was the lack of follow up. When a best practice is introduced, it ends with a particular change (i.e. in performance, habit or behavior). The problem is changing requires lots of concentrated efforts. It is normal that many corporations spend huge money in benchmarking and training best practices to their employees, yet they still not gain benefits as the employees are reluctant to make necessary changes. The unwillingness in making a change is due to the lack of knowledge and the uncertainty about the result of the change. To get rid of these negative phenomenons, those learning organizations keep reinforce the best practices and their values in different ways. Two of the common methods are After Action Reviews and Communities of Practice.

After Action Reviews:

The concept of After Action Review was developed by the US Army in the 1980s and has been widely applied by many corporations in the process of sharing the post-project learning. The principle of this concept is simple: each project faces challenges and obstacles; and to successfully complete the project, the team’s members have to come up with deep thinking and innovation. These value experiences will be stored and shared through the organization in those Reviews for future references. During the reviews, best practices and lessons learned are reflected, socialized and developed. To be more effective, the reviews can be facilitated by special documents, cases study, and visual aids. Through interactions and exchanges, knowledge can be firmly embedded into the mind of participants. In case the lessons learned relates to serious mistakes, the reviews not only help the organization to recognize its weaknesses, limitation and gaps between knowing-doing, but also support the preparation for alternative solutions to cope with future similar problems. Depending on the structures of the organizations, the size and scope of “after action review” vary from workshops (organizational or project level), peer-to-peer reviews (departmental or team level), to briefs (between managers and subordinates).

Communities of Practice:

Communities of Practice (CoP) are “organic and self-organized” groups of individuals – who have common interest, voluntarily join the community, and actively contribute to the creation and dissemination of valuable knowledge to the other members. CoPs dramatically vary in term of scopes and sizes. Groups of financial professionals, green environmental project teams, technologies, education, or healthcare forums, with the members from hundreds to thousands are all examples of CoPs. Moreover, CoPs are not limited within a specific location or physical community only, but widespread to those who are interested in the content and performance of the communities. With the support of advanced technologies (i.e. such as internet), these communities can reach the worldwide level. Take APQC – the American Productivity and Quality Center – as an example. APQC functions as a giant community of practice which provides its members the access to databases of benchmarking, best practices studies, frameworks and maturity models, as well as gives practical advices to improve the performance of its members (http://www.apqc.org/what-we-do). The interested point is, though this center is established in US, its members come from different industries in different parts of the worlds.

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Three significant features that decide the success of such CoPs involve the voluntary nature of the community, the enthusiasm of its participants, and the mutual trust and benefit among the members. In CoPs, the formal hierarchy is blurred, and participants have equal rights to contribute to and benefit from the knowledge shared. Hence, the participants are encouraged to make suggestions, share their understanding, and strengthen the knowledge of themselves and the other members. In addition, the interaction and communication among the participants is the root for solutions making, innovation, and changes trigger. Furthermore, such communities consist of different participants who have different positions, backgrounds, understanding and points of view (i.e. yet they still share the common interest and concern about the CoP’s content and performance). Thus, when knowledge is shared, it is analyzed and enriched by the faithful criticism and contributions of various members. Therefore, many corporations rely on such communities to share and develop best practices and lessons learned. For example, Accenture has relied on communities of practice to improve the performance and reduce yearly operational costs by $2 million. Up to now, Accenture has had 150 communities at different stages of maturity with more than 100,000 contributed items containing more than 300,000 attachments and topics (http://kmedge.org/wp/howdo.html).

Furthermore, as CoPs have proved their outstanding contribution to the development of the corporations, it is worth to receive serious investment. An effective community is backed up by good infrastructure that facilitates the communication and information dissemination. For instance, to support the communities and project teams, Xerox utilizes the advances technologies such as intranet, collaborative virtual technologies and shared databases (Alke V., 2000).

CONCLUSION

Nowadays, with the facilitation of advanced technologies, the global competition has become tougher. To survive and success, it requires the corporations to be “smart” and flexible enough to cope with the modern unstable business environment. To be so, knowledge is the key factor. Through changing to become learning organizations, the corporations have chances to access with huge source of creation and innovation. In learning organizations, employees are stimulated to keep learning and sharing the knowledge with the others; and this helps to improve the capability of the organization as the whole. Moreover, as learning organization functions based on the close interaction between managers / supervisors and the subordinates (i.e. teacher – student relationship), it allows the knowledge to be pass on through generations.

For years, one of the most effective sources for the organization’s knowledge is the best practices. By constantly monitoring, analyzing, synthesizing and sharing the best practices, the learning organizations can improve their performance in more efficient and effective ways. However, it is important to note that, best practices are often tacit knowledge. Hence, during the sharing process, it is essential that the learners can understand the concept (i.e. know what and how), as well as be able to apply the concept into practice (i.e. do what they know). There are many methods to share best practices within an organization; yet, there still is the combination of three stages: get to know, try it out, and enhance the gained knowledge.

LISTS OF REFERENCES

Books:

Bartholomew D., Building on knowledge: developing expertise, creativity and intellectual capital in the construction professions. Wiley – Blackwell.

Blanchard K., Meyer P. J., & Ruhe D., 2007. Know can do! Put your know – how into action. California: Berrett – Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Dalkir, K., 2005. Knowledge management in theory and practice. Oxford: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.

Denning S., 2007. The secret language of leadership – How leaders inspire action through narrative. U.S: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Figallo C., & Rhine N., 2002. Building the knowledge management network. Best practices, tools, and techniques for putting conversation to work. New York: Wiley Technology Publishing

Liker J. K. & Meier D. P., 2007. Toyota talent: developing your people the Toyota way. New York: McGraw-Hill

Senge P., 1990. The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization. U.S: Currency

Journal:

O’Keeffe, T., 2002. Organizational learning: a new perspective. Journal of European Industrial Training, 26 (2).

Websites:

Adminkan, 2009. Learning organization, prominent examples of success. [Online]

Available at http://thinkahead.net.in/forum/learning-organization-prominent-examples-of-success.html (Published December 3, 2009)

[Accessed November 29, 2010]

Human Resource Development Council. Learning organization overview. [Online]

Available at: http://www.humtech.com/opm/grtl/loo/loo.cfm.

[Accessed November 29, 2010]

KMEDGE. How do communities work in leading organizations? [Online]

Available at: http://kmedge.org/wp/howdocop.html. [Accessed December 8, 2010]

Lulla S., 2009. How Xerox used knowledge management for product solutions. [Online]

Available at: http://www.dnaindia.com/money/report_how-xerox-used-knowledge-management-for-product-solutions_1256746 (Published May 18, 2009).

[Accessed December 8, 2010]

NHS Evidence, 2005. Identifying and sharing best practice. [Online]

Available at

http://www.library.nhs.uk/KnowledgeManagement/ViewResource.aspx?resID=87817

(Updated May 23, 2006). [Accessed December 8, 2010]

Powers V. J., 1999. Xerox creates a knowledge – sharing culture through grassroots efforts. Knowledge management in practice.[Online]. Issue 18.

Available at: http://www.providersedge.com/kma/km_articles_case_studies.htm. [Accessed November 19, 2010]

UNESCO. Successful projects related to poverty and social exclusion. [Online]

Available at http://www.unesco.org/most/bphome.htm. [Accessed December 8, 2010]

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