The reason for this is that there is a demographic, economic and social “perfect storm” that has been brewing for some time. Between 2005 and 2020, a “war for talent” will create a labor shortfall in the tens of millions of people. As a result, the best talent will be changing jobs and companies at an increasing rate leading to a “brain drain” at many large firms. Additionally, demographics such as baby boomers retiring at historic rates, fewer prime-age workers coming into the work force and an increasingly knowledge-based economy supply the ingredients for the evaporation of corporate know-how. The art and science of selecting, developing and retaining top talent will become a competitive advantage in the coming years for those organizations that master them.
This article examines distance education and training, knowledge management and how the strategic, systematic linking of the two would create more value for large companies. It focuses on rethinking the organizational learning structure and processes to better “develop” the work force, something that every company must improve to ride out the perfect storm described above. After briefly describing the current state of distance learning and knowledge management, the most valuable benefits and common challenges of executing this merger of learning functions will be explored. Also, examples of companies that have made progress in these areas will be examined.
Much has been written in recent years about the critical role of the “knowledge worker” in the 21st century and why leveraging intellectual capital is so crucial for large organizations to thrive. If this is true, companies will want to do everything they can to create teaching, mentoring and learning opportunities for their people. Linking distance education and knowledge management is one place to start.
On-the-Job Training Goes Mainstream
Over the past half decade, there has been a steady migration within large firms toward a learning strategy that relies heavily on technology to assist in the analysis, design, development and delivery of corporate learning. This has led to a plethora of opportunities for large firms to reduce their overall training and education costs, while often at the same time improving the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the training. For organizations like SBC Communications, First Union Bank, Ford Motor Corp., Hewlett-Packard and many others, distance learning has proven to be as effective and efficient as traditional instructor-led training, sometimes more effective and efficient. Two important questions deserve attention: Could distance education and training be enhanced by linking it to other organizational learning areas such as knowledge management through structure, process or technology; and, if so, how can this be accomplished? Before addressing these questions, what follows should paint a picture of the knowledge management function and how it contributes to organizational learning as a whole.
If We Only Knew What We Know
According to a recent Harris poll, a knowledge management strategy appears to be what most people working in large organizations want and need. In companies with 1,000 or more employees, more than 500 professional, managerial and technical knowledge workers were asked to respond to the following statements:
- There are people in my company who can help me do my job better (67 percent agreed).
- I don’t know how to find these colleagues (39 percent agreed).
- Work is often duplicated because people are unaware of each other’s work (60 percent agreed).
- Opportunities to innovate are missed because the right people do not work together (54 percent agreed).
- Wrong decisions are regularly made because employee knowledge isn’t effectively tapped (51 percent agreed).
Why has it been such a challenge for companies to share corporate “know-how”? Two of the biggest reasons are the focus on technology itself and the fact that so many knowledge management initiatives are led by the IT group rather than the business leaders who stand to benefit. Technology is an enabler of knowledge management, not knowledge management itself. Collecting information from employees, organizing it in a database, advertising its availability and sitting back to see what happens does not work. Until the discipline of knowledge management is focused on business goals as opposed to IT goals, it will never be as effective as it could be.
The Value of Sharing Tacit Knowledge
Picture a technician who performs a task until it’s second nature, or a facilitator who, after a few hundred sessions, can shift the energy of a group without speaking a word. Both of these people, whether consciously or unconsciously, are converting external information to “tacit” knowledge, bringing together body and mind by practice. Tacit knowledge is know-how embedded in people’s minds. It is information put to productive use and made actionable. In contrast, explicit knowledge is static and can be documented and housed in a database or repository for future reference. The problem is that explicit knowledge is often not as rich as tacit knowledge, and therefore it is often not as valuable in terms improving individual performance.
Distinguishing between tacit and explicit knowledge is pertinent to the topic of linking distance learning and knowledge management, primarily because the ultimate objective of organizational learning is to help to improve individual, team and company performance. How does this get done? One of the most important ways is by converting individual knowledge into organizational knowledge, and this occurs by systematically and thoughtfully nurturing people to share, collaborate and unleash tacit knowledge. This is very difficult to do if organizational learning functions are fragmented or have a “silo” effect or if technology enablers are difficult to use and lack integration. However, there are firms that have had a vision of one integrated organizational learning system paying dividends, and their stories are told below.
The Avanade, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Aerotek Cases
Several organizations that have made the decision to link distance learning and knowledge management have experienced and have shown positive results from their efforts. While most of the impact has been measured anecdotally and qualitatively, it is convincing nevertheless.
At Avanade, the No. 1 integrator of Microsoft enterprise solutions, Kate Guersch has developed a continuous learning system that incorporates instructor-led virtual training, self-study, on-the-job experience and knowledge sharing. Called “aKM,” this system enables users to seamlessly acquire knowledge and skills formally and informally. For example, one of Avanade’s more recent aKM training courses is Exchange Server 2003 Troubleshooting. This is a 40-hour, instructor-led virtual course for a Microsoft product. After using the product to help a customer improve its Exchange infrastructure, an Avanade technical consultant documented his experience and submitted the “IA,” as Avanade calls the aKM contributions made by consultants. His IA is now used in the course as a discussion tool, as well as being housed in the repository as a knowledge resource that can be accessed whenever needed.
Another firm that has made significant strides in integrating its formal learning function and knowledge management is PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC). Fran Engoron, PWC’s vice president and innovation leader for the learning and education function, recognized an opportunity in early 2000 to build a tool that would integrate e-learning, knowledge management and communications so thousands of consultants would have one place to acquire formal and informal knowledge within its six lines of business. The portal technology was called enlighten, and according to Engoron, it was a tremendous success. “As e-learning has evolved into more just-in-time, smaller ‘chunks’ of learning, it has blurred with KM,” she said. “As KM increasingly uses real-time vehicles like webcasts, it has blurred into e-learning. Ultimately, KM and e-learning can complement each other in a single application or blended solution.”
At Aerotek, part of the second largest U.S. professional staffing firm, the opportunity to design a tightly linked distance learning and knowledge management function presented itself when training & development and the center of excellence merged to become professional development in July 2002. Turnover due to attrition and promotions is about 30 percent annually for the company’s 1,000-plus sales and recruiting positions. Therefore, more than half of the recruiting force and one-third of all salespeople have less than one year of tenure. This has resulted in too few of these producers having the necessary knowledge, skills and experience to excel in their roles.
Aerotek regards this as a huge opportunity to link formal, fundamental training programs to communities of practice and the company’s repository of best practice in order to shorten the learning curve for these people. Recruiter leads and sales facilitators were selected by leadership and trained and supported by the professional development team. They are accountable for on-boarding new recruiters and salespeople and leading communities of practice. The primary objectives of Aerotek’s Shared Knowledge System are:
- Providing the fundamental knowledge and skills to perform the sales and recruiting role.
- Creating opportunities for the top 10 percent of the sales and recruiting force to teach and mentor.
- Enhancing the distance learning program with mentors, making formal learning that much more effective.
- Identifying, capturing and unleashing the collective “know-how” of the sales and recruiting force.
In short, this system has been implemented to maximize the interdependency of formal and informal learning initiatives. Aerotek professional development has applied adult learning principles and used technology as an enabler, making it easier to set free the “tacit” knowledge that exists within these functional silos.
The Beauty of One Integrated System
The three examples begin to illustrate what an integrated distance learning and knowledge management function could look like. Here are the benefits of linking these two organizational learning functions:
- Many of the activities and stated objectives for these functions are overlapping: Learning is learning. Whether it is a formal online course, an instructor-led virtual course, a person accessing a repository for an idea or contact in the firm, or participating in a community, all of these activities have one thing in common – they are learning opportunities. Why would a business leader not want them integrated to the extent that they could be?
- It makes it easier for employees to learn because of the opportunity to simplify the technology and process: Technology has become mission-critical for enabling organizational learning (i.e., portals, collaboration software, computer-based courses). However, it has been somewhat of a barrier, too, because of an over-reliance on it. By linking distance learning and knowledge management, continuous and seamless learning opportunities are created, not unlike a one-stop shop for learning.
- By implementing a system that makes it possible for communities of practice to regularly create and validate content for formal distance learning offerings, the entire organization acquires knowledge and skills that are up-to-date and will impact performance: This is clearly occurring at Avanade, where the system enables individuals to contribute to the overall body of knowledge and makes it available both formally and informally on demand. At Aerotek, recruiter leads and sales facilitators have formed tight communities where teaching, mentoring and acting as subject-matter expert (SME) is built into the role. In other words, the very best, most experienced recruiters and salespeople provide the content to the formal distance learning offerings while continually creating fresh, tacit know-how for the informal knowledge management system.
Easier Said Than Done
There are definitely challenges that arise and must be overcome if the organization is going to realize the benefits of one organizational learning system. Some of the potential hurdles of linking these two functions include:
- Lack of vision from senior management for the benefits of linking distance learning and knowledge management: Unfortunately, in what is often considered the esoteric world of learning on the part of many senior leaders, getting buy-in can be extremely difficult. Many senior managers simply do not see the long-term payoff of investing resources in organizational learning.
- Silo/territorial mentality: Turf skirmishes can also be a barrier to successfully linking these two functions. Who will have more power or final decision-making authority with a more tightly linked function?
- The extent to which the organization has committed to an LMS/LCMS platform or other collaboration software will determine the level of effort for linking these two disciplines: The current structure of the organization and where distance learning and knowledge management fit in impacts this issue as well. For instance, if knowledge management is led by IT and knowledge assets are classified differently in the knowledge management system than they are in the LMS, it will be difficult to manage the flow between the two.
- It is just plain hard work to link the two: Too often leadership is not willing to take the painful steps to plan and execute the merger of their disciplines because of the time and effort required and because there are so few success stories that set a precedent.
Leap of Faith
Today, human capital management (HCM) is fashionable jargon for selecting, developing and managing the performance of individuals with the objective of improving organizational performance. What can business leaders and learning executives do to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of these factors concerning HCM? They can take a leap of faith, and the challenge that comes with it, by creating one integrated organizational learning system that links distance learning and knowledge management. Ultimately, how do adults learn best? Where do fresh ideas, tacit knowledge and collaboration opportunities occur? The answer is, on-the-job, in the moment and from peers. Integrating the distance learning and knowledge management system is one means to this end.
Integration and simplification are the keys to getting the most out of organizational learning. Integrating and simplifying technology, process and structure creates ease of use for the employee, effectiveness for the learning professionals and efficiency in terms of getting momentum around the rewards of building a learning organization. This should also contribute to an increase in employee loyalty, which in turn would increase productivity. Successfully linking distance learning and knowledge management requires tremendous patience and resolve since any measurable payoff could be years into the future. It also demands creativity and vision since the business applications of such an integrated system are limitless. The architects of such a system must have empathy for the thousands of employees who would interface with this organizational learning system throughout their careers. At the end of the day, it is the people throughout an organization who must see what is in it for them.
Todd Wyles is director of professional development for Aerotek, the third largest professional staffing services firm in the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zane Berge is associate professor and former director of the training systems graduate programs at the University of Maryland (UMBC campus). He is widely published in the field of distance education and training. He can be reached at email@example.com.