The subject is knowledge services, of course. And in this case specifically the critical role played by strategic learning in knowledge services, in the development of the organizational knowledge strategy, and—perhaps most important—the role of strategic learning in the overall development of the organization as a knowledge culture.
And probably at this point in our thinking about knowledge services, we are not necessarily required to define our topic. We all know what knowledge services is.
On the other hand, considering that this post is about strategic learning, one of the three specific elements of knowledge services (or, as we often put it, one of the “three legs” that support the “three-legged stool” of knowledge services), I am going to make an exception and once again begin with defining knowledge services.
As I defined knowledge services in the opening sentence of Knowledge Services: A Strategic Framework for the 21st Century Organization (Munich and Boston: De Gruyter, 2016), we generally think of knowledge services as “an approach to the management of intellectual capital.” I continue with this definition by pointing out that knowledge services, as a management methodology, “converges information management, knowledge management, and strategic learning into a single enterprise-wide discipline,” and I describe its purpose as being “to ensure the highest levels of knowledge sharing within the organizations in which it is practiced.”
So it’s an “approach” to what we’re trying to do, and possibly not even a clearly established activity, if we have not yet undertaken any specific steps to get to where we want to go. For many of us, it’s just something we’re working on—thinking about—this idea that we’ll pull together information management (including technology management), KM, and strategic learning, hoping we can come up with a plan, a strategy to ensure that high level of knowledge sharing we are reaching for.
And while most of us, at this point in our work with knowledge services, are comfortable and clearly understand what we mean when we speak about information management and KM, there seems to be an almost-ongoing challenge to deal with that third component. What do we mean when we speak about “strategic learning”? In most situations having to do with knowledge services, we just don’t seem to be talking about strategic learning very much. And that’s probably because the term seems so familiar and most knowledge workers have (or should have) a pretty good idea that there is a basic connection between working with knowledge and learning.
Yet in our own defense, it’s not necessarily a connected concept, this linking between the three fundamental elements of knowledge services. For one thing, speaking about strategic learning doesn’t always connect easily with information management and KM. And that’s why I use the term “construct”—using it as a noun—as I did in the title of this post. The pretty standard definition of “construct”—when we use the word we commonly think of as a verb as a noun—is some idea, or image, or theory, particularly if the noun is complex but is made up from a number of simpler elements.
That’s what I think happens with “strategic learning.” The two words are pretty commonly known to those of us who work with (or whose work is described as working with) knowledge, but we still find ourselves not talking a lot about strategic learning, as we do with information management and KM.
And that’s a bit of a surprise. The term’s been around for a long time, certainly as long as I’ve been thinking about the influence of what we and our colleagues learn and, in particular, how what we learn affects how well we perform as knowledge workers and knowledge strategists.
So in a modest attempt to see if we can come up with some ways of defining strategic learning, let’s have a go at it. Needless to say, there are probably as many ways to describe strategic learning as there are people trying to come up with a definition (just as we find with KM). And the range of definitions varies widely, from the most academic and theoretical to the simplest and “everyday-conversation”-types of definitions, so it might be fun to look at a few.
For example, in the article on strategic learning in Stringer’s Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning (2012), Alexander Boden, Bernhard Nett, Thomas von Rekowski, and Volker Wulf break the concept into two types. If the strategic learning has to do with an individual and his or her education, these authors state that:
…strategic learning can be seen as encompassing strategies for learning on the individual level, aiming at positively affecting the learner’s autonomy. Strategic Learning means learning about learning in order to develop the learner’s full learning potential.
On the other side of the equation, if strategic learning has to do with people working together in groups or in organizations (which is what we’re usually speaking about when we refer to strategic learning connecting with knowledge services and knowledge strategy), the term is described as:
…learning of organizations about developing the strategic orientation of the organization (usually a company). The strategic orientation of an organization is understood as resembling the knowledge of its members regarding its long-term goals, as well as the strategies and means of how to reach them (i.e., the ability of self-organized work).
I’m particularly drawn to the descriptions put forward about strategic learning in a working paper written by William G. Pietersen at the Columbia Business School. In “Strategic Learning: A Leadership Process for Creating and Implementing Breakthrough Strategies” (Columbia Business School Research Archive, Columbia University, 2001), Pietersen makes the specific point that strategic learning has to do with change leadership, a subject much considered by today’s knowledge strategists. He asks how established organizations can create the capacity for ongoing adaptation and then relates strategic learning to the development of a practical leadership process built on what he calls a “dynamic cycle of four steps: learn, focus, align and execute,” all of which “build on one another and through repetition become a dynamic cycle of renewal,” Pietersen’s description of strategic learning.
It is an interesting journey Pietersen suggests, and for knowledge strategists one idea fits well with something we think about often. Taking issue with a concept put forward by some learning scholars and practitioners, Pietersen stresses that their positions tend to emphasize learning as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end. “It doesn’t tell us where to concentrate our scarce learning resources to achieve successful adaptation,” Pietersen writes, noting that “arguably this is the most critical choice of all” and a sidebar emphasizes his point: “It is not learning for its own sake, but learning strategically that is the source of successful adaptation.”
We heard it before, of course, and it is good to hear it again when speaking about strategic learning. Peter F. Drucker, our “father of modern management” and knowledge strategy inspiration brought us here back in 1969, in The Age of Discontinuity:
The search for knowledge, as well as the teaching thereof, has traditionally been disassociated from application. Both have been organized by subject, according to what appeared to be the logic of knowledge itself. … Now we are increasingly organizing knowledge around areas of application rather than around the subject areas of disciplines. Interdisciplinary work has grown everywhere.
This is a symptom of the shift in the meaning of knowledge from an end in itself to a resource, that is, a means to some result. Knowledge as the central energy of modern society exists altogether in application and when it is put to work….
So what I particularly like about Pietersen’s approach is that he frames his idea of strategic learning as a leadership skill for knowledge strategists. And it follows along again nicely, when Drucker speaks about what we refer to as strategic learning in an insightful quotation identified by Elizabeth Edersheim in her book (The Definitive Drucker, published by McGraw Hill in 2007). Edersheim quotes Drucker as saying: “Every knowledge organization is a learning and teaching organization. Knowledge can’t be taught, but it can be learned.”
And even I jumped into the fray (no surprise to anyone who knows me and knows how I feel about knowledge services). When I wrote my first book about knowledge services I found myself being pretty serious about encouraging organizations to establish knowledge value in the knowledge services workplace (the book was Beyond Degrees: Professional Learning for Knowledge Services, published by K.G. Saur and De Gruyter in 2003). It followed quite a few articles in which I had worked through the development of my knowledge services construct (there, I’ve used the word again) and in the book I found myself drilling even deeper, as we sometimes say, linking organizational knowledge value to the critical role that strategic learning plays in the process.
That book’s purpose was to propose, with my proposal being that “each organization with a knowledge services function will establish its own internal professional learning structure, and then the organization matches that structure to whatever can be offered internally or through the utilization of external professional learning opportunities.” And I went further, stating that each such organization and enterprise “will establish a professional learning function (and it is here that the term strategic learning is properly applicable),” with that function having as its mission “the provision of the professional learning products and services that the organization’s knowledge workers require.”
So that’s where we are when we talk about strategic learning and its connection with knowledge services and knowledge strategy. Does it make sense to you, as a knowledge strategist or as someone getting started in your work as a knowledge strategist?