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What is the difference between Organisational Learning and Knowledge Management?

people having a meeting with coffee and notepads

A newcomer to the knowledge management field like myself - whether you are entering the KM field or entering a field that will necessitate working with information professionals - has to answer some very big questions: who are information professionals, and what do they do?

The first stage of understanding the role of the information professional in a law firm or other organisation is to come to grips with terminology. However, the knowledge management field has a range of terms that can be difficult to parse. A good place to start is with some of the broader terms: Knowledge Management and Organisational Learning.

When you first learn the terms Knowledge Management (KM) and Organisational Learning (OL), it might seem like they can be used interchangeably. And if you’re looking for a difference, the common definitions of each term don’t clarify things much, either. Let’s start by reviewing these definitions:

Organizational learning: the process of creating, using, and sharing knowledge within a corporation or comparable enterprise1

Knowledge Management: the process of capturing, distributing, and effectively using knowledge (Davenport 1994)2

These definitions make KM and OL sound virtually the same. So why use different terms?

Dr Edward Rogers, the Chief Knowledge Officer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, argues3 that the distinction is largely academic, and most people at the practical level choose whichever term they think will appeal most to management.

However, Rogers describes the primary difference between KM and OL as being one of approach: Organisational Learning starts with a focus on teams and organisations that need to become smarter, which depends on individual learning. KM starts with a focus on knowledge itself, trying to see past the individual and look at the knowledge that’s contained inside their brain - but in this case, too, the individual is a necessary tool for accessing that information.

Others argue4 that KM enables Organisational Learning. Organisational Learning becomes possible because KM has embedded knowledge into all of the organisation’s processes. This perspective positions Organisational Learning as the goal, and Knowledge Management as a method of achieving that goal.  

In other words, organisations must be able to learn in order to achieve their business goals, and in order to learn, they must have solid KM.

Although this distinction may not really influence the day-to-day operations of Information Professionals, it’s one that’s worth understanding, because both Knowledge Management and Organisational Learning must be achieved in order to meet the business goals of the organisation. A wide range of terminology - and even job titles - can contribute to the obfuscation of what info pros actually do. Clarity about what info pros do to help an organisation meet its goals, and clarity about how they do it, will help everyone in the business recognise the value of its Information Professionals.

What do you think - is the main difference between OL and KM one of approach, or are they complementary? Tell us in the comments below or Tweet us @TryVable!


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  1. Weber, G. (2016) Organizational Learning is a Key to Solving 21st Century Issues, Vanishing Point
  2. Koenig, M. E. D. (2012) What is KM? Knowledge Management Explained, KM World
  3. eClerxservices. (2012) Difference Between Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management, YouTube
  4. King, W.R. Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning, 3 Annals of Information Systems 4,
Topics: Productivity Work smarter Knowledge management Organisational learning