What is the difference between Organisational Learning and Knowledge Management?

Clare Brown
March 23, 2020

A newcomer to the information and 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?

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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. Information people have their own jargon, no matter how we try to avoid it. 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. What is "Knowledge Management" and what is "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, do both terms turn off the most important people - the end users?! That is an entirely different blog post. 

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. Knowledge management 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 knowledge management enables organisational learning. OL becomes possible because KM has embedded knowledge into all of the organisation’s processes. This perspective positions OL as the goal, and KM 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 information people actually do.

Clarity about what information professionals not only help them plan and carry out their vital work, but also help an organisation achieve the best outcome for its clients. Ultimately everyone in the business will recognise the value of its knowledge and information department. 

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 https://www.tofflerassociates.com/vanishing-point/organizational-learning-is-the-key-to-solving-21st-century-issues
  2. Koenig, M. E. D. (2012) What is KM? Knowledge Management Explained, KM World http://www.kmworld.com/Articles/Editorial/What-Is-../What-is-KM-Knowledge-Management-Explained-82405.aspx
  3. eClerxservices. (2012) Difference Between Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management, YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INwclWL2N_k
  4. King, W.R. Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning, 3 Annals of Information Systems 4, http://www.uky.edu/~gmswan3/575/KM_and_OL.pdf

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