What is the difference between Organisational Learning and Knowledge Management?

What's the difference between Organisational Learning and Knowledge Management?

February 7, 2018
Clare Brown

Any newcomer to the information and knowledge management field has to get to grips with many complicated concepts and start asking a lot of questions. There is the unavoidable jargon. In order to assist information professionals and others, I have provided some definitions of current information management terms in a recent blogpost series:

This post sets out to define two relatively broad terms, "Knowledge Management" and "Organisational Learning". When you first learn these terms, it might seem like they can be used interchangeably, so why is this?

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What is Organisational Learning?

According to one book, "organizational learning (OL) is an expansive and diverse field with influences that involves sociology, psychology, philosophy, business management, and many others disciplines. While there is no one definition to this concept, the concept of organizational learning is commonly described a process of developing, retaining, and transferring knowledge within an organization". (Project Action Learning (PAL) Guidebook: Practical Learning in Organizations, 2019)

What is Knowledge Management?

According to IBM, "knowledge management (KM) is the process of identifying, organizing, storing and disseminating information within an organization. When knowledge is not easily accessible within an organization, it can be incredibly costly to a business as valuable time is spent seeking out relevant information versus completing outcome-focused tasks". (IBM Cloud Education,

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

What does the research say?

In one literature review, academics summarised the research saying, "the characteristic processes of OL are knowledge creation and knowledge acquisition, although other processes are also relevant to this field such as knowledge transfer. The current definitions of KM include the processes of knowledge generation and acquisition, which correspond to what was previously called OL historically." (21 February 2018)

This suggests that the interchangeability of terms is historic; as we all know, nothing stays the same in information management studies.

Dr Edward Rogers, the Chief Knowledge Officer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, argues 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.

Are the myths about our attention spans true?

No matter what it's called, organisations need knowledge to function

Others argue 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? Tweet us @TryVable!

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