Learning’s Not as Important as You Think

Book or tree of knowledge concept with an oak tree growing from an open book and letters flying from the pages

What’s the secret to success? What’s that one central thing that forms the foundation of a person or company’s ability to be successful?

There are myriad answers that apply in different circumstances — the right timing, good luck, hard work, perseverance, etc. — but the real answer goes deeper. No matter how we look at it, individual or corporate success is predicated by one common thing: knowledge.

What we think is framed by knowledge. What we do is also framed by knowledge. Our very existence as human beings is wrapped around a continuous, never-ending acquisition of knowledge that informs who we are and how we behave in life and in the workplace.

But here’s the problem: Chief learning officers have spent decades focused on “learning.” In fact, learning is the middle word in the title. The stark contrast between learning and knowledge is quite clear when we look at a definition of each word:

  • Learning — the process of study, studying, teaching, education.
  • Knowledge — understanding, comprehension, grasp, command, mastery.

In other words, learning is centered on the delivery of information: how to get it to the employee using a process. In the corporate world, that translates to classroom-based instruction, a learning management system or blended approaches.

Knowledge on the other hand is about acquiring, sustaining, growing, sharing and applying information to achieve an organizational impact. If one can measure knowledge impact, even better. See the difference?

It’s time that CLOs made knowledge the focus of their efforts. It’s about making sure employees have the right information in their heads and at their fingertips on a moment’s notice so they can think the right things and do the right things to be successful. 

Elevating knowledge in the enterprise means a big shift for learning and development professionals. It’s no longer about just scheduling training, figuring out the right content and course completions. CLOs need to think about how to enable three key things to advance the knowledge game: pull vs. push, user-generated content, and measuring behavior change.

1. Pull vs. push.How many times do CLOs need to hear that forcing employees to sit through scheduled training sessions as a rule, is just plain ineffective? How about taking a page from Google, and making information and knowledge so easily accessible to the employee that they know within two clicks and 10 seconds they can get what they need? It’s totally possible. Employees shouldn’t have to wait to acquire key knowledge until the organization is ready to deliver it. Otherwise employees will search out what they need to know on their own. The challenge is to make sure the get information from the right source. 

2. User-generated content.CLOs have traditionally been the content gatekeepers. It’s time to wake up and realize that employees are often the best teachers. Why not let them actively participate in sharing what they know? What better way to encourage engagement with knowledge? Not only will it help to keep content fresh and up-to-date, but also employees will value learning more. Don’t be afraid to let the crowd create, curate and police themselves. Learning leaders may be surprised by the results.

3. Measuring behavior change.Knowing how and when employees are using knowledge effectively to get the intended business result has, until now, been nearly impossible. But tools and technology have evolved to the point where leaders can tie specific information they need employees to remember to their demonstrated behaviors, reinforce information automatically when needed and tie those behaviors to business outcomes. The modern CLO needs to focus on measuring the application of knowledge, not just course completions. This requires partnering with the business to make sure the right knowledge is acquired, and then target the behaviors.

It’s time CLOs started thinking about knowledge, and not just learning. Knowledge is the key to unlocking success. Maybe we’ve got a new executive title in the offing: how about chief knowledge officer? It has a nice ring to it.


Carol Leaman is the CEO of Axonify Inc. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com