Valuable Informal Relationships

20 June 2008

The most important knowledge in an organisation is tacit, and is shared when employees do things together.

That's why informal relationships are positive, asserts Cathrine Filstad at BI Norwegian School of Management.

Organisations are concerned with knowledge.  They would like to stand out as knowledge companies and knowledge intensive organisations, where employees have, and continually develop, necessary and unique knowledge.

In order to achieve their goal of knowledge, they focus on learning and how learning results in new knowledge.

“But are we on the right path here?  Do we have the necessary knowledge about what learning is and how to accommodate learning in organisations?” challenges Associate Professor, Cathrine Filstad at BI Norwegian School of Management. She is researching learning and knowledge development and organisations.

A New Perspective on Learning

In an article in the popular science magazine, Magma, Filstad presents a new perspective on learning, based on the idea that learning and knowledge development are continuous processes in an organisation's daily life.

“The most important knowledge in an organisation is tacit,and cannot be expressed through language,” asserts Filstad.

Personal

Tacit knowledge is typically personal, context-specific, and often anchored in experiences, ideas, values, and emotions.

Learning and knowledge development happen through solving challenges, communicating with those involved, observing how others behave, and gaining personal and common experiences.

Knowledge has become a question of know-how, knowing how to apply knowledge in practice.

Sharing Tacit Knowledge

According to Filstad, we need to question the traditional approach to learning and knowledge as individual cognitive processes.

She warns organisations against believing that they address their knowledge development needs simply by sending employees to courses.

“Learning happens in social situations, as know-how when solving challenges, by observing and communicating with colleagues, and, not the least, by having the opportunity to put knowledge into practice.  This doesn't normally happen at formal courses,” she says.

Courses have their role in learning, but we must consider the object of the course.

“If the goal of course participation is to bring new knowledge back to a practical work situation, then we have to follow it up, not the least by ensuring further development in the organisation, to ensure that knowledge is transferred to know-how and practical application,” emphasises Filstad.

Situational Learning

This new perspective on learning forces focus back on the organisation and what happens as a result of learning, knowledge development, and knowledge sharing.

“This entails, among other things, that managers must emerge as facilitators for good learning arenas in the organisation and integrate this as part of the workday,” points out the BI researcher.

Formal courses and training should, according to Filstad, happen “in the situation” internally in the organisation, as much as possible, and between those facing challenges together.

We need to develop a culture based on trust, where employees see it as natural to consult each other when solving challenges, in order to share knowledge.  Here, managers must emphasise that this is a common responsibility.

Positive Informal Relationships

“Informal relationships are positive and must be encouraged,” believes Filstad, but underlines that employees must understand what type of knowledge development is important for the organisation and for individual employees.

Having access to colleagues is crucial.  This can be a responsibility individual employees take upon themselves.  Conversely, managers must be conscious of this, and initiate processes to help employees along.

It is entirely necessary that employees have opportunities to gain experiences together, to observe and communicate, to ensure that tacit knowledge is shared across the organisation.

Cathrine Filstad doesn't hide the fact that this approach and understanding of how learning happens in organisations present us with new challenges.  Both managers and employees must relate to totally new demands.

This article is based on Cathrine Filstad's article, “New Perspectives on Learning and Knowledge Development in Organisations”, published in Magma no. 1/2008 (Norwegian article).

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