How can effective knowledge management strategies enable continuous learning?

“Knowledge management will never work until organizations realize it’s not about how you capture knowledge but how you create and leverage it.” 

–Etienne Wenger

In February of 2003, the space shuttle Colombia broke apart while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all 7 crew members aboard. Debris from the disaster was spread across hundreds of miles. The 84,000 pieces that were recovered are now stored in the Kennedy Space Center as not only a tribute to the brave men and women who gave their lives in the pursuit of knowledge, but arguably, the importance of managing knowledge itself.

To the profound disappointment of the organization, it was discovered that there were many striking similarities between the Columbia incident and the previous explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. The official report concluded that “NASA has not demonstrated the characteristics of a learning organization.”

While the stakes may not be quite so high for many of the projects we are involved in, the principle remains the same: the failure to learn from our experiences—especially our mistakes—can be incredibly costly. Coming to this awareness at NASA was no doubt a painful process, but the realization sunk in. Following the Columbia disaster, a number of initiatives were implemented to improve how NASA was creating and leveraging knowledge across the organization. They were determined to stop making the same mistakes twice.

What counts as knowledge?

It will be useful to align on what we mean by knowledge, as there are multiple definitions to consider. For our purposes here, we will draw from the definition provided by Brent N. Hunter in his book The Power of KM: Harnessing the Extraordinary Value of Knowledge Management:

“Knowledge is understanding gained through experience. Knowledge can be gained from ourselves or from others; we do not need to have a direct experience to gain knowledge.”

Knowledge is commonly divided into two categories: explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge.

Explicit knowledge is that which can be recorded and shared, such as that documented in books or other forms of media, as well as that delivered in conversations or presentations, etc. Explicit knowledge allows us to learn from the experience of others.

Tacit knowledge is that which cannot be easily described or shared. One way to conceptualize tacit knowledge is that we know more than we can say. These are the intuitions, hunches, muscle memories, and subtle nuances we come to grasp through our own direct experiences.

Through the effective management of knowledge, we can add considerable value by helping both individuals and the organization as a whole learn from their own experiences, as well as the experiences of others. In doing so, costly mistakes can be avoided and performance gaps can be closed to achieve the results we are aiming at.

How do we effectively manage knowledge in an organization?

In The Knowledge Manager’s Handbook, Nick Milton and Patrick Lambe identify 7 key components of knowledge management:

  1. Connecting people through communities and networks
  2. Improved access to documents
  3. Knowledge retention
  4. Creation and provision of best practices
  5. Learning from experience
  6. Innovation
  7. Provision of knowledge to customer-facing staff

Here we’ll look to unpack each of these 7 key components and explore how they integrate into the larger picture of supporting continuous learning. First, we’ll highlight the fifth principle of leading continuous learning:

Principle #5

Continuous learning is facilitated by the practice of creating and sharing knowledge.

Connecting people through communities and networks

These times we find ourselves living and working in have been called by many the Network Age, for obvious reasons. Technology has connected us on a global level, where the sharing of knowledge and experiences throughout our networks has become the norm.

The challenge for learning leaders is leveraging this new reality, and the new tools that enable it, to effectively disseminate knowledge in a way that actually moves the needle in closing the performance gaps that drive meaningful results. The fear is reasonable: that the attempt to do so will turn into a source of wasted time and energy.

A foundational strategy for knowledge management (KM) is the development of Communities of Practice (CoPs). In their widely-referenced book Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge, Etienne Wegner, Richard McDermott, and William Snyder define a CoP as follows:

“Communities of Practice are groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis.”

Following the Columbia disaster, for example, a key part of NASA’s strategic response was to establish an Engineering Network Community of Practice. This community focuses on collecting, organizing, and making accessible knowledge artifacts such as stories, lessons learned, case studies and best practices.

Communities of Practice can take a number of different forms. Some are internal to the organization while others connect members of different organizations around a particular area of interest or discipline. Some are more formal or institutionalized, while others are more informal and without official support from an organization.

While CoPs can provide a number of functions, from organizing formal workshops to collecting best practices, there are a couple of key factors that distinguish them from other types of groups such as company departments. First and foremost, they have “fuzzy” borders. Participants are free to move in and out, or linger on the edges as what Wegner calls peripheral participants. Second, the key function of a CoP is to create, develop, and share knowledge, as opposed to a product or service. Third, these communities are held together by a self-organized passion for growing in a particular area or discipline. In this sense they are not permanent fixtures, but arise and fade away with the interest and needs of those who are participating.

As learning leaders, we can help facilitate the development of such communities in a number of ways. For example, we can provide resources that support individuals through the process of defining the “domain” of the community, establishing formal roles and responsibilities, providing governance structures and recommended guidelines, as well as providing training and ongoing performance support for specific roles.

Improved access to documents

CoPs can also play an important role in the creation and management of documents, though in some organizations there may be a more centralized function for this task. There are of course many tools to enable effective document sharing, which we will not get into here as the technological landscape is always changing.

In designing and building such systems, including creating the documents themselves, considering user experience (UX) is critical. We must carefully imagine how others will engage with the system. When and where will they need access? What types of devices will they be using? Will they be in a rush, trying to find something very specific in the flow of work?

By putting on our Designer hats, we can create knowledge systems that allow users to navigate intuitively and effectively to find what they need, when they need it. This often includes using searchable tags, categories, and a clean user interface that balances simplicity and functionality. In many cases, it also includes creating documentation that is responsive and concise to facilitate usability on mobile devices and in a time crunch.

Knowledge retention

There are a couple of key aspects related to retention: one, to support individuals to retain knowledge by providing on-the-job or just-in-time resources that help to reinforce prior learning. When too much emphasis is placed on formal training and an individual’s capacity to recall information, knowledge often fails to transfer effectively.

Second, there is the challenge of retaining the knowledge of individuals who leave the organization. This represents an important function and challenge for KM as this knowledge, which is often largely tacit, is very valuable and if lost, very costly (or in some cases impossible) to replace. A common strategy is to conduct some form of an “exit interview,” which focuses on extracting critical knowledge from an employee as they are on their way out the door.

While exit interviews are arguably a good idea, we could also make the case that alone they do not make for an ideal strategy to retain the tacit knowledge of experienced employees leaving the organization. There are a couple of good reasons for this. First, the process of converting tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge (where it can be effectively shared) is not a simple one. As mentioned, we naturally struggle to articulate the subtle nuances of a given practice. In many cases our ability to navigate such nuances is largely a product of “unconscious competence,” developed over time and through experience.

Second, an employee on their way out the door is rarely incentivized to do the work necessary to effectively unpack their experience and identify the tips, tricks, and practices that will be valuable to others. In some cases, there may be tensions that lead individuals to willfully withhold these insights.

A far better strategy involves converting and capturing this knowledge on a continuous basis. This can take multiple forms, but fundamentally we must provide opportunities and incentives for individuals to share key insights as they go. These insights should be organized and packaged in a way that allows others to find them when they need them, as well as providing some direction in how to best apply them on the job.

Creation and provision of best practices

A valuable part of KM involves the continuous curation of best practices. Again, developing communities of practice around specific domains can be an effective way to distribute this ongoing task throughout the organization.

As learning leaders, we can look to provide a structure around this process. For example, we can create templates for the documentation of current best practices. We can also provide training and support resources to those in key roles within CoPs to facilitate this process. When set up correctly, this process can feed back into performance management systems to update capability frameworks, informing individuals of current best practices as they regularly reflect on their own performance. In this way, such insights become more visible and actionable.

An important factor to consider, however, is how practices evolve over time. As we’ll explore in more depth in a future article, when facing more complex tasks, which is increasingly common in the modern workplace, we find ourselves in a situation where no “best” (or even “good”) practice exists. Rather, the right course of action is considered “emergent”—it requires an agile or experimental mindset, prepared to learn quickly through our experience and adjust our course based on arising insight. As we learn through this experience, many practices will become stabilized, moving from “emergent” to “good” to “best.” Others will become invalidated and expose gaps. Embedding this process into our KM systems is an important challenge for the modern learning leader.

Learning from experience

Along with the creation of communities of practices designed to capture and organize best practices, NASA developed a “Public Lessons Learned System” to help the organization better learn from its own experience. This is a useful example because unlike other similar systems, it is open to the public and provides great insight into how such a system might be structured.

Lessons Learned, as at NASA, are typically short documents that target a particular task and provide cautionary tales, recommendations, and sometimes brief instructional materials designed to help others avoid past mistakes (or “near misses”) and increase performance. These documents are organized into a searchable database so that users can quickly find relevant lessons in the flow of work.

Once again, communities of practice can provide an effective structure for capturing and organizing lessons learned, which can integrate with current best practices. Work teams can also be equipped with tools and processes for feeding such systems. For example, leaders can be provided with templates for leading After Action Reviews (AARs), or a similar type of post-project (or post-project-phase) reflective process designed to capture key insights and lessons learned.

When there is congruency across the organization with regard to such processes, inter-departmental experiential learning is enabled through shared systems and languages. Yet in many cases, this is a process that begins within individual communities and spreads outward as the concept is proven, especially in larger organizations with more siloed decision-making processes. As learning leaders, the logical place to start is within our own teams. This not only helps facilitate our own learning, but provides a platform for supporting others as we lead by example.


Knowledge management is not only a fundamental part of continuous improvement and learning, but also a facilitator of breakthrough innovation. We can see how these two components are connected. Arguably, innovation is a product of incremental progress punctuated by sudden leaps—the latter is made possible by systems that support the former.

From the 10,000 foot view, enabling innovation is about creating environments where ideas and perspectives can bump into one another and integrate in ways that we can’t predict. Communities of practice provide a good example of a container for such interaction—the combination of Current Best Practices, Lessons Learned, social learning platforms, and interactive events provides fertile ground for new thinking to emerge.

There are important cultural forces at play which will affect an organization’s capacity to innovate. We wrote about the “5 Cs,” or core values of a continuous learning culture here. These include curiosity, courage, collaboration, creativity, and commitment. Cultivating these as shared values is a critical part of building an innovative organization where individuals are empowered and motivated to ask the questions and freely share the ideas that drive the creative process.

Of course, these cultural elements have important implications for knowledge management in general. The success of any KM initiative will depend on creating an environment where individuals  feel safe to share. Such a culture is shaped by many factors, such as regional cultures, industries, and perhaps above all, the example set by leadership. If a leader is not willing to share their own mistakes and lessons learned, or take the risk to offer up unpolished ideas that may miss the mark, others are unlikely to do so themselves.

As learning leaders we must embody these core values as fully as possible. We can then look at supporting other throughout the organization to do so.

Provision of knowledge to customer-facing staff

A common challenge for many organizations is equipping customer-facing staff with the skills and knowledge they need to effectively represent the company and its products or services. This challenge is often exacerbated by high turnover and the need to quickly onboard new team members. Knowledge management plays a critical role in supporting performance in such roles, where individuals often feel overwhelmed by the need to communicate large amounts of information.

Balancing formal onboarding and training with performance support is an appropriate strategy for such roles. This may include tools such as job aids, checklists, or other types of just-in-time resources designed to be used at the point of need. Instead of dumping this information on new team members and expecting them to retain it all (which they won’t, leading to potentially costly mistakes as they learn through their experience), training can focus on building awareness of and skills for using the tools provided. When done well, this can reduce onboarding time, improve both employee and customer experience (improving retention of both), as well as improve performance while reducing expensive mistakes.

The process of creating and updating such tools is a challenge for learning and development departments, especially when the information is constantly changing with new products, prices, etc. Here again CoPs can play a critical role by distributing the workload throughout the organization with individuals who are closely familiar with their domain. Such decentralized systems are much better equipped to adapt to continuous change—our role as leaders, then, shifts to supporting the process of building such systems and supporting those who become responsible for running them.


Knowledge management (KM) plays a critical role in supporting continuous learning within an organization. By developing systems for capturing, organizing, and distributing valuable knowledge, we can help our teams better learn through their experiences and the experiences of others. As this “informal” experiential and social learning, arguably, makes up an estimated 80-90% of workplace learning, KM has the potential to dramatically increase an organization’s capacity to effectively adapt and innovate in a rapidly changing market.

To reiterate, authors Nick Milton and Patrick Lambe identify 7 key components of knowledge management:

  1. Connecting people through communities and networks
  2. Improved access to documents
  3. Knowledge retention
  4. Creation and provision of best practices
  5. Learning from experience
  6. Innovation
  7. Provision of knowledge to customer-facing staff

We can develop integrative strategies that include cultivating communities of practice (CoPs), collecting best practices and lessons learned, and providing performance support resources to support our teams to continuously learn and improve performance as they go.

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Tom Palmer