Vintage Bank Vault (Brook Ward/

Death of the knowledge bank

Reda SadkiLearning strategy

The complexity of the networks in which our organization operates is scaffolded by a corpus of mostly-unwritten, tacit knowledge and ‘ways of working’ that we learn mostly from our peers. It would be impossible to justify time to study even a fraction of the written corpus of policies, procedures, regulations and other instruments of bureaucracy that provides the legal and operational framework – and even that would not provide access to the tacit knowledge that we need. So we learn as we go from our colleagues. In some contexts, we may proceed by trial and error, making adjustments when we receive negative feedback.

When asked where we learn such knowledge, sources may remain apocryphal. We seldom reflect on where, when, how, and from whom we learn.

Relegating learning about operational complexity to the informal domain may seem to present a risk for the organization. In practice, we find that we do tend to learn what we need, when we need it as we work. It would be costly and time-consuming (i.e., impossible, as stated above) to achieve the same ends through formal training. Instead, the organization stands to benefit from recognition of the value of what is learned informally and learn to trust its validity.

The organization’s mission and mandate – as well as its ability to deliver on these – is the subject of much internal discussion in both the central organization (“headquarters”) and the network.

What do we do if a formal review finds limited change management capability in-house to keep pace with the rapid change in the external environment? We know that this is a critical gap because of the increased competition in the humanitarian and development world between the traditional service providers and new providers who are looking to enhance value-for-money offerings. Worse, other significant gaps may be found in our ability to drive strategically-guided programs on the ground, leading to diluted service delivery.

Such diagnosis leads to a refocus on knowledge production, circulation or exchange, but often misses the point that learning is what brings knowledge to life. The knowledge bank model is bankrupt: accumulation (or transport) of knowledge is a costly dead end, because the nature of knowledge itself has changed. It flows and becomes obsolete faster than ever. It is process, not product. Quality is in the ‘pipes’ that connect networked knowledge. Learning is in the network. That is why it is necessary but insufficient to retool in order to move knowledge throughout the world.

Why do organizations confronted with the same problem so consistently fail to consider that learning is knowledge-as-process? The blog posts in this series on learning strategy have consistently highlighted both the centrality of informal and incidental learning and its lack of recognition and near-invisibility to the organization. The more highly developed the ‘pipes’ of informal and incidental learning – or the more politically volatile the environment–, the less likely it becomes that the value of what is learned outside of formal contexts will be visible or acknowledged. And what cannot be seen is, of course, unlikely to be taken into consideration in times of change or reform.

Photo: Vintage Bank Vault (Brook Ward/