Copyright (c) 1995 The Learning Enterprise

While learning traditionally has been thought of as a personal activity, many companies have come to realize that future success increasingly will depend on effective team and organizational learning. It is an idea that animates and informs the work of Framingham, Mass.-based Innovation Associates Inc. Co-founded by Peter Senge, author of the well known book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, this consulting firm deserves much credit for Corporate America's growing interest in the subject of enterprise-wide learning. As Senior Consultant at IA, Richard Karash presently is helping an array of clients become "learning organizations." It is his belief that collaborative technologies such as groupware can play a critical role in these efforts. "Communication, cooperation and sharing are essential elements in the learning organization, and if groupware can support these, then it will contribute to organizational learning," he says. Still, he notes that some groupware advocates are promoting groupware technology primarily as a way of sharing best practices and existing knowledge. As he sees it, "there is much more to organizational learning -- and much more could be supported by groupware." The most significant benefit the technology offers is a means of "marshaling energy and human spirit to create new works and new capacities," he adds. Karash, who previously held executive positions at high tech companies involved in decision support and artificial intelligence, now is actively engaged in efforts to incorporate information technology into IA's consulting work. In fact, he has created a Web site and Internet discussion group for individuals interested in organizational learning <http://world.std.com/~lo/>. Britton Manasco, editor of The Learning Enterprise (TLE), spoke with Karash about the keys to successful implementation of groupware and the significant opportunities it offers the modern organization.

TLE: What is a "learning organization" and why is there so much interest in the concept?

KARASH: A learning organization is one in which, at all levels, people are continually expanding their capability to produce the results that they really want to create. We contend that this comes from two different needs. On one hand, organizations have a tremendous need these days to increase their performance. The minimum acceptable performance barriers are moving up at a pretty significant rate and what is being called upon today from most organizations would have been viewed as extraordinary against the standards of a few years ago. This holds true very obviously for industrial organizations, but also for other kinds of organizations. So, the concept is about capturing the intelligence at all levels of the organization in order to achieve remarkable performance. The other side of the equation, from our point of view, is about the people involved. In our research, we asked people to tell us about the most rewarding and personally satisfying times in their lives. It's clear that learning to do something that they want to be able to do is an important element of making work really satisfying. So, to us, there are two sides to it. The Learning Organization is about achieving remarkable levels of performance, but also, about making it rewarding and satisfying for the people involved.

TLE: In his discussions of organizational learning, scholar Ikujiro Nonaka argues that "human knowledge is created and expanded through social interaction between tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge." What do these concepts -- "tacit" and "explicit" -- mean in this context and why are they important?

KARASH: First of all we need to answer the question, "What is knowledge?" Knowledge is not just about knowing facts or having a piece of information. Knowledge is about application of that information in real experience. So knowledge, for us, is the ability to do. Therefore, learning is increasing our ability to produce results. Tacit knowledge is when you can do it, but you can't describe it. Explicit knowledge is "how to" information that is put into tangible, formal language. This might be a procedures manual or the content of a training course or the briefing that a good coach would give a subordinate. Now, in this equation, explicit knowledge is always incomplete because you don't really know how to do something until you've practiced it--at least for the important things. Tacit knowledge is necessarily incomplete because it would be real hard to transfer to anybody else. The combination of tacit and explicit means that you can both do it and you can convey a substantial part to someone else who then, with practice, internalizes it. It is clear to me that organizations everywhere have a tremendous amount of tacit knowledge. This is in the heads and bodies of the workers. Organizations also have a certain amount of explicit knowledge where they have codified how to do something.

TLE: How does groupware come into play?

KARASH: I think there's a real role for groupware here in two places. First, it offers a more explicit way of passing around explicit information and knowledge. For example, a library of "how to" instructions for accomplishing variations of tasks or handling special cases. It is easy to envision groupware facilitating this process. But there are more subtle aspects to the role of groupware than that. If you think about it, in addition to looking up information, the conversations between people are really important. I am indebted to Nonaka for articulating the idea that human to human interaction really is essential in the knowledge creation and knowledge solidification process. You think about two "apprentices" trying to learn a task. They sit down and chat with each other about what they are trying, what they are learning. Even if they are not creating new explicit knowledge, the point is that players on a team are talking to each other and trying to learn what the team needs to learn. This is an important part of the human equation for internalizing the knowledge that the team has to internalize. The conversations among "masters" also are important in the enhancement of their mastery and the extension of the knowledge that they have. The conversations around the water cooler are important. It's an important part of the whole experience that really does, in subtle ways, enhance our capability to produce the results we want. And I think that one of the grand promises of groupware is to enable conversations in an extended group that otherwise would not occur. In other words, groupware is about extending the reach of warm and personal human relationships. That may not be the popular view of groupware, but I've seen remarkably intimate and effective communications occurring over e-mail systems, for example. It also is about enabling extended human conversation to occur across time zones, across economic boundaries. I think that without groupware you are really limited to geographic-based relationships.

TLE: One danger you point out is that groupware advocates will try to sell the technology on the basis of narrow and immediate benefits. Why do you think this is a concern?

KARASH: If we approach business and organizational situations in terms of "How can we implement groupware?," I think our focus is too narrow. The obvious and easily graspable benefits of groupware are not enough. And we can see lots of failures. I've been involved in some failures. If we take a larger view and focus on developing an effective organization, then, I believe, groupware has a lot to add. But if the question is "How do we convince these people to use Lotus Notes?," then I think the effort is going to fail.

TLE: Can you point to some companies that have managed to implement groupware in the ways that you describe?

KARASH: I think we're breaking new ground here. Most groupware implementations have focused on spreading best practices, not on the conversations. Some of the old ground, though, is related. My understanding of Wanda Orlikowski's work at MIT on large professional service organizations was that the implementation of groupware to support sharing and collaboration fell flat on its face when there was not a culture to support sharing and collaboration. This would be reasonably aligned with what I've just been saying. When they approached it from a different point of view--to increase sharing and collaboration--then they were more successful. I'm involved in a project right now that is tremendously interesting. The aim at a medium-sized bank is to use groupware to enable the top few hundred officers of the bank to have a more effective, strategic conversation. Except for a fairly limited network of direct working relationships and friendships, these officers only meet each other under the most structured and task-pressured circumstances: the quarterly review; the budget review; the official meetings. It just is not conducive to an extended conversation--something that could make this group more of a learning team. So our aim is to make this group more of a learning team and to facilitate more effective, strategic conversations among them. We're using groupware to do that because these people aren't in the same place at the same time. They are spread out in several states at separate offices. They just don't directly see each other face-to-face.

TLE: What do you think are the most significant mistakes that companies have made in approaching groupware as a tool or system to facilitate organizational learning?

KARASH: I think the most significant mistake is approaching it too narrowly. In my experience, small teams in the same room, using face to face communications, aren't necessarily learning teams. Given that, I really wonder how we can think that large dispersed virtual teams connected by groupware will automatically be learning teams. We must pay attention to the larger question about how learning occurs in groups and what kind of facilities and infrastructure are necessary.


1) Start with the critical business imperative and let this drive the actions. If there is not a critical business imperative then you won't get the momentum and the staying power that are necessary in order to keep a tension and keep energy on the question.

2) You must awaken the desires and aspirations of people involved and let these energize the effort. The kind of energy that flows in a group when they are doing something that they really care about is just different from the kind of energy that flows when they are doing what they are supposed to, should do, ought to do or what they are told to do. We believe that this is one of the largest overall secrets of getting more energy into teams and organizations.

3) Develop a widely shared vision for what is desired and a common understanding of the realities of the "as is" state and establish the tension between them. We find organization after organization really struggling to reduce the tension between what they want and what they have got. The tension between a dream and the reality that doesn't measure up to it is inherently productive and will help people move the ball forward. We recommend that leaders keep that tension visible and tangible in the room.

4) Explore mental models with tenacity. Whenever two people are having a battle royale that this must mean that they are talking at the wrong level. It must mean that they have a different inherent understanding of the situation or the world or the people involved. The key to getting this out is not more powerful blows, but rather a deeper conversation of why we think this and why we think that. The real question is much more about creating the environment and infrastructure in which people can continually expand their capacity. If two people were looking at the same situation or the same project with those two different views, they might have differences in the actions they would call for. It would be unreconcilable unless they got down to the inherent difference.

5) Recognize the differences in personal communications styles and accommodate them. What we have got is a world of human beings who are really quite different in their communications styles, their personal learning styles and their styles for approaching a new situation. You have a fundamental choice with groupware and, much more broadly, that you can either recognize this diversity and then help each person approach it the way they do or you can try and cram everybody into one style.

6) Work from a systemic model for how the effort will evolve successfully. Strategic thinking requires a multilayered systemic view of how things affect each other.

7) Be prepared to stick it out for long enough to get through the valleys. Any important project is going to have valleys and you better have staying power to get through them.

8) Match the process to the desired end-state. If you want a more empowered work force, then the process for getting there should not be direction from the top. If so, then the process would be inconsistent with the desired end result. There is a real prospect with groupware of having the process match the end result. If the desired end result is better conversations across the organizations, then using the groupware tool in the process of creating that is really effective. If we are going to use Lotus Notes to help a management team to communicate more effectively then we want to be using the same tool within the project team to get the project launched, designed and monitored along the way.

The article, which originally appeared in The Learning Enterprise, is copyrighted by AJ Publishing in New Oxford, Pa. (ph: 717/624-8418). The Learning Enterprise, a monthly executive newsletter, covers trends in information technology and organizational learning. For information about the publication or our forthcoming web site, please contact Britton Manasco (ph: 415/961-4106; email: BrittonTLE@aol.com).