Lucidea’s Lens: Knowledge Management Thought Leaders Part 19 – Amy Edmondson

Stan Garfield

Stan Garfield

September 08, 2022

Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, a chair established to support the study of human interactions that lead to the creation of successful enterprises that contribute to the betterment of society.

Amy is a thought leader in several areas that are important for knowledge management: organizational learning, cross-boundary teaming, innovation, and eliminating fear in organizations. She is a pioneer and champion of psychological safety, and studies people, projects, and organizations to uncover the secrets of successful teaming.

Amy’s work on psychological safety has been groundbreaking. Her blueprint on creating a fear-free culture is essential, she argues, for organizations to be able to thrive in today’s knowledge economy in which new ideas and critical thought are essential to success. She has also explored the concept of teaming in dynamic work environments and demonstrated how cross-organizational teaming can impact the building of smart cities.

Her research examines psychological safety and cross-boundary teaming within and between organizations. She is particularly interested in how leaders enable the learning and collaboration that are vital to performance in a dynamic environment.

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Is Yours a Learning Organization? with David A. Garvin and Francesca Gino

Building Blocks of the Learning Organization

Building Block 1: A supportive learning environment.

An environment that supports learning has four distinguishing characteristics.

1. Psychological safety.

To learn, employees cannot fear being belittled or marginalized when they disagree with peers or authority figures, ask naive questions, own up to mistakes, or present a minority viewpoint. Instead, they must be comfortable expressing their thoughts about the work at hand.

2. Appreciation of differences.

Learning occurs when people become aware of opposing ideas. Recognizing the value of competing functional outlooks and alternative worldviews increases energy and motivation, sparks fresh thinking, and prevents lethargy and drift.

3. Openness to new ideas.

Learning is not simply about correcting mistakes and solving problems. It is also about crafting novel approaches. Employees should be encouraged to take risks and explore the untested and unknown.

4. Time for reflection.

All too many managers are judged by the sheer number of hours they work and the tasks they accomplish. When people are too busy or overstressed by deadlines and scheduling pressures, however, their ability to think analytically and creatively is compromised. They become less able to diagnose problems and learn from their experiences. Supportive learning environments allow time for a pause in the action and encourage thoughtful review of the organization’s processes.

Building Block 2: Concrete learning processes and practices.

For maximum impact, knowledge must be shared in systematic and clearly defined ways. Sharing can take place among individuals, groups, or whole organizations. Knowledge can move laterally or vertically within a firm. The knowledge-sharing process can, for instance, be internally focused, with an eye toward taking corrective action. Right after a project is completed, the process might call for post-audits or reviews that are then shared with others engaged in similar tasks. Alternatively, knowledge sharing can be externally oriented—for instance, it might include regularly scheduled forums with customers or subject-matter experts to gain their perspectives on the company’s activities or challenges. Together, these concrete processes ensure that essential information moves quickly and efficiently into the hands and heads of those who need it.

Perhaps the best-known example of this approach is the U.S. Army’s After Action Review (AAR) process, now widely used by many companies, which involves a systematic debriefing after every mission, project, or critical activity. This process is framed by four simple questions: What did we set out to do? What actually happened? Why did it happen? What do we do next time? (Which activities do we sustain, and which do we improve?) In the army, lessons move quickly up and down the chain of command, and laterally through sanctioned websites. Then the results are codified by the Center for Army Lessons Learned, or CALL. Such dissemination and codification of learning is vital for any organization.

Building Block 3: Leadership that reinforces learning.

Organizational learning is strongly influenced by the behavior of leaders. When leaders actively question and listen to employees—and thereby prompt dialogue and debate—people in the institution feel encouraged to learn. If leaders signal the importance of spending time on problem identification, knowledge transfer, and reflective post-audits, these activities are likely to flourish. When people in power demonstrate through their own behavior a willingness to entertain alternative points of view, employees feel emboldened to offer new ideas and options.

Stan Garfield

Stan Garfield

Please enjoy Stan’s blog posts offering advice and insights drawn from many years as a KM practitioner. You may also want to download a free copy of his book, Lucidea’s Lens: Special Librarians & Information Specialists; The Five Cs of KM from Lucidea Press, and its precursor, Proven Practices for Implementing a Knowledge Management Program. And learn about Lucidea’s Presto, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus software with unrivaled KM capabilities that enable successful knowledge curation and sharing.

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