February 22, 2013

Making Organizational Learning Stick

All organizations stand to benefit from internal knowledge capture, surfacing good ideas and sharing good practices. Some organizations also fulfill their missions by engaging with external sharing across their fields or to advance learning as a whole. Whether your goals are internal, external, or both, the right combination of technology- and people-powered processes will play a part in reaching them.

By: Katie Smith Milway , Ann Goggins Gregory

Executive Summary

Henry Ford once observed, “Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” This is as true for organizations as it is for people.

Since we began researching and writing about the challenges nonprofits face to make the most of organizational learning, we have heard from hundreds of social-sector leaders on why and how they are circulating knowledge to rejuvenate their organizations and their fields. In a series of focus groups with nonprofit practitioners[1] and foundations, we found that participants were zeroing in on two questions:

  • What knowledge is useful to capture?
  • With whom will we share what we learn?

Out of our focus groups, we developed a matrix of four goals that map to knowledge capture or knowledge sharing: sparking good ideas (fostering a culture of learning); sharing good practices (greater impact, more effectively); collaborating (learning alongside other organizations); and influencing your field to multiply impact.

All organizations stand to benefit from internal knowledge capture, surfacing good ideas and sharing good practices. Some organizations also fulfill their missions by engaging with external sharing across their fields or to advance learning as a whole.

Regardless of your goals, the next question is how to proceed. Will technology be your indispensable partner from the get-go? Or do you need to lead with old-fashioned people-to-people interactions?

In the end, technology is only a platform and knowledge is most memorable when transmitted from one person to another, but the two can be mutually reinforcing. We give examples of effective blends of people and technology processes to achieve each of the four knowledge capture and sharing goals. Among the example we cite, two goals—idea generation and collaboration—lead with people, while technology often comes first to support sharing good practices and external influence.

By skillful use of technology and people-to-people interactions, nonprofits can nurture a cycle of learning and sharing that multiplies an organization’s impact in the world. That holds true whether impact is achieved by sparking good ideas, improving day-to-day practice, collaborating to achieve an end, or influencing an entire field or sector.

Getting the right combination of technology-powered and people-powered processes depends on understanding the particular strengths and limits of each, and matching those characteristics to what you intend to achieve. We’ll help you get there.

Sources Used for this Article

[1] Focus groups included discussion tables and report outs with more than 200 nonprofit and foundation attendees at the 2011 Stanford Institute of Nonprofit Management. Authors tested findings through 2012 in one-off sessions with select nonprofits and funders.


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