The Difference Between Learning and Knowledge, and Why You Should Care

Written By

Carol Leaman

October 05, 2016

It’s time we had a serious rethink about “learning.” Chief learning officers have spent decades focused on it—heck, it’s the middle word in their title. But is this where the emphasis should be?

Let’s take a look at the definition: According to Merriam-Webster, learning is the process of studying, teaching, and education. It’s centered on the delivery of information; in the corporate world, that means how to get information to an employee, which often translates to classroom-based instruction, a learning management system, or blended approaches. Simple enough…

When you look closer, though, there’s a key component missing. Business success doesn’t result from learning; it results from sales, or customer service, or even just having your team get home safely after each shift. To achieve these outcomes, employees need to have the right knowledge. Learning is simply the means of acquiring knowledge, and that distinction is key.

The process of learning is irrelevant if no real knowledge is acquired

Too many times, employees get pulled into training sessions where, over the course of a week, they’re taught a million things. But, during the course of this information overload, does the learning transfer happen? The reality is that we now know the answer is “no.” Most learning decays over time and ends up being a waste because it’s not designed to effectively create long-term knowledge.

So what is knowledge, then, really?

Going back to our trusty Merriam-Webster, knowledge involves understanding, comprehension, and mastery. It’s about acquiring, sustaining, growing, sharing, and applying information to achieve an organizational impact. If learning is a recipe, then knowledge is the cake. You need to have knowledge in order to perform at your best; knowledge is what truly drives the right job actions and, in a corporate setting, ultimately helps companies achieve their objectives.

This may be the most important distinction your company makes this year

When employees don’t have the right knowledge, they can’t make the right decisions. A few incorrect choices might not seem like a big deal. After all, everyone makes mistakes, right? But wrong actions can actually cost companies millions, even billions, of dollars each year. If you can’t get the right knowledge to your team, an endless stream of negative consequences can occur: You will have more accidents, injuries, and worker’s compensation claims. You won’t be able to achieve your sales targets. You won’t be able to improve customer service. And you won’t be able to do anything else to propel the business forward. That’s because what your employees know, or don’t know, has a huge impact on your company’s ability to achieve success. If employees don’t have the knowledge they need, they simply won’t be able to help the business achieve its potential.

On the flip side, learning leaders need to be able to justify their learning investments. Think about how much money organizations spend every year on learning: In 2014 alone, companies doled out an average of $1,229 per employee on training, which translates to almost $15 million for corporate enterprises with more than 10,000 employees. That’s a huge expense for programs that likely aren’t worth the investment. Most companies are banking on training to move the needle for them as a business. But considering what employees can actually remember from their training sessions—which we now know is about 10 percent one month later—significant progress is just not going to happen without taking learning a step further.

Is it time to introduce the chief knowledge officer?

Assumptions that learning equals knowledge are wrong most of the time. The vast majority of companies today just dump all of this learning on employees, hope they’ll remember everything, and then never follow up with it. There’s no repetition, no reinforcement that goes on. All of this learning doesn’t actually help to create knowledge, and it doesn’t help business outcomes, either. Instead, learning needs to become a catalyst for knowledge—the way to build expertise in employees to ensure they can get to a place where they understand, retain, and apply information on the job that will impact business results.

This isn’t an overnight fix. Knowledge creation needs to be a continual process that happens by weaving learning into each work day, and that adapts according to individual strengths and weaknesses. If we want knowledge to become the focus of the CLO, maybe it’s time for a title change. Chief knowledge officer, anyone?

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