Knowledge sharing and learning in organizations

The topic of NeTWork’s 2001 workshop was Knowledge sharing and learning in organizations. The workshop was held from May 31st to June 1st at the Werner Reimers Foundation in Bad Homburg, Germany.


  • How can an organisation learn from its successes and failures, from its experiences or accidents?

  • How can we prevent the loss of knowledge caused by intensive employee turnover or retirement?

  • How can implicit knowledge be shared with colleagues and newcomers?

  • To what extent can ICT give the solution to these problems?

These are the type of questions many organisations face. The issue has grown in importance since information and knowledge are becoming the central assets in information society, both in service organisations and in traditional industries. Organisations want to learn from their mistakes and successes, they try to prevent the wheel to be reinvented anew, they want their employees to create new knowledge on the basis of experience. The problem has increased not only because the demand for information and knowledge has grown, but also because phenomena such as shorter product cycles, fierce competition and job-hopping prevent organisations to rely on traditional means for knowledge transfer. In the German nuclear industry for example, the first generation of employees since first nuclear power plants were put into operation is now about to retire. Because of this management and staff in the nuclear industry are worrying about the loss of know-how and of know-why.

In the last ten to fifteen years the solution has been looked for in the development of large scale databases, expert systems, data-mining and other forms of ‘knowledge technology’. The enormous potentials of ICT were expected to provide means for capturing, storing and distributing all the knowledge available. However, research studies have shown what many already suspected: the systems can help to store and make available large quantities of information. But information is not knowledge and availability does not guarantee actual use of what is available. Knowledge is experienced and interpreted information, knowledge implies expectations and attitudes. Knowledge, moreover, can be explicit, but also be implicit, tacit. A project leader’s knowledge concerning a project he has finished contains all the experience with the tools and the clients and the competition, why it took so long to finish, why he finally chose a certain strategy, how he succeeded in persuading the client, etc. This is the type of knowledge a colleague might want to hear if she is in a comparable position, and which the project leader is quite willing to tell her. But he loathes to put the whole story in a data-system, for many reasons: it takes too much time, he does not exactly know what to write, he certainly does not like to write down his mistakes into a large and impersonal database. And particularly because he has found out that he himself has hardly benefited from the material others have put into the system.

The above-given analysis does not deny the value of information bases. Systematic inventories of accidents or near-misses have provided insights into the magnitude of certain safety threats or hazards. Systematic sales data have given insights into preferences of clients, etc. But sharing knowledge concerning ways of working, solving problems or dealing with clients requires not only providing bare information but also exchanging views and feelings.

Knowledge management implies managing all stages of the knowledge cycle in a learning organisation. This cycle has three parts:

  1. internalization: individual knowledge-capturing, through collecting and appropriating external or internal (organisational) knowledge; e.g. through collecting client reactions, attending (internal or external) training courses, or reading organisational manuals.

  2. externalization: exchanging and sharing knowledge with others, for instance through meetings, inter-shift transfer, master-apprentice relations; in this stage knowledge is not only transferred but also co-created.

  3. objectivation: collective acceptance of this shared knowledge and codifying it into organisational knowledge bases, such as intranets, manuals or training courses (which can then again be used for individual internalization).

Studies have shown that the availability of powerful ICT applications has often seduced management to focus on what is called a “stock approach”: emphasising the organisational storage of information on the basis of individual employees placing information in databases and expecting that others will be able and take the time to consult these databases; it tries to shortcut objectivation by leaving out a proper process of externalisation. Much less attention is given to the ‘flow approach’, i.e. the exchange of (also tacit) knowledge through the exchange of experience between individual people. This externalisation may result in the development of organisational knowledge, but may also be kept to the people concerned.

N.B.: This issue is not only relevant for intra-organisational knowledge sharing but also in inter-organisational settings, such as the sectoral or industrial wide accident-inventories or near-miss databases.

It is the aim of the workshop to bring together researchers and practitioners from a wide range of areas, including the safety domain. The aim is not to focus on technical systems but on the question how organisations can learn, i.e. how knowledge can be shared and preserved in such a way that it can be used for both preventing the wheel to be reinvented and creating new knowledge. We are looking for evidence of success and failure, and for methods for increasing the probability of success.

Questions discussed

The workshop led to discussion on the following aspects:

  • What information and knowledge is relevant and should be preserved and shared in that context?

  • What are the various forms and mechanisms through which information and knowledge can be stored and exchanged?

  • What are criteria for success of storage and sharing?

  • How can ICT systems support these processes, without dominating and perhaps even smothering them?

  • Who should be active in stimulating and managing the processes concerned?

  • What are favourable and unfavourable conditions for successful storage and sharing?

  • Is there a difference between learning and sharing negative items (e.g. accidents) and learning and sharing positive items (e.g. innovations)?

Workshop organizers

  • Erik Andriessen (TU Delft)

  • Babette Fahlbruch (TU Berlin)

Workshop participants
Participants in the 2001 NeTWork workshop


The papers presented during the workshop and the following discussions led to the production of a book, titled How to manage experience sharing: from organizational surprises to organizational knowledge.

Andriessen, J.H.E., & Fahlbruch, B. (Eds) 2004. How to Manage Experience Sharing: From Organisational Surprises to Organisational Knowledge. Amsterdam: Elsevier. ISBN: 978-0080443492.