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  • September 16, 2015
  • By Jim Lee APQC's senior advisor in the KM Advisory Services
  • ViewPoints

The death of the chief knowledge officer

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Not too long ago I swatted the beehive that is the KM CKO position. And, as one might expect when doing so, the stings were numerous and from every direction. If you’re unfamiliar with my initial foray into this discussion, basically it went something like this: if the CKO role is dead, we shouldn’t lament its passing. After all, the elevator (or lift) operator is no more, and neither is the milk delivery man and yet we don’t shed any tears for that loss, do we? Well of course the role of the CKO is different than those examples so the comparison is hardly valid. However, there is still little reason to fear the disappearance of a title called the CKO.

What would you have instead you ask? The same types of titles as we’ve always had in the KM world. Titles such as KM director, head of KM, KM leader are all adequate descriptions of the responsibilities of someone in charge of a KM program. But why couldn’t we have a CKO anyway? We could—but even if we don’t, as long the authority, responsibilities, and supporting environment are created for the KM leader then the knowledge sharing and reuse that a KM program should engender has a good chance for success. That’s what I should have made more clear initially.

So what are some conditions necessary for KM success in organizations when led by a [fill in the blank title]? While hardly all-inclusive, such a list of requirements would certainly have:

  • A senior leadership that truly embraces the philosophy and strategy of expertise reuse within the organization. No lip service here; the organization’s leaders must show their personal investment in KM through individual action. A story I heard of quite some time ago provides a great example. As the story goes, the leader of a senior management team held a regular staff meeting and once when a lieutenant happily offered that he had learned something very valuable about his area of operations, the leader in turn asked the staffer: “Who have you shared this with?” When the response was “no one,” the leader quickly provided his reaction through a stern, contorted look back to the staffer. From that point on, any bold assertions of good news by staff members were backed up by ready answers to how many people they had shared the same with.
  • A governance model that mirrors any other important strategy, objective, and function that is deemed important to the organization. By implication, this also means that KM governance shouldn’t be treated in any way differently than those other important needs lest KM be perceived as “something extra” that can be shuttled whenever the whims of management change. In other words, if KM isn’t governed equally as other improvement methods are, then it will never be seen as worthy of a “seat at the table.”
  • Resources in the form of people assigned to perform KM functions to conduct change management, to educate, to train, and to support the entire organization’s knowledge sharing efforts. For the vast majority of an organization’s members, this will be the most visible evidence of commitment to KM; the daily interactions and sharing that come only with some stewarding and encouragement. Sure, in every organization knowledge sharing is going on, has always gone on, and will likely continue to go on. To the degree that such sharing goes beyond the peer-to-peer or one-to-a-few, is determined by the resources dedicated to ensuring that the newly exposed knowledge is cast to a wider audience. Anyone who thinks that this isn’t the case still believes in the mantra  of, “If you build it they will come” referring to simply providing the latest IT enablement and expecting a different sharing behavior to ensue because of that.
  • Real recognition of the value of knowledge sharing and reuse for both the individual as well as for the organization. All too often KM programs have pitched the benefits of expertise reuse to retain organizational knowledge, leaving the individuals to continue to ask, “what’s in it for me?” And why shouldn’t there be something in it for the individual to offer their expertise, or to reuse another’s experience? If organizations acquire the best and brightest, shouldn’t it be expected that those same people hold dear to what they know in order to distinguish themselves from the rest? Similarly, do the best and brightest feel comfortable asking questions of others? In real life the answer to the first question is usually ‘yes’ and to the second ‘no.’ The irony is that without the organization’s awareness, the answers to each question are actually the opposite on a regular basis (think about that one for a bit).
  • A strategy that says knowledge sharing and reuse is about making everything better: the organization’s goals are met, the members see and feel the value of their contributions or reuse, and that the long term returns of such a strategy far exceed the cost of implementing it. Basically, sharing knowledge for the sake of sharing it is a non-starter. Sharing knowledge to improve quality, reduce costs, increase innovation, improve the quality of work-life for individuals, and increasing competitiveness are but a few of the many objectives which good KM programs can aspire to. In fact, the opposite of tying KM to organizational strategy is a better illustration of the point: not showing how KM improves an organization’s lot is a quick way to kill KM as other improvement methods will surely take advantage of their alignment to organizational success.

With the above requirements (and a few more) met then, a KM leader by any title will have a good chance for success. In fact, in my experience highly successful heads of KM without the stature of CKO can be found in oil and gas (4), mining (1), pharmaceuticals (1), military (2), banking (2), manufacturing (3), and construction (1). Maybe my examples are a miniscule number in the sea of KM leaders, but their success cannot be denied and their best practices are certainly to be emulated. I wouldn’t mind being named a CKO someday perhaps, but I’d still trade that off for the conditions above when leading a KM program.

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