In Defence of a Chief Knowledge Officer

Lately I’m increasingly convinced that without a Chief Knowledge Officer, KM is not likely to go very far in organisations. The KM function tends to be placed at mid level, obscured within a broader corporate function like Organisation Development. Seldom does it report directly to a senior manager. Even when it does, the senior manager is probably looking after several other functions, and is seldom a KM professional, ie without a good understanding of what KM is and what it really entails. There are many drawbacks to this situation.

Firstly, many things that a KM team does must involve the senior management. One of those things is cultivating a knowledge sharing culture. You cannot change an organisation’s culture without getting the most senior people to set examples. But getting senior people to do this requires the power to influence and personal power of persuasion. You can’t do this sandwiched somewhere within a hierarchy. You need to be pretty darn close to the top of it.

Secondly, all organisational change like reorg and downsizing have a direct impact on an organisation’s knowledge resources. The KM function must be placed so as to be able to preempt those changes and respond accordingly, rather than be one of the last to know. Too often we hear about organisations that try to retain knowledge only when it’s too late. To avoid that you need someone to be sitting where he or she will be the first to know of imminent changes, and then act accordingly.

Thirdly, even in a steady state, an organisation should constantly be keeping an eye on the management of knowledge resources at a strategic level. Where do we get our competitive intelligence from? Do we have the knowledge resources to carry through our business strategies? If not, what are we doing about it? If yours is a knowledge-driven business, you can’t afford to leave those important questions to people who only get an occasional peek into the boardroom.

Fourthly, KM is never just about managing knowledge but also about managing human resource, information technology, etc. Most organisations position KM as just another one of those corporate functions, giving the team no power over the others. Time-wasting politicking arises as a result. A CKO with jurisdiction over those corporate functions will sidestep a lot of turf wars and silos.

Will a KM Steering Committee suffice, if the appointment of a CKO is not possible? It depends on how much time and energy the committee can give to KM. KM requires constant attention, while steering committee members usually already have full-time jobs. Should we assign one senior manager to be the CKO? Only if he or she commits to learning about the science and art of KM.

KM has been around long enough for many practitioners to learn what works and what doesn’t. My hope is that those practitioners will stay on in their organisation long enough to rise to the top, where they will acquire ascribed power to influence for real change. Alas, most knowledge managers have short-lived career, resulting in not many qualified CKOs around. In my next post, I’ll blog about what qualifications I think a CKO should have.

8 Comments so far

Yigal Chamish

I believe that one of the obstacles of appointing a CKO is Knowledge managers themselves...At first, they are trying hard to position themselves and their role within the organization, where no one really understand what it is all about. I fully agree that implementing KM successfully, need visionary leadership at high levels.

Posted on August 27, 2009 at 09:45 PM | Comment permalink

Bill Proudfit

CIOs have many of these same problems.  In many medium and even large corporations the CIO reports to the Finance Senior VP.  I’ve even seen Finance appoint one of their own to head up the IM function.  This makes for an interesting situation with the CIO having only a passing knowledge of information management issues. 

Records management functions in corporations are almost always buried inside Legal, HR, Tax or more recently Compliance.  This causes many of the same problems you describe for KM.

Part of this is caused by the insistence that KM is different from RM and both are very different from IM.  Organizations are highly unlikely to have CIO, CKM, CRM roles.  They will pick one and that is normally CIO.  Sure, there is some difference between these areas but they overlap so much it seems to me that one solution is to stop bickering over nomenclature and recognize that IM/KM/RM all need to sit together in a corporation.

Posted on August 29, 2009 at 12:45 PM | Comment permalink

Alakh Asthana

Completely agree with you Edgar. However, if you see organization, it is a little difficult to have find ‘full time dedicated’ CKOs. Most of the CKOs have a dual profile. Take my CKO for example – he manages KM and HR together. However it is always a blessing to have a dedicated CKO with a strong operations background, and not a mere shared services background (training, strategy et cetera). May be organizations are blind to the RoI generated by KM, and lack the perspective to have a CKO.

The saddest part is, CKOs mostly exist in large organizations (that’s what I have noticed in India). A small or a medium enterprise would never have a dedicated CKO. Strange.

Posted on August 29, 2009 at 06:57 PM | Comment permalink

Nick Milton

It’s not so much about having someone with a “CKO” title, it’s about having a senior manager with accountability for KM. This need not be the whole of their role, and it need not be in their job title, but it needs to be in their list of accountabilities and in their annual performance contract.

Posted on August 31, 2009 at 05:44 PM | Comment permalink

Alakh Asthana

The question is what works better for a knowledge driven enterprise? A manager who doubles up as an ‘add on KM practitioner’ or a dedicated CKO. People will act on actionables which are mentioned on their contract, however interest will be mitigated in value creation for KM v/s the ‘other function’.

Posted on August 31, 2009 at 06:20 PM | Comment permalink

Edgar Tan

Hi Nick

To make someone accountable for something both the organisation and that person need to understand it well first. I don’t think many organisations have reached that level of understanding of KM yet.

I’ve come across a few of those senior managers (with accountability for KM). But, in my limited experience, because KM is not their primary portfolio, and they understand so little about it, they tend not to give it its due focus. As a result, those who are supposed to operationalise KM suffer.

Posted on September 01, 2009 at 12:58 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

I have a slightly different view, I think the need for/value of a CKO role is very context sensitive, meaning sometimes it will work and sometimes it won’t. I do however believe that KM roles usually need to be structured and integrated into the organisation’s control and decision making systems for the infrastructural changes that KM needs often require. A CKO role is just one of the ways of doing that so long as that role has line management reach and influence over KM-critical functions like HR and IT.

Posted on September 07, 2009 at 11:38 AM | Comment permalink

Rajiv Deo

Knowledge management is still not being recognized as a mandatory function. KM is still not considered as an important competency in organizations of any size. This is also evident from all the discussion threads above.
In my view, this is due to the common fact that everybody has to do “KM” to do any business activity. KM is being practised without knowing or realizing maturity of KM processes. Each and every role in the organization is centered around actually doing knowledge management for every activity.
KM practioners now will be required to prove that they can add a substantial value over and above what knowledge workers are already doing. This can be done by focussing on what I call it as Knowledge Experience Management (KxM). KxM is all about improving knowledge worker’s experience of doing business.
Every organization would require a dedicated CxO to improve KxM in order to sustain and grow the business.

Posted on September 29, 2009 at 12:49 PM | Comment permalink

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