posted 14 Mar 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 6
Death of a CKO:
The evolving nature of knowledge leadership
As the knowledge-management movement gained momentum in the 1990s, organisations looked to the appointment of a dedicated chief knowledge officer as a means of preparing their organisation for the challenge presented by the knowledge economy. The role has since evolved, and though many companies remain loyal to the concept, others are questioning whether the limitations of the CKO model outweigh its advantages, and are exploring alternative models of knowledge leadership. By Simon Lelic
In 1991, Leif Edvinsson was appointed director of intellectual capital (IC) at Skandia, a giant Swedish insurer. Fortune magazine later described the position as “the world’s first CKO job”. In the years that followed, chief knowledge officers, knowledge managers and directors of knowledge management began to emerge in organisations from every sector, mainly in Europe and the
There is no doubt that the role has changed considerably since Edvinsson’s initial appointment. A significant component of his job, for example, was managing and measuring knowledge as a ‘thing’ – identifying the intangible and assigning to it bottom-line units of value through an innovative but essentially two-dimensional system of accounting. Edvinsson’s own approach to IC has since matured significantly, and these days, in response to the charge that early KM initiatives were too mechanistic, CKOs are far more focused on influencing the processes that surround the creation and flow of knowledge. As Michael Devlin, CKO at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), puts it, “The primary responsibility of a CKO is to understand the flow of information and ideas in the organisation, and between the organisation and key external stakeholders and clients.” Similarly, at the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR), chief information officer Enrica Porcari, who is charged with leading the organisation’s KM programme, focuses on developing an overall framework that guides knowledge management, and on developing an infrastructure that supports a knowledge-sharing culture. “Collaborate, create and communicate: this is the motto of our programme, which spans the 15 research centres that form the CGIAR,” she explains.
The evangelising role forced on many early CKOs, though still important, has also diminished, at least in more forward-thinking organisations. At law firm Baker & McKenzie, for instance, and according to the organisation’s global director of knowledge management, Jason Marty, preaching about the importance of KM is no longer necessary. “Our firm understands the need for an integrated and sophisticated KM programme,” he says. “It’s less talk and more action now, as we become totally focused on demonstrating success and achieving tangible results.” There is less call, it would seem, for CKOs whose main responsibility is to sit in on board meetings and occasionally remind other executives that knowledge is important, too. The knowledge economy is a reality, recognised by commercial organisations, public-sector bodies and governments the world over. Some would question the balance of rhetoric and direct action, and it is obviously important that the knowledge agenda maintains visibility and momentum, but the modern CKO is focused, above all, on enabling their organisation to turn the promise of knowledge management into reality. As Edna Pasher, president and CEO of Edna Pasher PhD & Associates, suggests, “The bottom line for a CKO is to create an organisational environment that enables knowledge work.”
The determination of a mule
But while the responsibilities of the position have evolved, the characteristics that a successful CKO must exhibit have remained fairly constant. For all the progress that has been made in educating business leaders and employees as to the importance of knowledge, and of devising ways to enable knowledge-based working practices, most CKOs will encounter a degree of cynicism sooner or later. Therefore a CKO needs to be, in Devlin’s words, “A practical-minded person who can cut through the theory and explain ideas and the benefits of working in new ways in everyday language, and in a manner that highlights the direct benefits to the individual.” Enthusiasm is vital, as is a thick skin. Pasher emphasises the need for a good CKO to love people, and to be willing to serve people in creating an environment that will allow them to happily do knowledge work. In addition, and according to Melissie Rumizen, formerly of Buckman Laboratories and now senior knowledge strategist at SAIC, “A CKO must have patience, determination a mule would covet, a predilection for action and an insistence on good results.”
Assuming a chief knowledge officer is able to muster and develop these qualities, there is every chance they will be able to make a powerful and dynamic contribution to the development of knowledge-focused working practices within their organisation. At Baker & McKenzie, the director of knowledge management is responsible for setting the Knowledge Services team’s global strategy and approach, supervising the activities of the group, establishing and managing concrete goals, and serving as the organisation’s KM ‘ambassador’, both internally and externally. Without someone to assume these responsibilities, says Marty, the KM programme at Baker & McKenzie simply would not fulfil its potential. “Accountable leadership, together with active participation in the overall strategic and business-planning cycle of the firm, is critical,” he says. “In a complex organisation like ours, knowledge has so many owners and competition for resources is so great, that a meaningful KM programme can only succeed with a strong leader at the helm. The ‘knowledge’ in a knowledge initiative will come from the practitioners, but someone needs to be setting the strategy and providing accountability for the investment.”
Of course, appointing a CKO is no guarantee of success. Regardless of how vocal or impassioned the leadership is, no KM initiative will thrive unless it generates organisation-wide buy-in. And to this end, making a single person accountable for KM within an organisation may create more problems than it solves. As Porcari says, “Sharing knowledge is not only my job – it is everybody’s!” The danger is that, if employees see that the organisation has assigned responsibility for knowledge sharing to one position, they may assume they have no reason to get involved. Devlin, for example, acknowledges that being perceived as the sole person responsible for the sharing of knowledge at the IWMI is a major challenge he faces in his role. Baker & McKenzie has also recognised the danger. Marty and the KM team therefore work hard to embed the concept of knowledge sharing throughout the organisation. “Knowledge-sharing objectives are required in the business plans of each of our practice groups,” Marty explains. “The success of the KM programme is the responsibility of those at the heart of our business – our lawyers.” If KM is not institutionalised, he acknowledges, it will not succeed. (See also ‘Knowledge leadership at Baker & McKenzie’ sidebar.)
What’s in a name?
Organisations therefore face something of a dilemma. Strong leadership for a KM programme is vital, as is enterprise-wide commitment to knowledge sharing. A CKO may provide the former, but inadvertently undermine the latter. So what are the alternatives? According to Jela Webb, former head of KM at NatWest Bank and author of Ark Group’s KM for SMEs: Solutions and Strategies (www.ark-group.com), it is possible to generate strong leadership for knowledge management even without a dedicated CKO-type figure. This may come from the CEO or indeed anyone else in a senior position, she says. “What’s important is that you have someone driving the initiative forwards, someone who is respected by staff and who leads by example. If this isn’t happening, then the chances of success are slim.” Leadership may also be shared and distributed. As Rumizen points out, at BP, a KM-focused community of practice was instrumental in driving what is widely acknowledged as a benchmark KM programme. Pasher agrees that self-organisation can work, suggesting that a steering committee staffed by volunteers can be just as effective in leading KM efforts as a CKO. Both Pasher and Rumizen concur with Webb, however, that some form of high-level sponsor or advocate is crucial to generating organisation-wide buy-in.
At Renault, the absence of a CKO certainly doesn’t appear to have undermined the impact of knowledge management. Jean-Marc David forms part of a central KM team at the company. He recognises that Renault still has some way to go with KM, both at an operational and a governance level, but he is adamant that the KM programme has not suffered through the lack of a CKO at the corporate level. “It is always difficult to imagine how things could have been different,” he says. “Definitely, a CKO would have boosted projects and provided more visibility to KM, and more resources would probably have been allocated. On the other hand, because the maturation process was longer at Renault, and since KM has been nurtured by operational departments themselves, the adoption of KM is probably stronger and projects more deep-rooted than if they had been ‘imposed’ from outside.” David points out that the KM initiative at Renault would have suffered a great deal more if, as has happened at so many organisations, the CKO position had been created and then abandoned.
KM therefore continues to be managed at a business/operational-unit level within the organisation. Projects are driven by individual business departments and are targeted at contributing to broader objectives and overall strategy. As David suggests, in this respect managing knowledge is not the objective in itself, but rather a means to achieve strategic goals. “From our experience, I am convinced that there is no better support for a KM project than that offered by a business manager who has understood that capturing lessons learnt, or replicating best practices, or managing the core know-how of his domain contributes to his own business objectives. There is no better way to lead a KM project, promote the concept to middle management and monitor its progress.” This idea echoes a suggestion made by Dan Holtshouse, director of corporate strategy and de facto knowledge leader at Xerox. “An alternative to the appointment of a CKO-like position is an initiative that is important to the organisation that requires KM-type activities, for instance a new knowledge-sharing system to share competitive intelligence or market insights.” In this way, says Holtshouse, KM-based processes underpin essential organisational operations and capture the imagination of people within the company even in the absence of a CKO-style leader.
The flipside of the situation that has evolved at Renault is that KM is stronger in some departments than in others; likewise, there is no natural leadership when it comes to implementing enterprise-wide KM initiatives. This is where David’s KM department comes into play. “The role of the KM department is twofold: delivering projects to satisfy particular business needs, and ensuring coherence among projects in terms of solutions, which means organisation, methods and tools,” he explains. “From the beginning, coherence has been an important issue in our job. We have been working on ‘foundations’ such as infrastructure and policy for document management at the enterprise level, and common collaboration solutions between Renault and its partners. We also capitalise on KM projects to re-use solutions for know-how management, best-practice replication and so on from one department to another.” And in order to ensure coherence in organisation-wide KM activities, a lead department is usually identified, selected according to its natural fit with that project. Thus Renault is able to compensate for the absence of a chief knowledge officer without compromising the encompassing nature of its KM programme or incurring the risk that, were a CKO position to be created and then scrapped, the entire KM initiative would fall by the wayside.
Ultimately, as Webb points out, it boils down to doing what’s right for your organisation. Both Renault and Baker & McKenzie, for example, have opted for different approaches to knowledge leadership that in the end have produced the same result: a fully functioning, institutionalised KM programme. What the Renault case shows is that distributed leadership can be just as effective as a dedicated CKO in instilling a knowledge-aware culture and working practices within an organisation. More important, though, is what the two programmes have in common: in both organisations, KM is recognised and actively promoted as being an integral part of the business strategy, capable of adding tangible value to core operational processes. Without this level of enterprise-wide commitment, no knowledge-management programme will succeed. The CKO may not be a thing of the past, but the perception that appointing one person to this type of position will be enough to prepare the entire organisation for participation in the knowledge economy certainly is.
SIDEBAR: Knowledge leadership at Xerox
“The KM programme at Xerox has passed through several phases since we officially launched a KM focus in 1997. It went from a start-up initiative, to an internal practice focus, to an external offering through KM services and software tools, to an institutionalisation of the best parts of KM, which for Xerox is knowledge sharing. I provided the central leadership during those years as a director in the Corporate Strategy Office. Over the past couple of years, I have continued to provide a central role as mentor and ‘fellow’ for KM in Xerox, but the various divisions do not need any more help on the basics. Knowledge-sharing practices have been instititionalised.
“However, KM is still alive in Xerox through our increasing interest in high performance workplaces, the challenge of how to continually raise the value of work from our knowledge workers, and what aspects of Xerox expertise around document technologies can help with these issues. I am helping the company think through some of these issues, and I am thought of as ‘chief knowledge strategist’ in this role, although I am formally still director of corporate strategy.”
Dan Holtshouse, director of corporate strategy, Xerox
SIDEBAR: Knowledge leadership at Baker & McKenzie
“Baker & McKenzie is a complex organisation, with 3,000 lawyers spread across the world. Our global approach to knowledge management must therefore take into account both our geographic footprint and the matrix structure of our firm (office and region versus practice). We structure our programme around our 12 global practice groups, which allows us to concentrate efforts across jurisdictions in areas that best support our work for large, multinational clients.
“Practice groups have dedicated knowledge officers and professional support lawyers, whose efforts are focused on providing legal precedents and know-how, and leading group-specific projects. These practice-group professionals are also part of a broader Knowledge Services team, which I lead as global director of knowledge management. This group sets strategies and manages broader KM policies, standards, projects and systems. Although we are distributed across projects and practice groups, as well as geographically, we work to a common strategy and annual plan, and are consistent in our tools and methods.“As director, I report to the chief operating officer and a committee led by a member of our Executive Committee (our board equivalent).
I am responsible for the overall success of the KM programme across practice groups and jurisdictions. By structuring our efforts around global practice groups but still working as a single team, we are able to incorporate the best practices from each group into our overall strategy.”
Jason Marty, global KM director, Baker & McKenzie
SIDEBAR: Knowledge leadership at Renault
“Renault has no CKO, but is still very active in terms of KM. Though there is no overall programme leader as such, at Renault we see leadership and overall coherence of actions as being critical to the long-term success of knowledge management within the company.
“Most of the KM projects that have been launched during the past five years are managed at the business/operational level. These projects are driven by the business department and focused on contributing to their objectives and strategy. In this respect, managing knowledge is not considered an objective per se, but as a means to achieve broader business objectives.
“The role of the KM department in the organisation is twofold: delivering projects to satisfy particular business needs, and ensuring coherence among projects in terms of solutions, which means organisation, methods and tools. From the beginning, coherence has been an important issue in our job. We have been working on ‘foundations’ such as infrastructure and policy for document management at the enterprise level, and common collaboration solutions between Renault and its partners (including Nissan). We also capitalise on KM projects to re-use solutions for know-how management, best-practice replication and so on from one department to another.
“As far as the coherence of objectives is concerned, it is the responsibility of the management in a particular department to ensure this. Some departments – very few actually – have appointed a knowledge manager who is specifically in charge of co-ordinating KM initiatives.
“Enterprise-wide initiatives pose another issue with regards to the coherence of objectives. When a particular department has the legitimacy to drive the project across the enterprise, it will do so. When the project is not linked to a specific function, the broader B2E (Business to Employee) and B2B (Business to Business) programmes can play this role. This is the way the Employee Portal and Collaborative Tools projects are managed, for example.”
Jean-Marc David, knowledge-management team, Renault