posted 3 Jun 2008 in Volume 11 Issue 7
The Knowledge - Brook Manville
A short paragraph giving an author credit rarely tells enough. So it was in the March issue of Inside Knowledge where Brook Manville provided an inspiring cover story on the role of KM in righting the course of the
Brook Manville has had his fair share of complicated jobs through the years – but none more complicated than explaining the path of his own career. “It’s been pretty non-linear,” he says, “but when I’ve been successful, I think it has been due to the odd combination of things I’ve done.”
He’s quick to point out “no one ever has the perfect resume to become a chief knowledge officer – what would it be? So maybe the patchwork of things I’ve done aren’t that odd, after all.”
CKO with an alias
Chief knowledge officer would describe many of his professional roles but he’s actually never had that title. The closest he came was as the very first director of knowledge management (KM) at McKinsey & Company, a major
While Brook thinks of titles as corporate fictions that attempt to describe a bundle of things that may or may not fit together, his working career has been closely linked to some kind of knowledge development or strategy. He has worked through the years as a teacher, professor, researcher, journalist, communications manager, organisational development and strategy consultant, and was once even a chief information officer.
Today, as a senior executive in the largest
“It’s always interesting to listen to how somebody else tries to describe you,” he says – “for me, it’s been unpredictable but enlightening. I was profiled in the 1980s by Tom Peters (Liberation Management) as ‘McKinsey’s talk show host’, and Stu Silverstone once profiled me as a corporate anthropologist.”
After studying Greco-Roman classics at Yale and
“I was fascinated by the world of the Greeks, their philosophy, literature, and history, and I resonated with their culture that combined rationality and ideas with the humanity of civilisation.”
Going where the action is
After teaching in university for a few years, Brook found himself looking for more ‘real world’ experience and a faster pace of work. He went searching in the world of business for an opportunity to go in a new direction.
“I was about to ‘get laundered with an MBA’ – as my college roommate once said – when somebody sympathetic at CBS Inc (a
After a few years of communications work and various research projects in the “dangerous new media called personal computers”, Brook moved into a CBS subsidiary which was launching what turned out to be the world’s first attempt to put medical information online for use by doctors.
“I didn’t know anything about medicine, but I had a feel for working with academics (physicians in fact) who were both early customers and early licensors of content. I was also one of the young ‘turks’ who knew something about the newly invented PC, and as they say, ‘in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king’.”
During his tenure at the subsidiary, Brook became acquainted with online information systems, some basics of network technology, and the strange but important world of listening and satisfying customer needs. “Way out of my comfort zone,” he notes smiling. “Doing sales, getting measured for it, and having to figure out how to close a deal.”
Build up to KM
Through a friend of a friend, Brook heard of an executive search underway for McKinsey & Company – a new ‘director of practice communications’. The consulting firm had established the position as part of a build-up for what was about to become knowledge management. The recruiters seemed to be looking for a non-traditional person – not a Harvard MBA. “It was both thrilling and flattering to have their attention, but so bizarre I turned the position down.” But McKinsey persisted and he took the job.
“Here was this high-end, elite business consulting firm scratching around to figure out how they could start to take better – and indeed strategic-advantage – of their knowledge from around the world. Sounds quaint now, but at the time, it was really an advanced perspective, even if they didn’t know exactly how they were going to do it,” Brook laughs.
Brook worked with a team of other managers and consultants and over the next few years helped develop some of the first knowledge management tools, programmes and communities of practice. McKinsey was soon written up in various business and general publications as a benchmark of the new paradigm of knowledge management and knowledge strategy. Brook himself was profiled many times for his work towards those ends.
“It was a thrilling experience,” he recalls, “working shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the smartest people I had ever met, inventing something new with the support and enthusiasm of incredibly talented and distinguished people.”
For his work on these and other projects, Brook was elected a partner, a special honour for someone who had not come in or worked as a client-serving consultant per se.
“My father said many wise things as I was growing up,” Brook remembers, “but one thing that stuck with me – and was certainly borne out at McKinsey – was that everything you learn will someday be applicable again but almost certainly not the way you might predict.”
Greek history all over again
As an example, Brook recalls some of the important discussions he had with his managing director about Athenian democracy. “I showed him the great ‘Funeral Oration of Pericles’ one day, and it started a chain of conversations with him and other partners about democratic values, organisational collaboration, and finding the balance between ideas and action. Not in a million years would I have predicted that work I did in graduate school as a classicist would serve me again in a conversation with an esteemed colleague.”
Democratic organisations became a special interest of Brook’s and he went on to develop skills and experience in organisational development, consulting with clients as a partner in McKinsey’s Organisation Practice. Some of McKinsey work also stimulated his well-received discussion and writings of workplace democracy (A Company of Citizens, Harvard Business School, 2002: with Josh Ober).
“My study of ancient democracy, coupled with the many things I learnt at McKinsey, from clients I served and then other organisations where I worked, have really convinced me there are a few enduring truths about knowledge management even as new trends and new technologies continue to evolve. I’ve written a lot of them down in things I’ve published. This is not the time to repeat them all, but right at the top is the overwhelming power of the collective wisdom of people – if managers and leaders and even colleagues one to the other – can just figure out how to help each one of us be ‘the best that we can be’”.
Brook Manville is executive vice president and director of the