posted 1 Mar 2000 in Volume 3 Issue 6
CKO - What's in a name?
As a Chartered Accountant, I have grown accustomed to the restrained enthusiasm that is the typical reaction to my job title at dinner parties. Of course, it could be worse - at least no-one responds to my profession by showing me their varicose veins or asking for advice on their back problems. But when my chairman informed me that I had just volunteered to become Ernst & Young's first Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO), I did at least assume that my social life would be transformed by a job title that would impress and excite interest. Not so. Sad to say, sniggers, incomprehension and weak jokes about taxi drivers have been the most frequent responses and prospective CKOs need to understand that guaranteed social success is not necessarily one of the consequences of taking on this new and demanding role.
In fact, for me the role is not that new since I have been Ernst & Young's UK CKO since 1996. Recently, I have also taken on the job of Global Chief Knowledge Officer and, in that capacity, I have responsibility for the 590 Ernst & Young employees who work in the firm's Global Centre for Business Knowledge (CBK). Together, we maintain the firm's knowledge management infrastructure and provide support to Ernst & Young's clients - sometimes directly but, more often, indirectly through our 85,000 client handling professionals. We operate throughout the world but our principal centres are in North America, Europe and Australia. Our core processes are illustrated in Figure 1. A brief explanation of each process is as follows:
The details above give a flavour of the CKO's job and, in particular, they emphasise that knowledge management is a support function - a means to an end rather than an end in itself. My job is to help Ernst & Young win in its chosen markets and to do this, I need to work with our various businesses, understand what they are trying to achieve and then help them achieve it through knowledge management systems and processes. I also need to champion the appropriate knowledge management behaviours and to work with our businesses to ensure that these behaviours are recognised and rewarded. However good the systems and processes are, they will never deliver sustained competitive advantage unless the culture of the organisation encourages everybody to recognise their responsibilities to work together to maintain and enhance the value of the firm's intellectual capital.
More specifically, the job description of a CKO in a major national practice of Ernst & Young defines the priority tasks in the following terms:
- Driving the local business to create or buy the right knowledge
- Co-ordinating all content creation and maintenance efforts
- Championing the implementation of the firm's knowledge management
- Sponsoring the technology initiatives required to support the firm's
knowledge management processes
- Sponsoring organisational change to create the right culture
- Communicating and marketing knowledge management internally
- Projecting Ernst & Young in the market as a leader in knowledge management
And to do all these tasks, we specify the following desired personal characteristics:
- An experienced professional with a client service background and someone
who commands the respect of senior management. The right person must
understand our business and our culture
- Technology literate and someone who is interested in (but not obsessed by
- A builder rather than a maintainer. Energetic, innovative and able to get
Tolerant of ambiguity and able to work with minimal structure
Do such paragons exist? Of course not - but we must be doing something right since Ernst & Young is acknowledged as a leading exponent of knowledge management (1). Much of this success must be attributed to the business leaders of the firm who recognised the importance of knowledge management at an early stage and who have been enthusiastic supporters of the concept ever since. It is simplistic, but unless top management understand what knowledge management is (and what it isn't) - and truly believe that it can make a difference to the business - no CKO can expect to succeed. Conversely, with the right support from management, a CKO is pushing at an open door and he or she can rely on adequate funding and, more importantly, on high level reinforcement of the requirement for cultural change that is the sine qua non of effective knowledge management systems and processes.
enough of false modesty and back to thinking about the peculiar skills
of that strange animal, the CKO. Two years ago, Michael Earl and Ian Scott
of the London Business School published a fascinating paper entitled - What on
Earth is a CKO?- and their findings were largely based on in depth interviews with
20 CKOs in North America and Europe. At that time, Earl and Scott estimated that
they were probably talking to 80% of the total population of CKOs who fitted
their particular definition - so, in its way, theirs was an authoritative and
comprehensive study. I find this very encouraging as amongst other things, they
found that CKOs were "strong people, forceful, confident, articulate, persuasive
and probably capable of effective leadership by virtue of both intellect
and personality" . (Pity about the 'probably' .) Moreover, most CKOs
were in their forties and this led the authors to infer that the individuals
'had substantial business experience' but were not people with 'more past than
future' in the organisation. Let us hope that this remains true in this fast
moving e-world and that the author does not turn out to be the exception that
proves the rule.
Earl and Scott also touch on the differences between a CKO, a CIO and a CEO and they build a model that describes the CKO as someone who is an entrepreneur, a consultant, an environmentalist and a technician - all at once. In this respect, they echo the spirit of the CKO person specification that we use in Ernst & Young and this surely cannot be a coincidence.
Of course, Earl and Scott's research paper and our own job definition were both written at a time when the role of a CKO was very new and the holders of the job were pioneers, starting a voyage of discovery to the promised land. For many of us that voyage is now well underway and, logically, the skills that are needed to manage a Global CBK of 590 people must be different from the skills required to introduce knowledge management into an organisation that barely recognises the term. Certainly, in Ernst & Young, knowledge management is an established concept and the roles of the CKO and the CBK are well understood. Consequently, my standard presentations on 'What is knowledge management and why is it important?' have long since been archived. More significantly, in the second generation of CKOs, we undoubtedly need maintainers as well as builders and steady believers rather than evangelists. However, in essence, the pace of change to our business, the never ending struggle for space on top management's agenda and the relentless pressure for innovation driven by our clients and our competitors means that we need a minor alteration to the original CKO model rather than a complete design change.
To end on a personal note, let me reinforce another of Earl and Scott's findings - CKOs have fun. In the three years that I have been doing the job, I have learned a great deal about a fascinating subject, and about the processes and hat you need to create and maintain world class knowledge management systems. I have also learned a bit more about people and about what motivates them to change - and it is the drive to embed the desired knowledge management behaviours throughout our global practice that remains our biggest challenge today. Being a Global CKO is difficult and demanding but it is also intellectually challenging, fascinating and (on a good day) immensely satisfying. So, if you ever sit next to me at a dinner party, don't expect me to be apologetic about my funny job title.
1. Our most recent success was to be recognised (for the second successive year) as one of the world's Most Admired Knowledge Enterprises in a poll of Fortune Global 500 Company executives, CKOs and leading knowledge management practitioners, carried out by Teleos (an independent knowledge management research company).
Tim Curry is Chief Knowledge Officer within Ernst & Young. He can be contacted at: