posted 30 Sep 2004 in Volume 8 Issue 2
Leading by example
Organisations are constantly exploring ways to keep pace with KM developments and one way they can do this is to ensure that their leaders are truly knowledge savvy. Many organisations however, are still unsure about what constitutes a knowledge-conscious leader. Rebecca Cavalôt investigates ways in which successful KM leadership can keep companies one step ahead of their competitors.
In a Knowledge Management news story published in June 2004, we revealed that despite 58 per cent of UK organisations employing coaching and training to cultivate their future leaders, over 50 per cent of those same organisations rated their top leaders as being poor at prioritising and sub-standard when it came to coaching and developing others. In the current KM climate, leadership training courses and literature aim to shape the next generation, as well as to give current leaders telling insight into their own methods. Despite this, there are obvious leadership deficiencies and organisations need to identify and tackle these issues in order to stay competitive.
Organisations are endeavouring to create knowledge-conscious leaders in their quest to build the ideal knowledge-aware culture. Management is still perceived as the controlling element of the workforce. Robert Buckman, chairman of Bulab Holdings, sees a clear-cut differentiation between managers and leaders from a KM perspective. “Many managers want to control the flow of information and knowledge to and from their people,” he says. According to Buckman, managers often fall back on the outmoded ‘command and control’ system, which doesn’t focus on encouraging others and nurturing knowledge sharing. Wesley Vestal, knowledge management practice leader at the American Productivity & Quality Centre, agrees: “Managers ensure that one does things right, while leaders ensure that one does the right things,” he explains.
Vestal also believes that the most important role a leader can play is a supporting one, encouraging employees to share their ideas and re-use proven practices wherever possible. Victor Newman, former CLO of Pfizer and visiting professor in KM and innovation at the Open University Business School, believes that successful leaders differ from managers in that they focus on the opportunity space rather than the operational space that often consumes management. “The role of the leader in a KM context is to keep pushing the envelope in terms of performance, direction and form,” says Newman. Leaders must be aware of the benefits of KM in order encourage and support knowledge sharing among staff.
According to both Buckman and Vestal, the personal traits of a successful knowledge leader include the flexibility to adapt to new tools and processes; effective and influential communication skills to enable the facilitation of strategic discussion; and a strong sense of collaboration within the workplace. “KM leaders must have the self-confidence to put trust in others and accept their ideas,” says Dan Holtshouse, director of corporate strategy and knowledge initiatives at Xerox. “Listening with humility and candour and understanding the power of the social mind” are key criteria for an effective leader, according to John Seely Brown, former chief scientist of Xerox. Overall, leaders must learn to nurture employees, a concept that may not be a natural instinct for some in management.
To combat this, leadership-development programmes are emerging and are being championed as a way to facilitate a broader knowledge-sharing culture. “The vision of the ‘superstar’ leader is being replaced with the leader as navigator, team member and ally,” says John Fleenor, director of knowledge management at the Center for Creative Leadership. But, although he sees these educational programmes as an invaluable starting point, he believes that leaders need to reinforce and follow up what they have learnt when they return to the workplace. Vestal agrees that formal training can greatly improve a KM leader’s performance and lists training in change management, knowledge mapping and familiarity with Six Sigma principles as skills that can maximise success if they are effectively transferred.
However, convincing organisations that these formal training initiatives will produce guaranteed results is one of the biggest tests that KM leaders face. Improving knowledge creation, sharing and re-use is hard to justify in terms of ROI. “Business today demands evidence that a KM project is paying for itself,” says Holtshouse. Similarly, Vestal complains of a continued wariness of intangible assets. “Many managers still feel most comfortable dealing with the assets and resources they can see, feel and touch, and don’t yet understand how to quantify the importance of improving knowledge creation, sharing and re-use,” he says. He suggests that leaders link KM activities to business processes and outcomes more directly in order to convince organisations of their value.
Leaders also need to convince employees to share their knowledge to begin with. Widespread knowledge-sharing reluctance is the greatest challenge that KM leaders face. Buckman feels that adapting to new technologies is the easy part; it is the cultural change that is the challenge. “How do we as individuals get comfortable with sharing our knowledge with others, someone we have never even met?” he says. Leaders must trust innovators, providing them with all the knowledge available in order to push the business forwards. As Newman puts it, “Greater love hath no functional head than he or she who gives up their assets to help the innovator do something new.” However, Buckman points out that this may be more difficult in the KM sphere as a legacy of failed IT implementation has led to an institutional distrust of the language of KM. He suggest that KM leaders build knowledge seeking, capture, re-use and tools into the business strategy and processes that produce the organisation’s products and services.
Buckman believes that the best way to tackle the cultural challenge is to build trust within the workplace. He suggests that practical methods such as free access to the internet and educational opportunities, as well as generally treating staff with respect, are good starting points. Fleenor agrees that giving employees more freedom to work laterally across groups will enhance organisational learning and sharing. Vestal advocates sharing best practice and research with organisations worldwide and recording KM assessments. In this way, companies can begin to measure organisational outcomes and the intangible benefits of KM, tackling the ROI issue. “Ultimately, this is a journey and not a project,” says Buckman. “Cultural change is a continual process.”
Despite the fact that organisations are giving their employees educational opportunities, leadership education, development and training courses are failing would-be leaders. Fleenor sees one of the reasons for this as the narrow-mindedness of some managers with regard to who should actually receive training. He feels that in the US and UK, it is still predominately white males that receive key leadership-development opportunities and believes that organisations must be more inclusive in their efforts to develop leaders from a diverse variety of backgrounds if they are to tap into the potential lying latent in their companies. In addition, Vestal believes that organisers of formal training courses need to encourage collaboration between attendees, developing teams and connections. “By tapping into communities of practice and making best-practice models and experts easily accessible, future leaders can learn from the best of what is happening in the real world, in addition to course work or training materials,” he says. This is critical for leaders who want to capitalise on what they learn when they return to the workplace.
There is still an inherent reluctance to formulate a collaborative working culture and Buckman believes that this is again down to the command and control structure that is still the method of choice for top management in some organisations. “It is a system that does not encourage the building of relationships of continuity and trust, but of control,” says Buckman. “Risk is minimised.” Fleenor suggests challenging staid hierarchies by building collaborative networks, including communities and networks of practice, so that workers can share both globally and across departments. “Without these communities, isolation or total diffusion will occur, which will not allow an organisation to develop its knowledge-sharing capabilities,” he says. Vestal agrees that for KM to move forwards, a cross-functional approach is essential. He feels that if KM leadership is tucked away in one particular business unit or marginalised function, it will quickly lose and influence and, in all likelihood, KM initiatives will fail. An organisation needs to operate as one entity in order to deal effectively with change.
Many organisations are endeavouring to implement networking initiatives, but the key is to convince organisations of the benefits of creating knowledge-conscious leaders and how these efforts can create competitive advantage. The American Productivity & Quality Centre has been researching KM best practice for over a decade. For Vestal, the crucial factors that facilitate effective KM leadership are streamlining processes, fostering an environment of seeking and sharing knowledge, and driving value based on these processes. There has been increased investment in leadership training and Holtshouse believes that successful knowledge-conscious leadership tends to be expressed in intellectual assets and knowledge-sharing initiatives. Essentially, these programmes earn their keep by providing improved customer support and Fleenor agrees that the best measure of leadership development is an increase in bottom-line results. The value of knowledge-conscious leadership initiatives is illustrated in an organisation’s speed in successful innovation. “The faster you can innovate around the needs of the customer, the greater the distance you can put between you and the competition,” says Buckman.
From a KM perspective, distancing yourself from the competition is just part of the journey that leadership is embarking on. The journey must be a continuous one if organisations are to reap the benefits of training leaders to be knowledge-conscious. As Seely Brown puts it, “The leader must manifest the practices and joys of knowledge creation and sharing.” Leaders need to encourage and guide innovation if they are to excel in the continuous creation of new products, services, processes and practices. Only then will knowledge-conscious leaders have the evidence needed to convince sceptics that knowledge awareness is part of the enterprise evolution that will keep them afloat in the current economic climate.
Robert Buckman, Chairman of Bulab Holdings, firstname.lastname@example.org
John Fleenor, Director of knowledge management, Center for Creative Leadership, email@example.com
Dan Holtshouse, Director of corporate strategy, Xerox Corporation, firstname.lastname@example.org
Victor Newman, Former CLO, Pfizer Research University, email@example.com
John Seely Brown, Former chief scientist, Xerox Corporation, firstname.lastname@example.org
Wesley Vestal, KM practice leader, American Productivity & Quality Center, email@example.com