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EXECUTIVE COUNSEL - Knowledge Champions

EXECUTIVE COUNSEL - Knowledge Champions

Maybe you first heard about it on the elevator, during a business lunch or on the golf course. Whatever the venue, at some point in the past few years you heard the words knowledge management (KM). And there's a good chance your company has since come to understand the necessity of transforming information into knowledge, a tangible asset that can be directed, quantified and eventually turned into profit.

Once companies recognise the importance of KM, the next step is to find someone to take ownership of the knowledge management initiative. Whether you call them knowledge champions, intellectual capital managers or chief knowledge officers, these drivers and architects of knowledge management are a must for companies looking to control and capture the flow of information.

Unlike other corporate initiatives, the direction of a knowledge management program is usually placed squarely on the shoulders of a single individual who often has only a few people, if any, assigned to help. With minimal staff, the CKO must rely on his or her own influence and communication skills to push the project forward. Though the role of CKO is still quite new, two recent studies have identified the personality traits and competencies that are most prevalent among CKOs. These studies suggest that it may be possible to determine whether someone is well suited to lead a company's knowledge management efforts.

An Eclectic Skill Mix

Bob Guns, a partner at Probe Consulting in Summit, New Jersey, and an associate at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP in New York City, recently completed a CKO study that analysed information garnered from 52 of the country's top CKOs. He discovered that the background of the typical CKO closely mirrors that of the traditional Japanese executive. Unlike U.S. workers, who may jump from one company to another but tend to move straight up in increasing levels of responsibility within one functional area, Japanese employees generally rotate through a number of functional areas and establish a broad base of experience within a business. Since CKOs are charged with driving the KM efforts for the entire organisation, Guns found that it is helpful when they have circulated through the company and developed a holistic perspective. Although few CKOs have identical career paths, most of them have experience in a wide range of functions. "So many CKOs are hired internally because they have this very deep knowledge of the business," says Guns.

The mix of skills necessary for a CKO is an eclectic one-and one that's hard to find, in Guns' opinion. In the early going, the CKO needs to be able to energise the organisation and function as a cheerleader to build momentum behind the KM initiatives. He or she also needs vision, the change management skills to move the company in the direction of that vision and strong interpersonal and communication skills to spread the KM message throughout the company.

The ability to withstand a multitude of pressures-a universal requirement for executive positions-is particularly important for KM leaders. A CKO faces opposition from both ends of the corporate ladder: the CEO's demands for quick, visible results and the employees' natural resistance to change. Though knowledge management deals with subjects that are not directly linked to a company's fiscal performance, such as cultural and behavioural issues, Guns discovered that all the CKOs he interviewed approached them from a strongly business-oriented perspective. "None that I interviewed felt that they could walk down the KM pathway without being clearly focused on achieving some concrete business results within a reasonably short period of time," he says.

"Otherwise their tenure would be very short."A Different BreedOn the other side of the Atlantic, research at the London Business School is turning up similar findings. Michael Earl, professor of information management, and Ian Scott, visiting research fellow, have also found that CKOs have varied backgrounds but often display similar personality traits-and those traits differentiate them as a group from other executives. The CKO role "requires many more facets of personality than the CIO's job," says Scott. "It's a far more demanding job."As part of their research, Earl and Scott asked a London Business School colleague to conduct a series of psychometric tests on a sampling of CKOs.

Thetests confirmed their suspicions that the CKOs they had interviewed were quite different from other executives. "Although the people came from all sorts of different backgrounds and were working in all sorts of different corporations, they were remarkably similar in terms of the types of people that they were," says Scott. "They tended to be outgoing, extroverted, persuasive, passionate, articulate, committed and at the same time exhibited a lot of personality traits that are commonly associated with high-achievement people."Earl and Scott also found that many of the CKOs displayed strong nurturing qualities and that success in the CKO role was closely tied to their ability and willingness to feel rewarded by the accomplishments of other people. Scott sees a dual function for CKOs: Not only must they be able to play the part of the actor on stage and be comfortable in the centre of activity, they must also be willing to operate as the stage manager in the wings, directing the action, unseen.

CKOs as Influencers

The large consultancies embraced knowledge management more quickly than other industries, and John Peetz, CKO for Ernst & Young LLP in New York City since May 1995, exemplifies many of the CKO qualities that the studies identified.

Peetz, unlike many other CKOs, oversees a staff of 250 people that help him drive the knowledge management effort. One of the subjects of the Earl/Scott study, he agrees with many of their findings. "They use the term influencer, and I think that's a good term. CKOs are influencers," he says. "They tend to be people who can get along well with others, tolerate ambiguity and influence by persuasion as opposed to fiat-which doesn't work here." Peetz stresses that even with his extensive resources, he doesn't have the authority to decide how things will be done in other departments. He relies on his communication skills to sway reluctant employees and executives.

In his role as CKO, Peetz has also drawn upon and strengthened other personal attributes that he identifies as being necessary for the job, such as initiative, drive, the willingness to take risks and common sense. He is wary, however, of making the role of CKO sound like an amalgamation of all corporate virtues and instead emphasises that it requires a person with a rather odd blend of characteristics. "You need to find someone who has enough strategic vision to paint the picture but enough operational experience and attention to detail to drive it," he explains. He adds that most CKOs he has met appear to have a blend of those qualities, and though you don't need any one trait in great abundance, he maintains that all of them are necessary in some measure.

Though Peetz claims he is not by nature a technologist, he has needed a good understanding of technology in order to oversee the creation of the necessary technology infrastructure. "I fought innumerable battles with technologists, all of whom wanted to build the ultimate everything," recalls Peetz. "You need to have a pretty healthy B.S. meter because you're going to be told a lot of outlandish lies about what technology can and can't do." Ultimately, success as a CKO requires a close working relationship with the CIO.

Scott agrees and points out that the relationships between the CKO, CIO and the head of HR are very closely tied to the ultimate success of the KM project. The knowledge resources that the CKO requires exist in two areas: explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. Working with the CIO on setting up an information-sharing network like Lotus Notes can assist in capturing explicit knowledge. Tacit knowledge, however, is much harder to tap, says Scott. A good working relationship with HR is integral to accessing the company's primary knowledge capital: the information that resides within its employees. "The most important knowledge assets are the tacit assets which consist of the knowledge that people aren't even necessarily aware that they have," says Scott. "Tacit knowledge is always harder to get at, but it is the key."Management Support Is KeyRegardless of the CKOs' strengths, their skills are useless if they can't garner and maintain the support of upper management, a challenge identified as critical by both the Guns and Earl/Scott studies. This sentiment is also echoed by Ellen Knapp, vice chairman, CKO and global CIO of PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York City. "The crucial requisite has to be the support of the management team as a whole. They must believe, as passionately as the chief knowledge officer does, that we are in the transition from the industrial to the knowledge era and that our attention to the subject of knowledge and knowledge management metrics is going to be as critical to our business as financial metrics have been in this century."Though the CEO may regard knowledge management as a worthy pursuit for the company, the effort is bound to fail unless the board is convinced of its value as well. Scott recounts the story of one CKO who is now an ex-CKO because the CEO was not able to sustain support. "He was overridden by people on the board who said, 'This is garbage; it's a waste of money.'" The company was a very large financial institution and when faced with investing US$5 million to create a KM infrastructure, board members felt that they could not afford it in the current financial climate.

High turnover rates among CKOs suggest that many companies are, in fact, having trouble sustaining the necessary support for knowledge management. Guns discovered that roughly 25 percent of the CKOs he interviewed within the past year are no longer holding that position. Many were downsized, others left to start external consultancies and some went on to accept more lucrative CKO positions elsewhere.

But if the experience of Ernst & Young's Peetz is any indication, a slow start to a KM initiative doesn't mean it's destined to fizzle. He recounts the early days after the company had established its intranet known as the EY KnowledgeWeb. The KM group was surveying employees, taking random samplings and waiting for some significant usage of the new resource. Their biggest fear was that nobody would take notice. "It was like we were pushing this rock up the hill, like Sisyphus, and then all of a sudden we got to the top of the mountain, it started going down the other side and we're running like hell to keep up," says Peetz. "That's when people started contributing of their own accord, people kept visiting, people kept using, people kept contributing and it's almost as though if you went away you knew something would keep happening."The CKO To-Do ListIn his report "the chief Knowledge Officer's Role: Challenges and Competencies," Bob Guns, partner of Probe Consulting in Summit, New Jersey, and an associate at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP in New York City, lays out some basic challenges that face today's CKOs.

Set knowledge management strategic prioritiesEstablish a knowledge database of best practicesGain commitment of senior executives to support a learning environmentTeach information seekers how to ask better and smarter questions of their intelligence resourcesPut in place a process for managing intellectual assetsObtain customer satisfaction information in near real-timeGlobalise knowledge management(Staff Writer Daintry Duffy can be reached at dduffy@cio.com.)

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