With all the fanfare of a newly sanctioned extreme sport on ESPN, knowledge management has captured the attention of executives throughout the global corporate arena. Those who are succeeding have observed firsthand that knowledge management is much more than an amalgamation of technologies. In contrast, the one thing that frequently distinguishes knowledge management projects among other strategic initiatives, is the passion, fearlessness and confidence of the knowledge leader. It can be argued that knowledge leadership is not new. Managing the knowledge of a process is a requirement in any enterprise, even an enterprise of only one person. Consider the transient nature of today's workforce, along with the challenges of connecting and mobilizing geographically distributed teams who are engaged in technical modern work, and you have an appreciation for the immense demand for greater sophistication in the way knowledge is managed. Whatever knowledge is, wherever it resides or however it is managed, few would disagree that knowledge is an essential part of our individual and organizational ability to innovate, compete and succeed. Given that, few would doubt that the roles and responsibilities of knowledge leaders are an essential ingredient of competition in the next millennium.
Knowledge leaders are undeniably a new breed of manager. They do not fall neatly into a compartment on an organization chart. You will find them on the high pinnacles of the command and control organization as often as you will find them in the nooks occupied by highly specialized teams. Creating a niche for the knowledge leader requires both an understanding and an acceptance of this looseness in affiliation and title. It also requires that the individual tasked with knowledge management responsibilities be intensely focused on the promotion of knowledge management practices and solutions. The operative question here is not, "Do I need knowledge leadership?" but rather, "What kind of leadership do I need?" By learning about the types of knowledge leaders that are in enterprises today, you can begin to define which of these roles best suits you and your organization.
A multi-client study conducted by The Delphi Group revealed that, in practice, knowledge leadership spans a broad domain of positions and types of individuals. Regardless of the differences in title or organizational placement, knowledge leaders exhibit similar qualifications. The most notable have hybrid business/information technology experience, at least ten years (and often much more) of line-of-business experience, an entrepreneurial attitude and a relatively high level of interest in career definition and development. They also exhibit acumen in corporate communication throughout the formal hierarchy reflected in most organization charts, as well as in the informal networking that occurs in communities of practice or the "corporate underground." It is through all these channels that knowledge leaders introduce methods and systems to match knowledge seekers with knowledge providers.
Why do organizations need knowledge leaders? Simply put, to bridge the natural hurdles to sharing knowledge within the large enterprise. This is the very essence of knowledge management. Organizations of all sizes and vertical expertise have come full circle to realize that communication of best practices, not application of technology, is at the heart of knowledge management's ability to meet business goals and user needs. This is typically fostered through fluid communication channels in an open culture. Unfortunately, neither comes naturally to a large organization. Leadership is needed to foster the climate, the practices and the incentives for knowledge sharing.
To prove the point, knowledge leaders highlighted in the study repeatedly cite skills in knowledge collection, organization, categorization and communication, rather than advanced skills in specific information technologies, as critical to their success. Although it is virtually impossible for an organization to leverage its collective knowledge in the absence of technology today, knowledge leaders must first possess (or quickly equip themselves with) the skills needed to traverse an organization's network through effective face-to-face communication, as well as through electronic means.
Types of Knowledge Leaders
Many organizations have taken the step of appointing a highly visible figure, the chief knowledge officer (CKO), to leverage the collective mind of an enterprise. This approach is the subject of many knowledge leadership discussions. Although there are a number of organizations with a CKO in place, this phenomenon is only one of several approaches in practice today to instill knowledge leadership. Many organizations have embraced knowledge leaders, but they have such titles as knowledge analyst, knowledge manager and knowledge steward. These individuals function very differently than the CKO and often express strong opinions against a central point of knowledge ownership.
The knowledge analyst is responsible for collecting, organizing and disseminating knowledge, usually on demand. Knowledge analysts provide knowledge leadership by becoming walking repositories of best practices a library of how knowledge is shared and should be shared across the organization. The liability, of course, is that knowledge analysts can easily take all of the best practices with them if they leave the organization. There is also a risk that these individuals become so valuable to the immediate constituency that they are not able to move laterally to other parts of the organization where their skills are equally needed.
The knowledge manager is responsible for coordinating the efforts of engineers, architects and analysts. The knowledge manager is most often required in large organizations where the large number of discrete knowledge-sharing processes risk fragmentation and isolation. The knowledge manager provides coordination across processes within a business unit. The risk in having knowledge managers is that fiefdoms (albeit large ones) may form around the success of each manager's domain. Regardless of this pitfall, the knowledge manager may successfully fill the niche of knowledge leader in an organization that realizes the lack of coordination in each of its business units is a primary deterrent to the sharing of knowledge among employees.
However, this single business unit approach can present its own problems in the form of fragmentation of knowledge. In these cases, the organization often relies on a central, command- and-control knowledge leader to provide continuity across multiple, discontinuous groups of knowledge workers.
The chief knowledge officer is responsible for enterprise-wide coordination of all knowledge leadership. The CKO typically reports to or is chartered by the CEO. Although it would seem reasonable that the CKO be part of IT (perhaps reporting to the CIO), this is not often the case. The CKO is not tasked with ownership of the technology infrastructure but rather the methods, practices and content comprising knowledge management solutions. At present, this role is almost always a solo performer with little, if any, staff and no immediate line-of-business responsibility. The CKO role requires advanced knowledge of the collective repositories, skills and expertise that can, if properly matched to the needs of the organization, increase responsiveness to customers (internal and external) and suppliers, which ultimately provides competitive distinction.
Putting a CKO in place is a potential point of sub-optimization. You may end up with someone whose vision of knowledge management dilutes the effectiveness of managing knowledge in each of the particular business units, projects or teams. Instead, these groups need to find the best way to manage knowledge within their area. By its nature, knowledge management is driven by lines of business (LOBs) and people at the extremities of the organization. Therefore, the best you can hope to do is coordinate the knowledge management process, but not truly control it. Because of this, a single knowledge leader, across all lines of business, is tough for LOB managers to support.
The knowledge steward is responsible for providing minimal, but ongoing, support to knowledge users in the form of expertise in the tools, practices and methods of knowledge management. The steward is in the most precarious and most opportunistic of positions. Usually, he or she is an individual who has fallen into the role of helping others to better understand and leverage the power of new technologies and practices in managing knowledge. The term "steward" best resonated in the interviews with the study participants; it conveys responsibility and a willingness to guide others, yet it is also non-intrusive and the near antithesis of ownership.
What is Your Organization's Need?
Knowledge leaders are educators of best practices and stewards of the frameworks that facilitate knowledge creation and sharing. But they are not owners. Knowledge leadership builds the bridges. Organizational leadership builds the culture. It is the knowledge workers themselves who build the reasons to use knowledge management.
CKO, knowledge manager, architect or steward how does an organization identify the optimal style of knowledge leadership for its needs? Your vice president of customer care or manager of systems and applications may be your unsung knowledge leader. It may be there is no one. Look at the state of your organization's knowledge sharing, the level of sponsorship for knowledge leadership and the receptivity of its culture today. Then act accordingly. For instance, it would be a mistake to put a CKO into an organization that has little executive interest in knowledge management and where LOB managers exhibit a fundamental mistrust of one other. A CKO cannot make up for a pathology of poor communication and mistrust.
There is little doubt that knowledge leadership is an essential ingredient of competition in the next millennium. Begin now to nurture these roles in your organization. Chances are, whatever their title, you already have knowledge leaders at work who, with a bit of sponsorship, would be ready, able and very willing to step into the role.
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