This week’s article is Earl & Scott’s “What is a Chief Knowledge Officer?” an editorial from 1999. An interesting read, even dated 8 years. Some of the principles outlined are still very relevant in today’s KM, but there are a few interesting tidbits that seem (intuitively, at any rate) to be “early adopter”-dependent. I wonder if Earl and/or Scott ever wrote a followup article, it would be interesting to see what the CKO’s studied in 1999 thought of their job today in comparison. Some of the links here are to the (non-public) class wiki for my knowledge management class, if you’re reading this post and you’re curious about the references, feel free to comment as such and I’ll post the references.
- Earl, Michael and Scott, Ian
- What is a Chief Knowledge Officer?
- Sloan Management Review
In 1999, Earl and Scott studied twenty Chief Knowledge Officers in organizations in Europe and North America to acquire some level of insight about the newly popular position and determine commonalities of practice. In addition, they studied the personality types of individuals who held the title of CKO and their professional backgrounds. They summarize the qualities of a CKO and some early lessons learned.
Earl and Scott were looking for the answers to the following questions:
- What do CKOs do?
- Is there a model CKO?
- How does a CKO differ from a Chief Information Officer (CIO)?
- Is there a typical CKO profile or personality?
- What resources and support does a CKO require?
- What are the early lessons of experience?
- Is the role of CKO likely to endure?
- Does knowledge management require a CKO?
Irrespective of organizational differences, all of the CKOs studied agreed on the following three points:
- Knowledge is a sustainable source of competitive advantage
- Companies are not good at managing knowledge
- Companies are starting KM projects of the following types:
- Tools and processes to store and disseminate tacit and explicit knowledge
- Tools and processses to acquire new knowledge
- Integrating KM into other organizational processes and initiatives
What do CKOs Do?
CKOs in the study lacked clear organizational empowerment and objectives. Each therefore had to develop the position organically in the context of his or her own organization. Although objectives were unclear, goals were generally well defined, in that CKOs’ were expected to help resolve one or more deficiencies: lack of management in current operations and processes; failure to include existing knowledge in development; lack of best practices or reinventing the wheel; and finally failure to capitalize on existing knowledge. This led to each of the CKOs taking on, as their primary tasks, both the creation of knowledge management projects and “selling not only the concept of knowledge management but also how to sell it to both corporate and line or local management” (Earl 31). Each CKO had also identified their CKO network for the purposes of advancing KM in their organization.
The CKO Network
The CKO Network consists of four groups of individuals:
- Knowledge Champions – innovators who are engaged in particular KM projects
- Knowledge Sponsors – senior executives who will invest in KM in general
- Knowledge Partners – allies in implementing KM projects (usually HR or IT)
- Knowledge Skeptics – naysayers who need to be converted or avoided for the immediate future
The Model CKO
Earl and Scott identify two key characteristics of model CKOs. CKOs are both technologists and environmentalists. The CKOs in the study for the most part did not come from formal IT training backgrounds. Nevertheless, they were technologists in that they needed to be aware of the current state of IT and they needed to have sufficient technology background (usually gained through involvement in IT projects) to be able to judge what new technologies would be beneficial and the implications involved in adopting the technology. By environmentalist, Earl and Scott mean that the CKO must play a lead role in both the physical environment of the organization (designing meeting places and collaborative physical environments such as teleconferencing facilities) and the social environment of the organization (changing evaluation metrics and reward systems to encourage collaboration over individual effort).
CKO Personality Types
Due to the undefined nature of the role upon their assumption of the title, the CKOs studied all had some traits in common. They were all highly internally motivated people, self-starters willing to accept risk, and possessing an entrepreneural spirit. Since their roles required consensus building, they had to be willing to allow others to take credit for successful projects for political capital. In comparison to the CEO and the CIO, the CKO needed to be “deeper than the CEO often is expected to be and broader than the CIO wants to be or has the time to be” (Earl 34). In particular, a NEO Personality Study showed CKOs to be close to the average population in Agreeableness and Conscientiousness (2.9 and 3.3, respectively, compared to the average of 3.0), significantly below the general population in Emotionality (2.3 compared to the average of 3.0), well above the average in Extroversion (3.6 compared to 3.0), and finally significantly and markedly above the average in Openness (4.2 compared to 3.0). Earl and Scott attribute these results to the fact that “CKOs need to be sociable and energetic yet tolerant and pragmatic” (Earl 35).
Resources and Support
Earl and Scott note that for the most part budgeting and staff needs in support of the CKO position are modest relative to the organization. There are detailed reasons for this, but most of them are related to two factors: one, the position was relatively new and thus did not have the opportunity to take on expensive projects; and two, the projects on the whole were centered on embedding knowledge management in existing processes, thus requiring systems that were supplemental to existing infrastructure or temporary in nature. However, in spite of the low budgetary committment, there is a significant need for higher level management buy-in, as noted in several other articles. “‘If the CEO changes his mind, I’m dead,’ commented one CKO” (Earl 36).
The early lessons learned by the CKOs in the study can be summarized in the following list:
- Maintain executive-level support
- Credibility is only sustained by positive results
- Conceptual models or frameworks were generally regarded as too abstract to be useful
- Ideas that make business sense must be supported (see #2)
Do you need a CKO?
Earl and Scott posit that KM itself is strategically sound, and therefore will endure and eventually embed itself in successful organizations. “Appointing a CKO is one way of galvanizing, directing, and coordinating a knowledge management program or campaign” (Earl 37), but a CKO is not necessary for KM adoption. They also note that in the long run, embedded knowledge management may reduce the role of the CKO as the organization evolves, thus making the CKO position disappear over time. However, they conclude that given the scale of the CKO agenda and the fact that changing organizational culture takes time, CKOs are likely to remain viable members of an organization for the forseeable future. For the most part, they deem CIOs inappropriate candidates for dual-duty as CKOs, due to the normally high level of responsibility of the CIO in general and the fact that good CIOs, while certainly technologists, are less likely to possess the necessary environmental and soft skills required of the CKO.
Several facets of the article were particularly compelling. The personality analysis of CKOs was excellent and worth an entire paper on its own. The focus on practical CKOs newly arrived to the position put the article in the context of organizations in the process of dynamic KM adoption, which providing grounded information while remaining focused on the conceptual purpose of the CKO. The one part that I found lacking in the paper is that there is no parallel drawn to established CKOs (understandable given the time frame of the paper). I would like to read a followup paper to this detailing the changes, if any, in these 20 CKOs’ perceptions about their jobs and responsibilities between 1999 and today.