Knowledge Leadership

In our research for Creating the Knowledge-based Business we found without exception that where KM was progressing well, underpinning it was strong leadership. We identified the following as the essential factors of knowledge leadership:

  • A knowledge leader (or champion) - that person may or may not have a title such as Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO), Head of Knowledge Management, or something similar. However, he or she is widely recognised as the person who is setting the direction for knowledge management and driving it forward.
  • A supportive Chief Executive Officer (CEO) - not just paying lip service, but being actively involved and visibly promoting the knowledge initiative.
  • Leadership at all levels - a mix of top-down, bottom-up, and middle-out leadership.
  • An enthusiastic knowledge team - a high performing team that brings together people with different specialities and from different parts of the organization.
  • A guiding framework for action - the 'big picture' of knowledge activities and how they support business objectives and the corporate strategy.

The Knowledge Leader

A good knowledge leader will fulfil, as a minimum, the following four rôoles:

  1. Developing the 'big picture' - this involves setting the KM initiative within the business context. This may involve getting down into the detail of the organization's KM infrastructure and information architecture, but is more generally about articulating and communicating guiding principles and frameworks that align with the organization's 'strategic imperatives'.
  2. Actively promoting good knowledge management practice - at its core is a compelling message to all managers and workers about the benefits of good KM. In part evangelistic, the message should demonstrate the business benefits and what the KM programme aims to achieve. In many cases we have found that communicating this to an external audience also spurs the internal audience to higher levels of KM achievement.
  3. Managing the overall KM programme - in particular this requires the development of both the 'hard' (mostly content and ICT-related) and 'soft' (albeit the 'harder' people and culture related) infrastructure. Whilst they rely on specialists for the detail, a good knowledge leader understands what is involved and pulls together the appropriate resources and skills to create these essential foundations (see the Knowledge Initiative Framework)frameworks below)were not personally involved. They did however, recognise what was needed in both the 'hard' and 'soft' knowledge infrastructures. By 'hard' infrastructure we mean technology and computer networks, topics covered in detail in Chapter 8. By 'soft' infrastructure infrastructure we mean organisation structures and culture, new roles and skills development. These aspects are covered in detail in Chapters 6 and 7. Godfrey at Glaxo-Wellcome, herself a human relations specialist, found herself after a few months into the programme working very closely with those developing a technical architecture for knowledge management. In fact, getting a good mix of skills together into a knowledge team is an important prerequisite to developing an integrated infrastructure.
  4. Catalyst for connections, co-ordination and collaboration - a good knowledge leader is a good knowledge networker. They create connections. They bring disparate people together to collaborate and to create best KM practice. An important part of this is communication. One CKO, on being asked about his three most important aspects of his job said without hesitation: "communication, communication, communication". Highly successful knowledge leaders we meet also network extensively outside of their own organization.

Knowledge leaders can come from any part of the organization. We have seen former business development managers, financial officers, human resource managers, research managers as well as information managers and CIOs (Chief Information Officers) take charge as knowledge leaders. Whatever their background our research has identified five important characteristics that most possess:

  1. Conceptual capabilities - knowledge management can appear complex and requires good cognitive thinking to draw out its essentials and understand how it addresses business needs.
  2. Vision - they have a clear vision of what they want to achieve and articulate it well. Their conceptual thinking is translated into action-oriented frameworks and memorable metaphors.
  3. Communications skills - an ability to turn abstract concepts into formats that can be communicated to the non-KM expert. Above all, they are passionate about KM and talk about it with enthusiasm, often through anecdotes.
  4. Involvement - through their team-work and networking; they move seamlessly from high-level thinking into the finest implementation detail.
  5. Inquisitive - they have an appetite for learning; they continually seek out new knowledge, from within their organization and their peers externally.

In short, they are good 'change agents' who continually challenge the status quo. For many, they also possess the important management skill of judgement and timing (know-why and know-when).

A Supportive CEO

Although a knowledge initiative can get so far without wholehearted CEO endorsement, ultimate success depends crucially on the chief executive understanding of the contribution of KM and supporting it with both resources and his or her personal commitment. Their support can range from passive to pro-active involvement. The former involves addressing the demands of the knowledge leader, whilst the latter is where the CEO is actively contributing, and perhaps undertaking some of the knowledge leadership rôle personally. Involvement of the CEO sends a signal throughout the organization that knowledge is important. One gauge of a CEO's commitment is how often knowledge and the language of the organization's KM initiatives feature in high level speeches and documents, such as the organization's annual report.

Leadership At All Levels

The notion of middle-up-down management in relationship to knowledge management was first described by KM pioneer Karl Erik Sveiby. Nonaka and Takeuchi in The Knowledge Creating Company while recognizing the top management contribution in terms of vision, identified the importance of front-line staff and middle management in closing the vision-reality gap:

"In our view middle managers play a key role in the organisational knowledge-creation process. They have a lot of knowledge being positioned at the intersection of the vertical and horizontal flows of information in the company, which qualifies them to serve as team leaders."

The nature of multiple level leadership depends a lot on how distributed or centralized and organization is. In our research we found knowledge management activities being instigated at all levels, as in these examples from the early days of KM:

  • Glaxo Wellcome and Anglian Water both instigated learning organisation initiatives, that later evolved into knowledge management, as a result of top level strategic reviews
  • At Monsanto, Skandia and Thomas Miller, champions of knowledge activities were middle managers, who subsequently attracted top management support and became the knowledge leaders
  • At companies like Hewlett-Packard, knowledge management wass very much a decentralized activity, which later through internal networking led to propagation of good practices across the organization.

An Enthusiastic Knowledge Team

When a KM initiative is set up, a small team is formed. Generally, most of its participants are self-selecting in that they have expertise in a KM speciality or are from a business background and understand the importance of knowledge. Most KM teams are relatively small - with a small core (4 to 6 people) of full-time staff working centrally, but extending to a network that includes KM champions throughout the business. Such teams have been described by knowledge leaders in several ways:

  • "Facilitators of knowledge sharing" - the early KM team (c. 1996) at PriceWaterhouse, where individuals were seconded in and out of the core team, so as to diffuse expertise about KM across the business.
  • "A spider's web of intellect" - Monsanto's first KM team, which had only four full-time staff, but a network of 35-40 part-timers from the various business units.
  • "A catalyst team" - ICL's first team which as well as technical experts had people with skills in organizational development, culture,behaviour and motivation.

Taken together, such networked teams are what John Seely Brown, when head of R&D at Xerox called a 'Community of Knowledge Practice'.

For KM really to take hold, part-time members of the team in business units must not have KM as an 'add on' to their day job, but an integral part of it. This includes having KM goals and metrics as part of their job plan and performance evaluation. In the author's experience, not doing this is a common impediment to achieving KM success. Business unit managers tend to prioritize their KM staff's time to the needs of the business unit and not the corporate good. Having a central KM budget that can pay for their time can help to overcome this, but so to can a corporate plan which sets departmental KM goals.

A Guiding Framework

Other pages of the roadmap have shown some typical KM frameworks - see the KM Capability Model and Frameworks for Management. Another one that the author uses frequently is based on the critical success factors for KM. This is KMIF (KM Implementation Framework) which has three levels - foundations, levers and enablers.

In reviewing a number of frameworks used within organizations (rather than those developed by academics), we have found that the most effective frameworks exhibit the following characteristics:

  • A top level 'holistic' perspective - this covers several dimensions, such as the business value of knowledge, knowledge processes and infrastructure (both 'hard' and 'soft').
  • Visual, simple and easy to explain - often in the form of a schematic, typically with five or fewer key elements, so that it becomes easy to remember.
  • Actively communicated and promoted - both inside the company and often externally. As well as being widely used on presentation material, it will feature widely in documents, laminated aide-memoires, fliers and videos.
  • Simple but not simplistic - not mere gloss over substance, but often both. Rather like an iceberg, the top level visual hides a depth of knowledge. The final visual is often the result of months of deep thinking followed by simplification for communication purposes.

As well as being used for communicating the KM initiative throughout the organization, such frameworks can be used to guide priorities and investment decisions and can also act as a diagnostic tool.

Last updated: 19th March 2011



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