Who Is the CKO? 2004-7-13 17:46:04 Cynthia Flash/KMCenter
by Cynthia Flash From Knowledge Management Magazine May 2001
Once a company embraces the concept of knowledge management, its top executives must decide how to implement their KM program and how to convince employees that KM is not simply about adding profits but can strengthen the company and help everyone to work more productively. An increasingly common step in this direction is the appointment of a chief knowledge officer (CKO, with or without that title) who is charged with taking the KM concept from theory to practice.
Because KM involves people, culture and behavior as well as business processes and supportive technology, it may not be easy to find the right person for this job. In trying to determine who will make a good CKO, it's necessary to ask what skills they need, where to find candidates and what makes hiring a CKO worth the investment.
A CKO, experts say, must understand the organization and its big picture. "You need somebody who can take a strategic view of the enterprise and the marketplace and understand the pivotal points of the enterprise," says Hubert Saint-Onge, senior vice president for strategic capabilities at the Clarica Life Insurance Co. of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. "You need someone who has a good systems view and an organization leadership background."
Yet a CKO also must be a cheerleader and a teacher, who not only has a vision of knowledge sharing but has the authority and savvy to make corporate culture and processes serve this end. The most important qualification for such a knowledge leader is the ability to be an agent of change. "At the bottom, it's all about culture," Saint-Onge says. "If the culture isn't well put in place, all of what we're talking about is for naught."
Allen Reed, a recruiter with executive search company Russell Reynolds & Associates in New York, has helped several companies to find a CKO or its equivalent. Russell's primary criterion is that candidates have the people skills necessary to create a knowledge sharing culture.
What they do and why As the former head of KM for BP Amoco PLC, the British power and petrochemicals conglomerate, Kent Greenes has been leading KM initiatives for six years. When he become CKO of Science Applications Information Corp. (SAIC) in 1999, he set about making changes that would enable the San Diego-based technology development company to effectively share and reuse the knowledge of its 40,000 scientists.
SAIC had no formal knowledge management program before Greenes was hired in 1999. He instituted quarterly meetings that brought together up to 2,000 employees, clients, partners and suppliers in person to present project results and share ideas. In addition to the meetings, he led the creation of a system combining video, audio and the company intranet to harvest the scientists' knowledge and make it available throughout SAIC as well as to customers. His group also has developed KM training and coaching courses and built communities of practice to facilitate continual knowledge sharing.
But this CKO's role isn't limited to capturing and sharing knowledge; he has to help SAIC make money. "My focus is on improving productivity, profitability and customer value rather than knowledge management technology," says Greenes, who claims his efforts have brought in millions of dollars of new business.
There is no generic job description for a CKO, though the CKO's duties always include capturing and applying the knowledge available within a corporation to make the business more competitive and its employees more productive. When it comes to evaluating their performance, some CKOs have their progress tied directly to revenues, while others are judged by whether they increase corporate education and learning. For still others, their KM efforts must establish and reuse best practices, increase efficiency or retain employees.
At accounting consultancy KPMG International, the goal of its first CKO, Michael Turillo, appointed more than two years ago, was to use the data accumulated by the firm's 80,000 employees and its clients to make work easier and retain employees while augmenting the bottom line. His team built KPMG's K-World knowledge management system, which integrates more than a dozen different information systems around the company and brings together employees in 37 countries. Through K-World, KPMG makes detailed tax information available to clients, who can share that information to minimize their tax liability. The clients save money, which helps KPMG to attract more clients by recommendation, Turillo says.
Enterprise experience In 1999 the Conference Board, a global research network and business membership organization headquartered in New York, found that although 80 percent of companies had some knowledge management efforts under way, only 25 percent of them employed a chief knowledge officer or chief learning officer.
Today, the number of people doing this job is growing, but the CKO title remains relatively rare, according to Brian Hackett, a Conference Board program manager and human resources specialist who authored the report. "'Knowledge management' is an awkward term," he says. "It turns people off. It seems like a fad."
Although information technology is an important tool for supporting a knowledge management strategy, it does not follow that a CKO must have a technology background, observers say. The person surely should understand the benefits that technology can offer but should focus more on changing the corporate culture to one that embraces and rewards knowledge sharing.
The ideal CKO would be an expert in several areas, including training and development, information technology, legal and technical knowledge, and corporate information, says Bob Guns, a senior partner at Probe Consulting Inc. in Summit, N.J., who directed a 1998 study on the CKO position. In reality, he admits, most CKOs come from one discipline and lack experience or expertise in other areas.
This practicality leads Guns to propose an alternative. Instead of hiring a single CKO, he advocates creating an in-house knowledge management team that can adequately address all parts of the role. "It has been difficult for people to understand the full scope and depth that needs to be brought to bear in this field," he says. It appears that others share this inclination. As noted in the accompanying story, "The State of KM," when International Data Corp. asked companies who leads their knowledge management initiatives, 30 percent of respondents said they were led by cross-functional teams, 19 percent by the CEO, 12 percent by a CIO and 9 percent by a CKO.
Guns points out another facet of the job that potential CKOs should take into account: justifying their employment. Three years after he published his study, more than 80 percent of the chief knowledge officers he interviewed no longer hold the same job. Many have moved on to other companies, and some have become consultants. "The instability is based on the difficulty in proving the business case," he says. "One of the major roles of a CKO is communicating clearly what they're trying to do and how the organization can benefit from a business viewpoint."
Where they come from Given the range of responsibilities involved, it is not surprising that the backgrounds of actual chief knowledge officers vary. David Owens, CKO of the St. Paul Cos., an insurance company in St. Paul, Minn., is a former teacher. SAIC's Greenes is a geophysicist who moved through management positions into human resources. Dow Chemical Co.'s Jim Allen worked as a manager in research and development before becoming director of KM under the CIO of the Midland, Mich., company.
The career routes that knowledge leaders take to their positions show a similar diversity. Scott Shaffer, project manager for knowledge management at Northrop Grumman Corp. in Los Angeles, rose through the ranks of the company and took on a knowledge leadership role that evolved over time. After 17 years with the defense contractor, Shaffer took a position as program manager on the B-2 stealth bomber program in 1997. He became concerned about how the company would maintain its knowledge about the B-2 over the life of the aircraft, especially after the engineers who had designed it left.
"At the time, we didn't know about knowledge management, but we discovered it," Shaffer says. He helped to identify the experts who had worked on the B-2 and used video recordings to capture their knowledge. The team indexed the interviews on the company's Web sites to make them available to others. In 1999 Shaffer was named head of knowledge management for the air combat systems business area of Northrop Grumman's integrated systems sector, where he is in charge of establishing a knowledge management strategy for the 5,400 employee unit.
Some knowledge leaders come from outside the enterprise. While at BP, Greenes worked with SAIC on a teamwork program to get people to share their know-how through a virtual system. When he sought a new challenge two years ago, he contacted SAIC.
When you need one Just as the backgrounds and career paths of CKOs vary, so do the decision processes of companies in choosing to hire one. For some, the decision bubbles up through the ranks. There may be pockets of research or knowledge sharing going on, which catch the interest of corporate leaders.
In 1999, Hallmark Cards Inc. realized that its customer research division has built vast repositories of data and information, but no one knew what to do with it all. The company appointed Tom Brailsford manager of knowledge leadership in charge of creating a KM infrastructure to tie the fragmented sources together and change the corporate culture to embrace using this knowledge. The result is an intranet site called Voice of the Marketplace, which includes customer research data that's accessible throughout the company.
Unlike many other chief knowledge officers, Brailsford does not report to the CEO. He is four steps removed but says that arrangement works for his company, which is driven more by demonstration than dictate. "We try to organize ourselves into a knowledge sharing community. My role is one of facilitation more than leadership," he says.
In contrast, at Scient Corp., a three-year-old consultancy and systems integrator in San Francisco, the chief knowledge officer was the third person hired. CKO DougKalish says Scient founder Eric Greenberg sought him out because he realized the importance of knowledge management in a services firm. Kalish, who reports to the chief operating officer, led creation of the Scient Zone, which he describes as a "corporate portal on steroids." This intranet organizes and cross-links all the company's information into a single corporate portal.
No matter who knowledge leaders report to, CKOs agree that to succeed they must have support at the top. If the CEO doesn't back their efforts, their KM initiatives are likely to fail.
St. Paul's Owens says that executives of his company hold the roles of dean at the company's learning arm, St. PaulUniversity. The top officers often talk about learning and knowledge sharing and have brought in celebrities such as Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell to espouse the virtues of perpetual learning, collaboration and cooperation. As mentioned above, getting executive support can be difficult because it's not easy to demonstrate the explicit financial benefits of knowledge management. "My CEO has to make a leap of faith and say 'I believe this is right,' even though I can't prove it in dollars and cents," says Clarica's Saint-Onge.
In trying to measure their success, knowledge leaders of course try to connect it to the bottom line, perhaps by demonstrating new business generated or money saved from reusing knowledge. They also measure how well the company and its employees embrace the knowledge initiatives; in principle, the most successful CKOs should eventually work themselves out of a job.
According to Joel Koblentz, senior partner of Egon Zehnder International management consultants in Atlanta, companies that have been the most successful with knowledge management initiatives have done away with chief knowledge officers and allow managers within individual business groups to fill that role. "Having a CKO suggests that the CKO is still in the process of establishing knowledge as a true corporate asset," Koblentz says.
Owens says he believes his job will go away but not soon. "I don't think it's going to be in the short term because there's still so much to be done," he says. "It would be a great day if people just did this because they knew it was the right thing to do and had the right tools to do it, but it's going to take a sustained and focused effort to get that done."
For the time being, then, most corporations that are serious about profiting from managing their knowledge will do well to put the responsibility in the hands of a proven, experienced leader.
Copyright 2009-2016, Douglas Kalish. All rights reserved.