The stamp of the knowledge champion

The stamp of the knowledge champion

Jeff Sussman examines the various roles played by advocates of knowledge management.

With the advent of the "gold collar" worker it has become critical to manage the transience of today's workforce, across geographically distributed workplaces, with ever diminishing cycle times and greater competition for the heart and mind of your customer. As this trend intensifies, it will become more and more evident that knowledge management is not about tools and technologies, it is about knowledge leadership - and the question being asked in the boardrooms will not be one of whether this is required, but rather the kind of leadership that is required.

Faced with the complex human, organisational and technology issues for which organisations have little or no precedent to draw on, these new managers are struggling to define a discipline and community for themselves. The role models that are evolving will set new benchmarks for all managers, who will have to grapple with competing in a new economic climate where speed and intellect will be the base of survival and success.

Many organisations have already realised the importance of preserving and leveraging knowledge and possess the necessary skills and responsibilities within their executive and management ranks. But they have been slow to respond, and in many cases their traditional corporate structure and resistance to change squeezes the best suited individuals to run covert knowledge management in underground cells, and ultimately right out of the organisation.

Leadership is required to foster the climate and incentives.

A recent multi-client study was conducted by the Delphi Group with the intent of identifying the opinions and perspectives of individuals tasked with the responsibility of promoting knowledge management practices and solutions at large organisations. Those interviewed had a variety of job titles, ranging from knowledge architect, to manager of systems and applications. They came from industry segments such as telecommunications and petrochemical to consumer goods and manufacturing. The intention was to identify the opinions and perspectives of those individuals who represent the first generation of knowledge leadership.

There was a solid acceptance of the need for a knowledge leader within the organisations selected. Each has come to accept that it is the communication of best practice and not technology that provides the seed for the organisation to meet its business needs and objectives. Large organisations do not naturally foster an open climate of communication. Leadership is thus a requirement to foster the climate, practices and incentives for knowledge sharing and this leadership surfaces in the form of identifying opportunities to promote the value of knowledge management, communicating best practice, facilitating the evolution of learning organisations, and providing metrics for assessing the impact of the changes they are trying to realise.


Some organisations have taken the step of appointing a highly visible figure, the CKO, to leverage the collective mind of the enterprise. Other organisations have embraced this leadership position with titles such as knowledge analyst, knowledge manager, and knowledge steward. These titles function very differently from the CKO and often express strong opinions against the central point of knowledge ownership.

The knowledge analyst is responsible for collecting, organising 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 organisation. The liability, of course, is that knowledge analysts can easily take all of the best practices with them if they leave the organisation or their immediate constituency.

The knowledge manager is responsible for coordinating the efforts of engineers, architects and analysts. The knowledge manager is most often required in large organisations where the large number of discrete knowledge-sharing processes risk fragmentation and isolation.

Their role is to provide coordination across processes within a business unit but the risk in having knowledge managers is that fiefdoms (albeit large ones) may form around the success of each manager's domain.

The CKO is responsible for enterprise-wide coordination of all knowledge leadership. They typically report to or are 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 principle liability of putting a CKO in place is doing it too early, before a culture of knowledge sharing, incentives, and the basic precepts of knowledge leadership have been acknowledged by the enterprise.

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.

Jeff Sussman is managing director of Delphi Consulting Australia. Further topics in the area of Best Practice in Knowledge Leadership are available from Delphi Consulting Australia.

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