Academic journal article The McKinsey Quarterly

Managing the Knowledge Manager

Academic journal article The McKinsey Quarterly

Managing the Knowledge Manager

Article excerpt

First agree on what you want to achieve. Then develop and execute an agenda.

Most top managers recognize the value of managing knowledge. In a 1998 survey of North American senior executives, 77 percent rated "improving the development, sharing, and use of knowledge throughout the business" as very or extremely important. But should companies appoint a chief knowledge officer (CKO) to do the job?

The answer depends on whether the CEO and senior management are prepared to make the position succeed. Certainly, thanks to the groundwork laid by pioneering knowledge managers, CKOs can now create substantial value. First employed in the early 1990s to foster the flow of knowledge throughout increasingly complex organizations, they functioned rather like plumbers, routing bits of information through different pipes to the right people. They then built better pipes, such as company-wide e-mail networks and corporate intranets, and, still later, redesigned work and communications processes to promote collaboration.

Today, in organizations that already have these technical and social networks, CKOs can take a more strategic perspective, scanning the enterprise to discover how they might improve processes and customer relationship management as well as promote employee learning. Other senior managers might be able to see how knowledge can be better used in their particular units or functions, but the CKO can stand back and manage interventions that cross formal business boundaries, thus helping the enterprise as a whole. In organizations where cross-business and cross-functional interventions aren't likely to happen unless someone from the top team takes express responsibility for them, appointing a CKO would seem to be a good idea.

Not always, however. Since knowledge pervades every activity of many organizations, some CKOs have been tempted to launch numbers of interventions, which then failed to show clear results. Others have tried to give their role solidity by building a departmental empire, but the innate amorphousness of the position makes it an obvious budget target as soon as it fails to deliver. And if senior managers disagree on the purpose of managing knowledge, they may urge the CKO to focus on conflicting or low-value activities.

What can be done to ensure that the CKO unlocks a company's latent potential? To find out, we asked CKOs [1] at various companies for their views about the make-or-break factors. Although the CKOs had different experiences, all concurred that success depends on two things: first, on the ability of senior management to agree about what it hopes to gain from managing knowledge explicitly and from creating a performance culture (which raises the staff's demand for knowledge) and, second, on how well the CKO develops and executes a knowledge-management agenda.

Knowing what you want

The value that senior managers hope to create from managing knowledge generally lies at one of three levels (exhibit). At the lowest level, the managers aim to help their organization become better at what it already does. International Computers Limited (ICL), the UK information technology service provider, found that several of its business groups wanted to improve the speed and quality of their services to customers. Elizabeth Lank, ICL's program director for mobilizing knowledge, decided that these groups would benefit if the company shared three kinds of information: about projects already completed, skills already developed, and customer concerns the business groups were working to address.

She therefore organized databases to capture that knowledge and created networks permitting those who needed it to communicate with those who had it. Lank appointed the sales and marketing director, for example, to "own" the third piece of knowledge and to work out exactly what had to be shared and how, with a focus on enabling conversations rather than compiling documents. …

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