Alternatives to the CKO

September 18, 2009

I had to write a report today, a longish process. As a part of that I was looking at the organisation of the knowledge management function in an organisation. I was aware that one of the larger consultancies had produced the normal boiler plate report with the usual stuff about strategic focus, appoint a senior exec as CKO etc. etc. Now I remain convinced that the find and replace function in word processors was created for these parasites manufacturing units in order that they could regurgitate the same proposal many times for minimum effort. I am also convinced that a CKO is often a very bad idea.

For anyone interested, my recommendation is set out below (with some changes to prevent identification), comments welcome.

There are some basic principles of knowledge management organisation that can be derived from almost two decades of practice. In summary these are:

  • Over centralising knowledge management, the appointment of a Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) and the like tend to mean that other parts of the organisation feel that knowledge management is no longer their responsibility. There is a also a tendency for such groups to develop specialist language and become alienated from the wider workforce.
  • Paradoxically, there is a need for senior management commitment to knowledge management and this often leads to the appointment of a CKO.
  • Knowledge management needs to be seen as a distributed function, the responsibility of the whole workforce.
  • Central support is needed, but it needs to be focused on supporting rather than directing the network.
  • Overall knowledge management requires top down direction of broad goals, but then bottom up generation of initiatives.
  • Technology needs to augment human interaction rather than replace it.

Given these principles, and the general perception of knowledge management within the organisation and the initiative and communication fatigue issues identified earlier the following recommendations are made for discussion.

  • The role of CKO should be a part time rotating function for a senior member of staff who should spend six months or better a year in that role, for no more than 50% of their time with a one month overlap with their successor.
    This will increase the “knowledge or knowledge management” within the organisation and ensure it remains connected with the real needs of the business.
  • The CKO role should be supported by a small staff who will provide continuity between appointments, execute policy and link with the operational units.
    This means that expertise is maintained in parallel with the above proposal. It also create a centre of expertise and its size should be kept small.
  • Each “unit” within the organisation should have a middle manager designated with part time responsibility for knowledge management linked to the central function Depending on the size of the unit they should have a small support staff mentored by the centre.
    This is focused on distributing knowledge management responsibility and acting as a conduit for new ideas, issues and opportunities.
  • A diverse panel of international experts in knowledge management should be appointed with responsibility to provide ad hoc guidance throughout the year, but specifically to assemble for a two to three day session once a year (to coincide with the handover). This panel would review past activity and suggest future activity. They would report to the CEO on that basis. Consideration should be given to a Chairperson of that panel, with responsibility for more frequent interaction.
    One of the dangers with a single CKO is that they often lack the diversity of experience and may impose a single view of knowledge management on a diverse organisation. There is a dilemma here, someone with the necessary experience is unlikely to want to spend all their time in one organisation. People who would be satisfied with a knowledge management role in one organisation often lack necessary experience. This proposal overall will cost less, and provide greater flexibility and adaptability over time.

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