Are CKOs a Fad? The Buzz


When you think of a chief knowledge officer, you think of someone who knows everything. Everyone knows that knowledge is power. But how do you tap into the knowledge of a company's workers?

How can one person know everything? There is so much information out there. Computer databases contain millions of pieces of information. One person's brain cannot possibly take it all in.

Knowledge management is when someone takes all that information and turns it into something meaningful. A CKO manages the information flow within a company. They make sure everyone knows what they need to know. This is to ensure that the company has an advantage over its competitors.

The field exists largely because of advances in information technology. Those advances include intranets, the Internet, and videoconferencing.

"I do believe knowledge management is a significant trend. A lot of the activities now given the label 'knowledge management' have gone on before. A lot of the technologies are extensions of existing ones," says Paul Stacey. He is the director of corporate education and training at a technical university.

The main change is the amount of information available. New technology allows companies to access this vast knowledge base. Then they can retrieve it and share it with others.

Hal Varian is the dean of the school of information management at the University of California at Berkeley. He started a graduate program to train students to be knowledge officers.

He believes it is a major trend. "I think that every organization with more than 50 people or so is going to have an intranet. This means that they will have information to manage. People will be required to create and maintain this information," he says.

What Does a CKO Do?

Many companies produce internal reports. Then they lose them. When someone needs the information later, no one can find it. The CKO's job is to create the systems that will identify and track the material so it is available to anyone who needs it.

CKOs perform some tasks that used to be part of human resources. For example, they may do a skills inventory of employees.

Does a Company Need a CKO?

Peter Drucker first came up with the concept in the 1980s. Drucker is one of the world's most prominent management consultants. A flurry of articles and books devoted to the subject resulted.

The major consulting firms lie at the heart of the knowledge management bandwagon. They don't all agree, however, about the concept.

Some experts say the process should be decentralized. Others insist that one person should spearhead the free flow of information within an organization. Many high-profile companies have created the full-time permanent position of chief knowledge officer.

However, in a survey, only 25 percent of the respondents said that such an appointment would be very valuable. More importantly, 44 percent stated that this position would be of little or no value to them.

"What our research shows is that having a CKO is not an indicator of how successful or advanced you are in knowledge management," write Debra Amidon and David Skyrme. That's in their new study, Creating the Knowledge Based Business.

"Whether your organization needs a CKO seems to depend on corporate culture," they continue. "In some organizations, the authority that this role gives is needed. In others, knowledge management champions seem to make it happen anyway."

Stacey believes that knowledge management is a real concern for most companies. "From what I have read, 80 to 90 percent of Fortune 500 type firms say knowledge management is a critical issue for them and have plans to, or are already engaged in, knowledge management," he says.

"More than anything, knowledge management involves a change in organizational culture. Creating an organization that shares knowledge, rather than hoards knowledge, is a big change."

Britton Manasco is the editor and publisher of Knowledge Inc. Manasco believes that the issue isn't whether or not a company appoints a CKO, but how they deal with information exchange.

"The knowledge leader -- or leaders -- must become a vital and dynamic force in the organization, rather than the figurehead of yet another corporate change program. As I see it, the CKO will have achieved real success when his or her position is no longer necessary."

Where is This Trend Going?

Skyrme believes that in the 21st century, knowledge management is the lifeblood of success. "Irrespective of whether there are formal CKO positions, every professional and manager will need to be much more skilled in managing and applying information and knowledge," he says.

"The Internet changes many of the established rules of business. Information is on tap. In the future, the CKO role might be subsumed into other roles as it becomes part of everybody's job. What distinguishes successful from less successful individuals is how they tap into this wealth of knowledge and exploit it," adds Skyrme.

John Sullivan is a professor of human resources at the College of Business at San Francisco State University. He believes that the position of CKO is a passing fad and just a new name for training. "Hiring employees that are self-developers and that stay on the edge of learning and knowledge will be more valuable than hiring experienced workers as CKOs," he says.

What You Need to be a CKO

Qualifications include a broad mix of personal, corporate and technical skills. Above all, the knowledge officer must have advanced computer skills, particularly in computer interfaces and database management.

"The good employers look at people's characteristics and how they can contribute long term. They seek self-starters with adaptability, motivation, enthusiasm, team working and an ability to accept a challenge," says Skyrme.

"Every CKO I have talked to says the three most important things they do are communication, communication and communication. Therefore, being a good communicator in writing, e-mail, presentations, listening and face-to-face conversation is what is needed," he adds.

Skyrme's recommendation to students is to join a local debating society or drama group to improve on these skills.

Opportunities in the Field

The Chicago Sun-Times Tech Watch states that at a junior level, knowledge officers earn about $60,000 a year. Once you become valuable, the salary increases rapidly. A chief information officer can earn more than $100,000.

Varian says the knowledge officer position represents a career job because the demand for these talents is so intense. "Information overload is one important reason for the need. Many large companies are practically sinking in their own information, pointing out the need for someone to come in and discard what's unimportant."

The mounting demand for knowledge officers means that trained information technologists can literally create jobs for themselves. It would pay for an employee to evaluate the organization and take an inventory of their skills to determine whether a new opportunity may exist.

Gene Bellinger works with a knowledge leveraging company set up to provide an extranet service for clients. He believes that the trend will continue to blossom for at least several years to come.

"The trend means great employment opportunities for those who can position themselves as understanding all the buzzwords, implementing the systems, and maintaining the flow," says Bellinger.

Bellinger believes that network specialists who possess a general knowledge of many systems have the most potential. "We will still need some specialists, but generalists who know how to capture and structure the information to make it available and usable by others are becoming a very hot property."

A Final Word

The traditional way to exchange information was to gather around the water cooler. Corporations of today say this is a waste of time and money. But many knowledge management advocates believe this sort of exchange may be exactly what a company needs. The successful firms of the future will be those in which everyone creates, shares, and uses the knowledge available.

"Information is the lifeblood of any organization. Every organization will have to pay attention to how they manage it," says Varian.

"People must be more globally aware in their activities and figure out the role they want to play in the global knowledge economy. The pace of change means that you will need to reinvent your career every few years," adds Skyrme.

"Much knowledge decays rapidly in time. Perhaps half of what you learn at school will be obsolete within five years. The other half gives you important foundations that you can reapply in many situations. Perhaps the most useful knowledge you can take forward is that you have learned how to learn."

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