What Is a Chief Knowledge Officer?

In many large organizations, and some small ones, a new corporate executive is emerging — the chief knowledge officer. Companies are creating the position to initiate, drive, and coordinate knowledge management programs. We have studied twenty chief knowledge officers (CKOs) in North America and Europe both to understand their roles and to gain insight on evolving knowledge management practice. An accepted definition of knowledge management does not yet exist, although perspectives on knowledge abound. Most of the CKOs we studied have little time for such conceptualization, but they agree on three points.

  1. Knowledge today is a necessary and sustainable source of competitive advantage. In an era characterized by rapid change and uncertainty, it is claimed that successful companies are those that consistently create new knowledge, disseminate it through the organization, and embody it in technologies, products, and services.1 Indeed, several sectors — for example, the financial services, consulting, and software industries — depend on knowledge as their principal way to create value. Thus knowledge is displacing capital, natural resources, and labor as the basic economic resource.2
  1. There is general recognition that companies are not good at managing knowledge. They may undervalue the creation and capture of knowledge, they may lose or give away what they possess, they may deter or inhibit knowledge sharing, and they may underinvest in both using and reusing the knowledge they have. Above all, perhaps, they may not know what they know. This is probably true of explicit or articulated knowledge: that which can be expressed in words and numbers and can be easily communicated and shared in hard form, as scientific formulas, codified procedures, or universal principles. It is undoubtedly true of tacit or unarticulated knowledge: that which is more personal, experiential, context specific, and hard to formalize; is difficult to communicate or share with others; and is generally in the heads of individuals and teams.3
  2. Recognizing the potential of knowledge in value creation and the failure to fully exploit it, some corporations have embarked on knowledge management programs. These are explicit attempts to manage knowledge as a resource, in particular:
  • Designing and installing techniques and processes to create, protect, and use known knowledge.
  • Designing and creating environments and activities to discover and release knowledge that is not known.<

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References

1. I. Nonaka, “The Knowledge-Creating Company,” Harvard Business Review, volume 69, November–December 1991, pp. 96–104.

2. P. Drucker, The Post-Capitalist Society (Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1995).

3. Polyani probably was the first to distinguish explicit and tacit knowledge. See:

M. Polyani, Tacit Dimensions (New York: Anchor Press, 1966).

Nonaka and Takeuchi built their knowledge creation framework on this distinction. See:

I. Nonaka and H. Takeuchi, The Knowledge Creating Company (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

4. M. Earl and I. Scott, “What on Earth Is a CKO?” (London: London Business School and IBM Inc., research report, 1998).

5. L. Edvinsson and M.S. Malone, Intellectual Capital (New York: Harper Collins, 1997); and J.B. Quinn, The Intelligent Enterprise (New York: Free Press, 1995).

6. The CKOs studied came from five countries and from seven sectors: finance, consumer goods, industry, technology, consultancy, law, and other services.

7. The NEO Personality Inventory. We wish to acknowledge the assistance of Nigel Nicholson and Emma Soane of the London Business School in administering and interpreting this test. The response rate was 50 percent; the clustering of results suggests that some credence can be given to the generalizations we infer. The sample size is small in absolute terms; relative to the worldwide population of CKOs, it is very large.

8. J.F. Rockart, M.J. Earl, and J.W. Ross, “Eight Imperatives for the New IT Organization,” Sloan Management Review, volume 38, Fall 1996, pp. 43–55.

Acknowledgments

This paper is based on a research project supported by IBM Global Services Consulting Group. The authors wish to thank IBM and the twenty chief knowledge officers who gave generously of their time.