On positioning knowledge management
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  • 1. On Positioning Knowledge ManagementAs an emerging discipline, the organizational position of knowledge management (KM) varieswidely from one organization to another. Further, because KM must function within the contextof an organization’s mandate and infrastructure, one size cannot fit all. Even the definitions ofknowledge and knowledge management must be tailored to an organizational context. Indeed,the questions of placement and positioning are among the more vexing problems faced bycontemporary knowledge managers. Current practices for KM positioning are reviewed fromtwo perspectives – function and hierarchy. Functional PositionA review of the literature found a number of functional placements for knowledge managementwithin organizational infrastructures. Some common examples are summarized below.Information Technology A common approach has been to place KM within the informationtechnology (IT) function. The logic is that KM is just another IT application, so it should belongunder the auspices of the CIO. Because the IT community views KM as a way to expand theirdomain and market products, many “KM” systems and tools have been developed by consultantsor IT groups and implemented by organizations only to have them fail because they focus on thetechnology rather than the needs and wants of people.Information management Alternatively, KM is sometimes placed under informationmanagement (IM). After all, IM appears similar to KM, so why not simply extrapolate anexisting function? Indeed, capturing, organizing, storing, and providing access to content iscommon to both functions. However, IM emphasizes “documents,” albeit in the multimedia,broadest sense of the word. Their focus is on transactions, such as numbers of documents storedand exchanged. Although IM is an enabler of KM, it is limited to preserving and sharing explicitknowledge; it does not address the more valuable aspects of tacit knowledge.Science and Technology Knowledge management has sometimes been placed under researchand development. Such placements would seem to be logical in that creating knowledge is anessential precursor to KM. Further, the concepts and complexities of KM tend to be morereadily understood by S&T groups. However, KM functions within S&T programs tend to focuson the needs of S&T, not those of the organization. Further, much of the knowledge needed torun an organization does not originate in S&T programs. Although a capacity to createknowledge is crucial to the sustainability of a knowledge organization, it is only the startingpoint for KM.Human Resources Another option has been to position KM under human resources. After all,people are the carriers of tacit knowledge and they embody the agency’s capacity to create newknowledge. Although widespread discussions of the critical importance of “human capital”should have caused HR to embrace KM, this has generally not been the case. Human resourcescontinues to focus on HR-related transactions, such as pay, staffing, and discipline, rarelyventuring beyond their traditional tasks. Even responsibility for training individuals – aprecursor to KM – is not sufficient. There are important differences between training and
  • 2. learning, and between individual, group, and organizational learning. Although people arecentral to knowledge management, they are also only one aspect.Finance Another option has been to place KM under finance. The dramatic spread between themarket and book values of service companies should be attributable to the value added byknowledge, or intellectual capital. In this environment, however, KM functions have tended tofocus on audit and evaluation – that is descriptive measurement. They tend to defer to otherfunctions within an organization for the production and management of intellectual capital. Aspreviously, although program evaluation is important, it is only one aspect of KM.Corporate Services Knowledge management has sometimes been positioned within corporateservices. This has the important advantage of enabling a broader range of KM approaches andprocesses than any of the previous placements. However, corporate services tend to focus onthose aspects of KM that support organizational management rather than client service.Consequently, even this placement is inadequate to capture the fullness of knowledgemanagement’s potential contribution to the PSTP.Ultimately, there is no “right answer” for positioning a Knowledge Agenda. Knowledgemanagement is a relatively new discipline. Consequently, its placement within organizationalinfrastructures varies widely. All functional placements for KM found in the literature havestrengths and weaknesses that limit the contribution of KM to less than its full potential. 3.2 Hierarchical positionInterviews were conducted with selected federal departments and private-sector companies tolearn how other organizations were currently putting KM principles into practice. Participantswere selected based on good KM practices as recognized by the American Productivity andQuality Center, participation in the Interdepartmental Knowledge Management Forum, orparticipation in the Conference Board of Canada - Knowledge Strategy Exchange Network.Organizational positions for KM were classified into three groups, based on senior KMresponsibility and reporting relationships (high - direct report to executive; medium - 1 layer toexecutive; and low - 2 or more layers to the executive).Some trends emerged from the interviews. All global organizations position knowledgemanagement at high to medium importance, based on proximity to the executive level. There isa consensus that it is impossible to run a competitive global organization without enterprise-levelknowledge management. National organizations tend to position KM in the middle, with oneintermediate step between knowledge management and the executive level. This level enablesprogram-scale KM activities. Government departments and provincial organizations tend toposition KM lower in the organizational hierarchy, with two or more reporting levels betweenKM and the executive level. This level limits KM to project-scale activities and deliverables.The ideal position for a Knowledge Agenda would be under a Chief Knowledge Officer, who isa member of an organization’s Executive Committee. This would represent an enterprise-levelapproach – a high-level position. A Chief Knowledge Officer would be responsible for all
  • 3. aspects of knowledge management. Ideally, a CKO would also bridge the functional andexecutive levels by ensuring that the organization’s business strategy is directly supported byknowledge management and that the needs of knowledge management are represented at theexecutive level.There are both positive and negative implications of appointing a CKO at the outset. Anadvantage would be that someone at the executive level could lead and promote the developmentand implementation of the necessary KM activities much more rapidly than would be possiblefrom below. Another advantage is that sustained executive support maximizes the chances forsuccess regardless of shifting organizational priorities. A disadvantage would be that initially, aCKO would have appropriate authority but no infrastructure, processes, or expertise in place toprovide support for fulfilling the responsibilities of a CKO. Another disadvantage is that rapiddevelopment may not create the robust infrastructure or cultural change that will be necessary forbecomming a knowledge organization and a knowledge center.Alternatively, a senior manager could be appointed as an advisory member of the executivecommittee. This would represent a mid-level programmatic approach. The duties would besimilar to those of the high-level position, except that only selected aspects of knowledgemanagement would be addressed. Advantages are that it represents less of a “culture shock”than a CKO, and it would facilitate notable progress on knowledge management. Thedisadvantage is that it would weaken the bridging role between the executive and functionallevels.Finally, an organization could begin by appointing a knowledge management director ormanager, who reports to a senior manager. This represents a small, project-scale approach.Advantages are that it provides adequate authority to begin planning and developing KM at aproject scale, it minimizes the risk of technical failure, and it enables an organization to learn asit goes while evolving from a solid foundation. Disadvantages are that only limited aspects ofknowledge management would be addressed, it will take notably longer to develop the program,and it increases the risk of falling victim to evolving organizational priorities.As with functional position, there is no “right” answer to the hierarchical position for knowledgemanagement. There are advantages and disadvantages to a top-down enterprise approach, abottom-up project approach, and a middle-out program approach. The choice hinges on thedegree of executive-level support, organizational readiness for culture change, and availableresources. All three approaches can succeed if their plans are designed to maximize the benefitsand minimize the risks of the chosen path.Albert SimardSeptember 15, 2007