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What Is a Chief Knowledge Officer?

To understand the role of chief knowledge officer (CKO) and the evolving practice of knowledge management (KM), the authors studied twenty CKOs in North America and Europe using face-to-face interviews, and a personality assessment questionnaire. All CKOs were first incumbents, most having been on the job less than two years.

Appointed by CEOs more through intuition and instinct than through analysis or strategic logic, the CKOs had to discover and develop the CEO's implicit vision of how KM would make a difference.

The CKOs agreed that knowledge is a necesssary and sustainable source of competitive advantage and that companies are not good at managing either explicit knowledge (expressed in words or numbers and shared as scientific formulas, codified procedures, or universal principles) or tacit knowledge (personal, experiential, context specific, and hard to formalize).

CKOs have two principal design competencies: they are technologists (able to understand which technologies can contribute to capturing, storing, exploring, and sharing knowledge) and environmentalists (able to create social environments that stimulate and facilitate arranged and chance conversations or able to develop events and processes to encourage deliberate knowledge creation and exchange).

As self-starters and risk takers, these CKOs are entrepreneurs who can strategize about transforming the corporation through KM and are driven by building something and seeing it through. By matching new ideas with the business needs of their constituencies, the CKOs are also consultants, trafficking in ideas that fit the corporation's knowledge vision.

Breadth of career experience, familiarity with their organizations, and infectious enthusiasm for their mission are characteristic of these CKOs. The personality characteristics and competencies of these CKOs are unusual and distinctive. They need to be sociable and energetic yet tolerant and pragmatic. Finding the right person is at least as important as deciding to create the CKO role.

Two critical success factors have emerged: the need for organizational slack time (for thinking, dreaming, talking, and selling) and high-level sponsorship beyond visible CEO support. The CKO must make senior executives and prominent line managers believe in KM -- a goal that is indivisible from winning and retaining personal trust.

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