Anyone can say knowledge is power, but a knowledge management leader must prove it.
Since the late 1980s, organizations have increasingly focused on knowledge management (KM) -- the process by which companies collect knowledge and make it available to employees and customers. To build an effective KM program, organizations need a central team to devise and roll out the implementation plan. This team should include people with business, IT and writing skills. But it also needs a leader to head the program and take responsibility for it.
A KM leader must understand an organization's internal politics and know how to guide people, according to Dr. Nick Milton, KM consultant and co-author of The Knowledge Manager's Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Embedding Effective Knowledge Management in your Organization.
While KM team members should understand technical aspects of KM, such as knowledge base software and content management, the team's leader must build trust with employees and communicate the importance of KM across the organization.
Here, Milton discusses the role, skills and challenges of a KM leader.
Editor's note: The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
What role does a knowledge manager play in the implementation of a knowledge management program?
Dr. Nick Milton: The term knowledge manager can be very broad. In fact, there are multiple knowledge management roles in an organization. But any organization starting the journey toward KM creates a team to plan and drive that startup. What role does that team play? Their role is to design the management system for KM, test it and roll it out.
Just as if you were introducing any other system of management like quality management, diversity management or innovation management, you would have a team that works out the terms of reference, does a few targeted pilots and then rolls out the whole thing from beginning to end. That's at least a two-year journey -- maybe a five-year journey.
What are the main skills of a knowledge manager?
Milton: On the knowledge management team, you've got a leader … the person who is given accountability for introducing KM. The most important skill for that person is to be a change agent.
Knowledge management is a process of getting people to change their mindset. The mindset they're starting from is, "Knowledge work is a side issue. I've got my job to do." A KM team must create the mindset that knowledge work is part of the job.
People understand that mindset when it comes to financial management. They know that there's no point in doing the job and forgetting about the money. In KM there's no point in doing the job and forgetting about the knowledge.
Somebody's got to steward and drive that change in attitude, which is why I say skill No. 1 for a KM leader is to be a change agent. Skill No. 2 is they need a good inside view of the organization, because you can't change an organization from the outside.
What are some common challenges a KM leader may face?
Milton: A change in senior management derails most KM programs. KM will often start on the coattails of a senior manager, such as a CEO, and their vision. However, the KM leader must realize they may only have between two and four years before there's a shift in power at the top level.
KM leaders must use those initial years to demonstrate the value of KM within the organization and get it as firmly embedded into the organization's processes, culture and workflow as they can. Then when the new senior manager says, "Show me you're adding value," the KM leader is in a better position to do that.
That's the second challenge: demonstrating KM's value. The KM leader must demonstrate that things have gotten faster and cheaper. If they're in the early stages, they should collect data about the cost of not implementing a KM program.
Should a KM leader be an internal or an external appointment within an organization?
Milton: It helps if the leader understands the organization's politics. If you come in as an external person, you might understand KM itself, but you don't understand the organization. So, I would prefer it to be an internal appointment.
In the surveys we've done, it's an internal appointment 90% of the time. KM is a simple concept, but making it happen in an organization is hard. The internal appointment is most valuable in understanding how to make it happen.
How might an organization's internal politics challenge an external appointee more than an internal one?
Milton: The biggest pushbacks you get are, "Oh it won't work here," and, "We tried it, and it didn't work." It's good to challenge those. Everybody says, "We're different," but they're not. They're human. Knowledge management is a human thing, and you're trying to overcome human habits of knowledge hoarding.
Knowledge management leaders need enough history to be able to say, "Yeah, we tried it, but we didn't try it well. This time we're going to do it right." It can be hard for an external appointee to have the context to argue against those common responses.
Is there anything else relating to the role of a knowledge manager that you'd like to share?
Milton: We've spoken about the central role -- the role of the person leading the change and managing the team. But there will be knowledge managers at multiple levels in the organization.
For example, there might be a knowledge manager for a department or a division, and their role is to support the transition of that department. There might be a knowledge manager for a particular topic, such as a product or process. The subject matter expert has a KM role, which is to make sure there is an accessible body of knowledge on that product or process. You might even have a knowledge manager in a project.