Is This Job Really Necessary? On balance, yes. The growing herd of corporate executives who carry the title of chief knowledge officer have real work to do--if they can figure out how to do it.
By Thomas A. Stewart

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Chuck Lucier, a partner at Booz Allen & Hamilton, the consulting firm, has an odd distinction: He is one of the world's few former chief knowledge officers. Lucier was one of the first CKOs when he got the job in 1994, and still a rare bird when he relinquished it a few months ago. The title has, however, been spreading as fast as zebra mussels, those pesty freshwater mollusks, native to the Caspian Sea, that in less than a decade have found their way into every Great Lakes inlet and bay. Daniel Holtshouse, director of knowledge initiatives at Xerox, has been trying to take a census of the CKO population--not easy, because titles and responsibilities vary--and estimates that about a fifth of the FORTUNE 500 employ someone who, in role if not always in name, is CKO.

The job is still so new that few people who hold it know quite what it is. There are CKOs with large staffs and CKOs with none; some who report to the chairman and others who report several layers down. Lucier, a man not given to uncertainty about any subject, isn't sure whether his firm should appoint a successor. He says: "I'm trying to figure out if we should have a chief knowledge officer and what the position is. One question is, How many change leaders do you need?" Chief knowledge officer, chief information officer, and chief learning officer--are these real jobs, or are they the Moe, Larry, and Curly of the New Economy?

The short answer: Real jobs, but maybe not for the long run. I believe--if you don't know this already, you are a new reader and warmly welcome--that intellectual capital matters more than any other asset and must be managed explicitly, not left to fend for itself. But I've been chary about the mass crowning of knowledge czars. These days executive suites are filled with chiefs who are notable chiefly for their lack of Indians--and whose job seems chiefly to be disturbing people who are trying to work.

But after a series of conversations with CKOs, I've come to think that most sizable companies ought to go out and get one. First, there's a large, coherent, and profit-generating set of responsibilities that appropriately belong to one person--that is, it's a job. Second, no one is doing it now--that is, it's a new job, not a bloviated title. And third, unless someone holds the position, its responsibilities will be neglected or captured and perhaps perverted--that is, it's a necessary job.

The first CKOs showed up in professional service firms, where, they claim, knowledge is the stock-in-trade. Says John Peetz, CKO of Ernst & Young: "For us, knowledge management is critical. It's one of our four core processes--sell work, do work, manage people, and manage knowledge." In his job description, Peetz, who reports to the firm's vice chairman, outlines his three basic responsibilities as a CKO: evangelizing about the importance of sharing knowledge; running and backing projects that find, publish, and distribute knowledge around the firm; and managing a staff of about 200 people, mostly in the firm's Center for Business Knowledge in Cleveland, and a firmwide infrastructure of Websites, Lotus Notes databases, and other technology. That's the right way to parse the job, though E&Y's is an unusually large operation.

None of those pieces is trivial. Take sermonizing. Nowadays to say knowledge should be shared rather than hoarded is like saying motherhood is good. Maternal virtue, however, doesn't stop children from defying the incumbent mom; similarly, collegiality contends with subverters, wriggle-outers, and a few outright foes. Auditors, lawyers, security officers, personnel staff--everyone wants to keep secrets, just as everyone in Der Ring des Nibelungen wants the gold. Often the secret keepers have a point. Some forms of knowledge sharing, such as price fixing, lead to the hoosegow. Some are called leaks. A few years ago, signs at Xerox cautioned employees against blabbing confidences in elevators and hallways, yet companies should encourage casual chat because it's a powerful way to share ideas, say studies...done by Xerox.

Part of the CKO's job is to tease out the difference between prudence and vain, ambitious, or slothful hoarding--and to be a sort of in-house ACLU, arguing for the maximum freedom of speech. That's because most top staff people--the general counsel, the head of HR, the CFO--have institutional reasons to censor. This "culture war," as Peetz calls it, also has to be fought in the business units. Says Erin Spencer, director of knowledge management at Andersen Consulting: "There's always some group that claims its knowledge is so special that it mustn't be shared." A drug company's product development teams must be discreet, but new-drug approval goes faster if knowledge is shared. In investment banking, M&A types may say there's no way to swap ideas without spilling clients' confidential beans. In consulting, the strategy group may believe the same. Could be true, or could be they're off on what in the Sixties we called a power trip. Either way, it takes a top-level guy to balance the competing claims of getting the most value from knowledge by putting it to widespread use against keeping the silver cupboard locked.

A second part of the CKO's job thus becomes devising ways to polish, package, and present knowledge--such as best practices--across functions or business units. These tasks can range from exemplary small efforts, first stones in the pond, to hugely ambitious projects that collect whole bodies of knowledge. In between, CKOs set companywide standards of format, access, and technology. Says Larry Prusak, IBM's leading knowledge management guru and co-author of the superb new book Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know: "There are a couple of competing visions for the CKO role. In one he leads a small group, one to four people, who act as catalysts; in the other, the CKO has heavy responsibility for a lot of databases, a technical infrastructure, and so on."

The World Bank, which has decided that intellectual capital has a key role to play in the developing world, is undertaking one of the most ambitious initiatives. Stephen Denning--program director for knowledge management, reporting to the chief information officer--has a year 2000 target for creating a living map and library of everything the bank knows about what works and what doesn't in economic development.

Step one was to define the domains of knowledge relevant to the bank's mission. (For profit-seeking companies, that would be defining the skills customers pay you for: risk management, microelectronics, geology, etc.) With an advisory board from the bank's operating divisions, Denning defined some 80 domains of expertise--vocational training, population control, and so on--in 15 categories such as health, finance, education, and agriculture.

Across each domain, the bank wants to achieve eight things. The most important is to find and support a "community of practice," a group of people who live, breathe, and love the subject--the experts, thinkers, knowledge creators. "Without a community of practice," Denning says, "it's impossible to build a knowledge base." Second is to create an online presence for the domain, a "place" in the bank's knowledge-management architecture; that's not as important as the community, but it's still a sine qua non: "We wouldn't be talking about this if the Internet didn't exist."

The community and the Net are the human and technical basics. From them, the rest follow: For each domain, Denning and members of the community of practice will set up a help desk, a who-knows-what Yellow Pages, a collection of key sector statistics, records of the bank's previous projects (emphasizing best practices and lessons learned), an electronic bulletin board/dialogue space, and finally, a provision for outsiders (such as the bank's client countries) to get into the system on their own.

What the World Bank is doing is a model for what CKOs can do--but not the only one. Note that it's not glorified librarianship--though those skills matter--but a new role that includes auditing knowledge assets, spotting gaps and opportunities, nurturing knowledge-creating communities, and dealing directly with customers. Says Chuck Lucier of Booz Allen: "When I became CKO, there were about 30 research librarians who worked for us. When I left the post, there were about 120 people associated with knowledge management, of whom 15 reported to me and the rest were in the business units." It's that evolution that leads Lucier to wonder whether the CKO position is a temporary one, which might disappear or attenuate as knowledge sharing becomes established in the culture and procedures of business units.

Knowledge management--and therefore the job of the chief knowledge officer--is about two things: collection and connection. Both must be done, but the emphasis will vary from company to company. In general, the more decentralized a company, the more important the catalytic, connecting role is likely to be and the less practical it is to be an encyclopedist. At companies like Unilever and Johnson & Johnson, says Prusak, the CKO can make a major contribution simply by creating opportunities for fraternization--for example, by arranging meetings and Lotus Notes discussion spaces for people working on the year 2000 computer problem. In rabidly centrifugal companies, these people might not otherwise know about one another's work.

Companies with chief knowledge officers seem not to have chief learning officers, and vice versa. "The roles seem to be distinct," says Gary Barton, a Houston executive recruiter who has placed several of each, "but I haven't seen a company that has both." The difference is philosophical. Says Barton: "Learning officers have an HR focus, trying to build individual and organizational capability." CLOs tend to talk about training, leadership development, and change management; CKOs speak of leveraging intellectual capital, knowledge worker productivity, and networks.

There's no escaping it--the fundamental tension in management between hard and soft, theory X and theory Y, Hobbes and Rousseau. The danger, of course, is that the tension becomes a struggle from which one side or the other emerges victorious. Intellectual capital is a sum, not a remainder. It's the total of human, structural, and customer intangibles: the things people know, the documents and artifacts they create, and the value they and their customers place on each other's abilities. In building and exploiting intellectual capital, the CKO is catalyst, cataloguer, and caterwauler--but also collaborator.

Contact TOM STEWART at our Smart Managing bulletin board on the Internet at http://fortune.com or by E-mail: ThosStew@aol.com