What's the first step for a CIO contemplating the hire of a knowledge management professional? For a lot of executives, the answer is "Think again." That's because most corporations incorrectly position knowledge management within the IS group.
"It's wrong to jump to the conclusion that KM is a subset of IT and the whole practice should be thrown lock, stock and barrel into IT," said Mark W. McElroy, president of KM Consortium International in Windsor, Vt. "IT can be used to support KM, but putting the KM practice in IT is akin to saying, 'Why don't we have CFO in IT? Or the director of HR?" At most companies, high-ranking KM positions such as that of the chief knowledge officer, or CKO, should be on a par with the CIO, not reporting to the CIO, he said.
McElroy also pointed out that many people confuse the term information management -- with its links to software, such as workflow and document management -- with knowledge management. "When people use the words KM, most of time they're referring to information management practices," he said.
That said, there is a strong link between KM personnel and those in IS. Many CKOs came from the IT function, and technology remains a key enabler for most KM projects, such as resource databases or expert yellow pages.
And to be realistic, most companies don't have the deep pockets or organizational heft necessary to support a standalone KM department. For those who aren't interested in a full-blown KM strategy, a smaller investment can still prove worthwhile. Even McElroy concedes that there's a space within the IT department for certain KM specialists.
With that in mind, the following tips can help scoop up the best KM professional for your needs:
Figure out how your company processes knowledge
It may seem obvious, but the role of the KM professional should be as important as the role of knowledge in any given organization. But that importance varies widely by company and industry, said Jerry Ash, president and co-founder of the Association of Knowledgework, based in Ruskin, Fla. "If you're a consultancy, for example, knowledge is all that you are," he said. "If you're an oil company, it's only about 70% of what you are."
Knowledge-intensive companies have different KM needs than those of their less intense brethren, said Yogesh Malhotra, the founder of Brint.com, a knowledge management portal based in Syracuse, N.Y.
"I would characterize more knowledge-intensive organizations as those that have greater need for adapting to radical discontinuous change," he said. "These organizations are characterized by less structure and routine processing of information, [a] higher level of environmental dynamics and change and [a] greater need for organizational knowledge creation and renewal. The less knowledge-intensive organizations or organizational functions may be better characterized as data- or information-intensive organizations that may have lesser knowledge creation and renewal needs."
Look for a broad set of skills
Here's the thing about knowledge management workers: until very recently, there wasn't any place to get a formal KM degree. So how do you figure out what skills a knowledge manager should have?
"I'm more interested in what people have been doing rather than how they've been educated, because most people have not been educated to become CKOs," Ash said. "I look for people who can get their arms around the whole concept -- people skills, knowledge of taxonomy, library skills, technology know-how. They don't have to be experts, but they need to be able to communicate in those worlds."
McElroy takes it one step further. "What we're talking about is a form of social science," he said. "It wouldn't hurt to understand things like the roles of groups in communities in learning, for example."
This is a tough group of skills to find in one person, although some organizations, such as KM Consortium and eKnowledgeCenter, have started offering certificates in knowledge management.
Match project needs to KM skill sets
What happens if you can't find the perfect all-around KM worker? Then find one who can handle the top-priority KM projects in the pipeline, said Tom Davenport, director of the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change in Cambridge, Mass. For example, if you're building a knowledge portal, you'll need somebody with some sense of how to organize and categorize knowledge, he said. That argues librarian skills. If you're building communities, somebody with an HR background might work.
Davenport also said that since most KM functions aren't standalone, they frequently take on the flavor of the function in which they reside. "If it's going to be in the IT function, people will look for technical help in KM. If it resides in the HR function you can look for a strong orientation to expertise directories and things like that." His point? Some upfront thinking about the kind of KM work that needs to be done will help place the KM workers appropriately within a function.
One last thing: there are plenty of KM professionals out there. "You shouldn't have any trouble finding somebody these days," Davenport said. "KM is frequently viewed as an overhead-oriented function, and we all know what happens to those when tough times hit."