Knowledge Management, Careers in

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Once upon a time an article about careers might well have described a "career ladder." The concept was a useful one when organizations were hierarchical in nature and one might progress step by step ever higher in the management hierarchy. Many research studies of such diverse careers as college presidents, career army officers, directors of academic libraries, and chief executive officers concluded that successive positions followed a predictable upward pattern (i.e., a career ladder).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, the comfortable clarity and stability that the hierarchy offered is gone. David Skyrme (1999), a frequent writer on knowledge management (KM) topics, summarizes the transformation in business and society that has taken place in the "networked knowledge environment." The defining characteristics of networked organizations, according to Skyrme, are not so much particular organizational structures as they are informal human networking processes with the information technology that "underpins and enhances human networking" (p. 15). New ways of working in these environments include self-managed teams, virtual teams, flexible offices, and tele-working. The transition from a hierarchical organization to a postmodern environment can be characterized as "a series of interwoven projects defined by the sense-making and learning of its participants" (Addleson, 2000, p. 151).

The learning organization places less emphasis on rules, detailed specification of tasks, and error avoidance than on creative chaos, risk-taking, and error detection and correction. Organizations that tend to have knowledge management initiatives also usually have (1) senior management who believe that organizational learning and knowledge management are critical success factors, (2) an organizational culture focused on rapid growth, often driven by outside competitors, (3) internal trust, leading to a willingness to share knowledge, and (4) a strong customer orientation.

An IBM-supported study of twenty chief knowledge officers (CKOs) in North America and Europe sought to determine commonalities in the roles and to explore current and evolving knowledge management practices. The model CKO in this study is both a technologist and an environmentalist. He or she (many are female) has a responsibility "to encourage and initiate investment in information technology (IT) and also in the social environment" (Earl and Scott, 1999, p. 6). Most of the CKOs interviewed lacked formal IT training but had past involvement with IT projects. The first initiative for a CKO is often technological—building knowledge-sharing tools such as groupware projects, knowledge directories, and intranets. In the organizational domain, the CKOs create social environments and initiate events and processes to encourage knowledge creation and exchange—for example, through the design of space and by sponsoring events that bring people together to create communities with common interests. Part of the CKO's job as environmentalist involves a radical redesign of performance measurement systems in order to encourage collective, rather than individual, performance. The CKO also works with any educational or organizational development opportunities as a means of encouraging knowledge creation.

CKOs are change agents and entrepreneurs. They have a broad view of the organization and the ability to think strategically. Most CKOs have held a variety of jobs; no one professional background is dominant. They usually have had a number of years of experience in the organization (typically about ten years) and have established a reputation for credibility. Knowledge of the organization and its culture "yield advantages in the consulting and influencing aspects of the job" (Earl and Scott, 1999, p. 8).

CKO positions are new. All those who held the title in the IBM study were the first incumbents in the role. They operate with small budgets and staff. Most view their roles as temporary because once the goal of "embedded knowledge capacity" has been achieved, a knowledge management office and implementation team may not be needed. It is not clear, however, what would mark the attainment of the goal as objective measures of performance are often lacking, despite the demand for measures of knowledge and intellectual capital.

Another study, commissioned by the Library and Information Commission of the United Kingdom and undertaken by TFPL (1999), sought to determine the routes available to people wishing to develop knowledge management skills. Rather than studying the CKO, the emphasis in this study was on knowledge management facilitation roles. As is true of the appointment of a CKO, the first members of the knowledge management team are usually internal, perhaps for two reasons: (1) those who are already members of the firm are more apt to have important tacit knowledge about the organization and how it works and (2) personnel needs in this area are difficult to define and classify. As the concept of knowledge management has become more accepted and pervasive, external recruitment procedures have been established.

One search company, Knowledge Jobs (2001), specializes in knowledge jobs and provides a classification of them. In a similar manner, Nigel Oxbrow (2000) identifies a number of special roles such as knowledge management consultant, intranet manager, content manager, extranet manager, communities coordinator (to identify and stimulate communities of interest and communities of practice), and knowledge architect (to design structures for information resources, taxonomies for more accurate retrieval of information, and expertise databases).

These categories appear to be influenced by past experience, education, and job titles, rather than by identifying new knowledge, skills, and attitudes. The TFPL study identified a knowledge management skill set to include the following: business process identification and analysis; knowledge asset identification, creation, maintenance, and exploration; knowledge mapping and flows; the ability to leverage information and communication technology to create knowledge management enablers; project management; an understanding of information management (IM) and awareness of technology opportunities. To this list, Skyrme (1999) would add financial management skills, knowledge of how people learn, and how knowledge is developed, shared, and reviewed.

Information management skills are important, but people who demonstrate these skills do not necessarily come from the information profession. No one profession or function comprehends the whole picture of corporate information flows. Historically, different types of information have been treated as discrete entities, with the library/information profession focusing largely on external information and records management focusing on internal information. Other functions with information management capability include market research, strategic planning and competitive intelligence, customer relations, sales, technical support, research and development, and information technology.

For people to take advantage of knowledge management opportunities means they must develop a wide horizon and focus on the business objectives of the organizations that employ them. Jo Cates (2000), a knowledge manager for the Ernst and Young Center for Business Knowledge, offers tips for those people who are seeking career positions in the knowledge management field. She points out that most positions require industry experience, but she also notes that no field has a lock on these positions. She encourages attention to the presentation of skill sets on resumes; for example, she suggests adding "synthesis" to research skills and "taxonomy management" to cataloging skills.

Certainly, visibility and operational (or organizational) knowledge are important. Temperament probably plays a role in most successful careers as well. The need for a "match" between the person and the job is commonly discussed. The typical profile of a knowledge manager seems to include an outgoing personality, strong interpersonal skills, a high level of energy, a pragmatic and flexible cast of mind, high tolerance of ambiguity, and a sense of, and commitment to, business imperatives. Given the apparent growth of the knowledge management function within organizations, the number and kinds of positions below the CKO is expanding, although probably not indefinitely. For those people who are willing to take the leap, opportunity awaits.

See also:Chief Information Officers;Knowledge Management; Organizational Communication.


Addleson, Mark. (2000). "Organizing to Know and to Learn: Reflections on Organization and Knowledge Management." In Knowledge Management for the Information Professional, eds. T. Kanti Srikantaiah and Michael E. D. Koenig. Washington, DC: American Society for Information Science.

Cates, Jo. (2000). "Managing a Knowledge Management Career Search." Business & Finance Bulletin 113 (Winter):17-21.

Earl, Michael J., and Scott, Ian A. (1999). "Opinion:What Is a Chief Knowledge Officer?" <>.

KnowledgeJobs. (2001). "The KnowledgeJobs Classification System." <>.

Oxbrow, Nigel. (2000). "Skills and Competencies to Succeed in a Knowledge Economy." Information Outlook 4(10):18-22.

Skyrme, David J. (1999). Knowledge Networking: Creating the Collaborative Enterprise. Oxford, Eng.: Butterworth Heinemann.

TFPL, Ltd. (1999). "Skills for Knowledge Management." <>.

Evelyn H. Daniel