This post is a continuing discussion (Chief Knowledge Officer, or CKO) in response to Franz Dill’s post on his blogThe Eponymous Pickle.

There is so much history surrounding this issue (CKO) that I would write a book series about it if I had time. After years of running a management consulting firm, which we then converted to a knowledge systems lab and incubator, I found myself working increasingly as a citizen volunteer attempting to convince the U.S. Government to adopt advanced knowledge systems. The conversation began in the mid-1990s and then reached decision levels when so many of the world’s leading thinkers and analysts joined our online learning network from ’97 to 2000. Among dozens of other topics, we offered a high quality global news filter on KM, complete with intel briefs, and companion discussion list. With each major crisis since that time we’ve been able to confirm that with a state of the art semantic system in place those crises could have been avoided, and most probably would have been. The result is that if the U.S. had invested tens of millions a decade ago, we may have saved trillions of dollars by now, and thousands of lives.

KM started as a sincere early science that combined the research in learning organizations with information technology, which became far more complex for everyone with the commercialization of the web. Unfortunately, KM became a trendy buzz phrase and consulting practice before the majority offering services could even define it. Global self- accredited organizations sprouted up and many universities began offering PhD programs in KM before it had matured into a professional practice. In fact, of the many doctoral theses I reviewed on related topics in the1990s, a work in progress by Michael Sutton then at McGill University was among the most interesting, for it looked at the university programs themselves, which required deep consideration of the science and practice. I recall a pleasant meeting with Dr. Sutton and his wife when they visited Sedona, AZ during this time. Dr. Sutton is now assistant professor at Westminster in SLC — his completed thesis is available here (5+ MB pdf – a must for serious students and practitioners) .

Early on I found that the members of the Special Librarian’s Association (SLA) were among the most skilled at the functions organizations actually needed as the web grew exponentially; particularly those specializing as digital librarians. It may not be surprising then that Dr. France Bouthillier was Michael Sutton’s Dissertation Advisor. Dr. Bouthillier is a professor in Library Science and Information Studies at McGill University, which is one of the stronger programs worldwide. Academic KM programs have improved substantially in the past few years, although significant overlap still exists in KM, Organizational Management, Library Science, and CS, among others. It became obvious to me in our small pioneering lab that not only did we need better educational programs, skills, and tools, but more importantly we needed much improved system design.

When I joined the U.S. Gov CIO WG on KM, I quickly discovered an enormous difference in competency and culture within the agencies, some of which were predominantely focused on turf protection, careerism, and agency power rather than their true mission; as was clearly evidenced in the Katrina experience. I also discovered that some of the CIOs were focused on hardware, with very little if any understanding of the many other areas affecting organizational management, learning, productivity, and innovation; so it was foolhardy in many cases for the CKO to report to a CIO, which was the case for the entire U.S. Gov effort.

I then learned that any multi-agency effort — where the real need existed, must be placed on the WH agenda for any actual movement. After Katrina revealed blatant flaws in the system, I wrote a business case and submitted to agency heads, members of Congress, and many other leaders. We finally succeeded in achieving a mention for a generic KM system in the Katrina report, making the WH agenda for the first time, but nothing happened. Meanwhile, most other leading countries have adopted some variation of a national knowledge system, with the EU now leading the world in related investment. Australia recruited me a decade ago to discuss designing and managing their national system; an impressive $200+ million effort that was more advanced in many ways than the U.S. now — particularly in human systems, cross agency, and community-wide efforts. Australia has a smaller population, but is similarly dispersed and happened to sail through this global recession better than most — as did Canada — even given the more commodity based economies this connection is probably not a coincidence, based on my understanding.

So we continued to advance our own applied research, which includes a module that performs the functions of a CKO in the digital work environment we deemed necessary in what has been frankly a very chaotic working environment (a virtual CKO of sorts, although it does require a human to operate, set policy and security issues, and approve business unit modules.). Rob Neilson is one of our advisors — he was grandfathered in and approved by the DoD because he joined when he was consulting — now KM advisor to the Army. Rob was a pioneer in the CKO role where he held the position at NDU — although a decade old now and not nearly as deep as we have gone with functionality in the design since — his paper on the role of the CKO is still popular.

To say that it was challenging to overcome the design challenges in knowledge systems is a vast understatement; technical standards, meritocracy, alignment of interests, behavior, propogation throughout the organization, security issues, IP, rating systems, metrics, and more; each of which had serious challenges, and all interconnected both in terms of technical and organizational architecture. Did I mention culture?

We are focused on the corporate market now, where interest has been strong, particularly since the financial crisis provided ample motivation for smarter systems, but I am hoping that the Gov and Edu markets will finally embrace the state of the art and focus on their true mission rather than constructing barriers to improvement. There has been an effort to create a CKO for the U.S. Government, similar to the new CIO and CTO roles. I’ve been told by senior U.S. staffers that the CIO doesn’t have budget authority, which is the point where most of the turf problems are created — decisions on standards, silos are created, etc. I am not certain how effective a person with a title can be if they have no budget authority, if architecture is very poorly designed, and the tools are primitive relative to need. My position has been that far more can be accomplished by enterprise design.

A well designed architecture not only encourages departments to ‘talk’ to each other, but provides the opportunity and functionality within system parameters (regulations), improves on economic efficiencies/sustainability, improves innovation, and enhances security substantially. When properly designed such a system can actually manage the learning yield curve of an organization with ‘valves’ for quality and quantity, and provide rich metrics to visualize the process and results in the entire organization. That’s what is possible today. It seems to me that the recent evidence is abundantly clear justifying such a system, as we have been saying now to all who would listen for over a dozen years.
A very important topic that deserves a brighter light with a deeper explanation and historical background.

Mark Montgomery
Founder & CEO – Kyield
Twitter: @kyield