Knowledge Officers Change Intellectual Property Forever

These new executive positions – some reporting to the vice president of human resources, but often directly to the CEO – are highly coveted. According to Diane Gayeski, professor of corporate communications at Ithaca College in New York and a partner in the Ithaca-based Omnicom Associates consulting firm, compensation packages for CKOs and CLOs frequently are in the $200,000 range.

While there’s no concrete count on how many companies actually employ these critters, one estimate holds that about 20 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a CKO or CLO. Another suggests that there may be 250 to 300 of them in the United States. Many more smaller organizations reportedly are trying to hire one, often with difficulty and mixed results, says Phillip York of, a site that helps startups identify small business opportunities.

“I’m constantly getting calls from clients and headhunters interested in finding a learning officer,” says York. “They generally need someone who knows the business, can see the big picture and trends, and then can crystallize and communicate a whole range of strategic messages in a form that employees can understand and use. The CEOs want a person who can look beyond training to performance, culture, collaboration, internal and external communication strategies, and more. That kind of person is hard to find.”

Experience as a CKO or CLO would also be helpful. But because the field is so new, seasoned candidates are few and far between. “There probably are no more than 20 highly qualified, proven performers in the field,” says Bowsher.

“There really are just a handful of top guns, like [Motorola‘s] Bill Wiggenhorn and [General Electric’s] Steve Kerr,” adds an executive at a California industrial firm that for months has searched in vain for a new director of learning and development. “They’re great about sharing what they’ve learned about their field, but to lure them to a full-time position is probably beyond the reach of most any company,” says the manager, who asked to remain anonymous.

A one-time Xerox sales representative who headed that firm’s sales-training department, Wiggenhorn joined Motorola in 1981. Since then, as a senior vice president and president of Motorola University (his title is neither CLO nor CKO), he has built its myriad campuses and curricula into a model institution which now sells its services to hundreds of other companies – and built Motorola into everybody’s favorite example of a learning organization. Bowsher considers Wiggenhorn the No. 1 training and learning officer in the nation; Kerr, CLO at General Electric, is not far behind. The former dean of the business school faculty at the University of Southern California, Kerr runs General Electric’s highly esteemed Crotonville leadership education center.

Like Wiggenhorn, Kerr has the complete backing of his CEO, and works in an organization culturally committed to learning and knowledge management. A CLO who tries to inculcate learning in a more hidebound organization may face a tougher road. “You could promote someone from the inside of your company,” explains the California executive, “but this is the kind of job that often demands someone with fresh ideas for change, who can make a dramatic impact. That means an outsider might have an edge. Then again, without intimate knowledge of the company, the outside person could get chewed up by the organization’s politics and lose credibility in a heartbeat.”

Training managers who are former instructors are often seen by line executives as somehow tainted by the old school of training, says Bowsher. In other words, the odds are they will fail to jostle the organization out of its traditional assumptions about learning – or they will sit in the position as a meaningless cipher.

Another option is to hire an academic, although these folks also come with liabilities. The California executive’s firm has interviewed a number of candidates with strong university backgrounds. “These were awfully bright Ph.D.s,” he says. “They could draw up a curriculum that would knock your socks off. The problem is, we aren’t looking to create a corporate university, with static classes and instructors telling students what they ought to know. The candidates also didn’t know much about our business. And none of them had the passion required to stimulate learning among professional adults. We’re in a world where if knowledge isn’t applied, the effort and expense is an absolute waste.”

Adds Bowsher: “Professors often fail in the job because they come from the unstructured world of education, where there are no measurements other than those for grading students. Typically, they last two or three years in the position and then return to the academic world.”

What Do You Do With a CLO?

It’s also clear that not all organizations are ready for a learning officer. A recent survey conducted by Business Intelligence and Ernst & Young found that nearly 44 percent of respondents believed such an officer would be of little or no value. For every Ernst & Young – which like other consulting and service firms trades almost exclusively in knowledge as a product – there are 100 organizations that wouldn’t have a clue how to make use of a knowledge or learning officer, such as

Despite the variety of titles for the job, the problem is not that the field itself is ill-defined. In fact, the attributes of an effective learning, knowledge or development officer have been spelled out in numerous business articles and books (see box, “For Further Reading,” page 34). And there are some good corporate examples of the tactics, strategies and approaches such an officer might launch, as well as organizational models for the function (see box, “Sharing the Knowledge,” opposite page). However, the very fact that the possibilities are so vast causes a degree of confusion.

As management guru Peter Drucker has observed, executives often confuse data with real knowledge, and the wiring and computing power of information technology with the substance of useful information. What’s more, while managers and employees can now tap into the World Wide Web, Lotus Notes, and intranet pages chockablock with data, interpreting what they mean and how they can be applied to specific work is another kettle of fish.

Discussions of what a company wants from a CKO or CLO invariably lead to a number of essential questions, some logical and pertinent, others dripping with cynicism: Precisely what is this person supposed to be? A glorified head librarian? Just another vice president with an upgraded title? The dean of a corporate university with hundreds of employees, or the head of a small group with just three or four people?

Or worse, is this just the latest management fad, spawned of an idea that has proven useful for a few big-time corporations – General Electric, Motorola, CocaCola – but practically guaranteed to sap employee time and real productivity in more prosaic businesses?

The title itself – be it “learning,” “knowledge,” “intellect,” or even the squishy idea of a “chief officer of transformation” – exposes the whole notion to ridicule, says Britton Manasco, editor and publisher of “Knowledge Inc.,” a newsletter that covers the burgeoning knowledge management field. Confusion about labels generates a set of polarizing problems, he notes.

“There have been a couple of unfortunate headlines in Business Week and The Wall Street Journal that have called these people the ‘Office Know-It-Alls,'” says Manasco. “The substance of the articles describes them quite differently, but thanks to clever headline writers, the damage is done. Still, I think there are problems with the use of ‘Chief’ and ‘Officer’ in the titles, since it gives the impression that these executives are part of a chain of command.”

A Renaissance Communicator Confusion, not to mention skepticism, is inevitable when it’s all but impossible to nail down the job description of this quintessentially ’90s corporate character. Certainly there are reasons for quirky variations in titles and responsibilities, but none are likely to satisfy wry trendspotters or – more important – leery executives.

“A good learning or knowledge officer is someone who can pull people together and get them interested in helping solve each other’s problems, inspiring them to work across functions,” says Manasco. “They’ve got to be good at connecting people. It’s a form of leading without telling people what to do, and that requires a mix of hard and soft skills.”

Consultant Gayeski sees the ideal learning or knowledge officer as a communicator, first and foremost. “I’ve described them as renaissance communicators,” she explains, “because they need to pull together things from so many islands of communication.”

Today’s corporations are archipelagoes of disparate communication, says Gayeski. Employee newsletters and Web pages convey one version of corporate truths; the training department sends another message through the skills, ideas and behaviors it tries to impart; meanwhile, the company’s advertisements make promises to customers that directly contradict what employees are told. “A CLO or CKO is the one person, besides the CEO, who can help focus and coordinate the messages,” says Gayeski. “Which is why I’d use the term ‘chief communications officer.'”

A CLO won’t get far if the company doesn’t reward sharing. At Ernst & Young, one-quarter of an employee’s performance review hinges on contributions to the database. And it’s that demand for open sharing – and rock-solid CEO support – that’s made Kerr’s work at General Electric such a success.

“In many companies, if you have a best practice, you hoard it and enjoy a competitive advantage over your sister divisions,” observes Kerr. “When the CEO comes around, you are praised and rewarded for it. It’s different at GE.”

Indeed, when CEO Jack Welch hears that a good idea hasn’t been shared, observers have seen his face turn a remarkable shade of purple. Such displays put real teeth into the idea of trading knowledge. What’s more, CEO support is without a doubt the most important factor in determining whether a CLO or CKO succeeds or fails.

“Both Wiggenhorn and Kerr are great at what they do,” says an executive who knows both men. “But they’re great because they were the right people for the right organizations and got tremendous support from their CEOs. [Wiggenhorn] is very much a celebrity now with his writing and consulting. But it was [Motorola CEO] Bob Galvin who was the driving force behind Motorola University. Kerr is a superstar, but a lot of it is the result of his relationship with Jack Welch.”

Even with support, learning officers must find ways to keep proving the worth of their enterprise. As an Ernst & Young consultant, Peetz could easily prove his value; as a CKO he wandered into new territory. Buying power-pack technology that allows employees to load databases into their laptops and training them to use it is costly, says Peetz. “Your group can be viewed as overhead,” he admits.

The best way to overcome that perception? “Get out into the field and stay in touch with employees using the resources,” says Peetz. “It’s a way to check attitudes and find out if we’re still adding value. And it’s also a means of developing metrics that prove the function is more than overhead.”

Ironically enough, Peetz’s CKO experience has, in a sense, made him another Ernst & Young product. “We have two or three clients a week visiting, just to see how we manage intellectual capital,” he explains. “There’s a lot they can pick up, though they probably can’t apply it directly.”

That’s because the CEO, the firm’s culture, and the personality of the CKO shape any learning management effort. And the outcome is likely to be as distinct as a fingerprint. In the end, it may not matter if knowledge-sharing is led by a glorified librarian, a high-powered trainer, or even a renaissance communicator – as long as the effort is done, and done well.


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