Originally posted 25-Apr-24

Stan Garfield
6 min readApr 26, 2024

--

The lack of C-level advocacy for knowledge management has always been a serious challenge for KM professionals.

In my recent post about Bob Buckman I stated that he is “one of the very few corporate CEOs to directly champion knowledge management, write about it, and actively participate in KM professional organizations.”

This post will explain why it is so important for top leaders in all types of organizations to not only advocate for KM, but to play an active role in practicing it.

Although it’s possible to implement a knowledge management program without the support of top leadership, it’s much more likely to succeed if you have it. Getting senior leaders to provide funding, demonstrate support, and lead by example are critical success factors.

Range of Executive Responses to Knowledge Management

There are five different types of responses to those who are trying to start or sustain a KM program.

1. Hostile

Some leaders actively oppose or undermine KM efforts. They may have taken over a leadership role and found a KM program already in existence. If they had no role in approving it, they might wish to cut back or eliminate it. This could be because of a previous bad experience, a lack of understanding, or a need to cut costs and show short-term profit improvement.

In Chapter 14: Apply Lessons Learned of my book Proven Practices for Promoting a Knowledge Management Program, I quote Richard Cross: Never trust someone who says, “Show me the ROI.” In every culture there are seemingly rational questions that mask hostile intent. “Can you show me the ROI?” generally falls into this category. Asking for demonstrable ROI could be an early warning sign regarding lack of their (or your) credibility.

Guaranteed ROI then becomes a respectable and convenient way to express concerns over consequences. It’s easier for leaders to tell you they have decided not to proceed with KM because of this rather than to explain issues such as mistrust; scars from mistakes made before; politics; hassle; not interested; risk to career or company, or the simple fact that they don’t like you.

You can try to overcome executive hostility using the proven practices in my book, but it may be impossible. If so, you can wait for a new executive to take over or move to another organization that is more supportive.

2. Neutral

Many leaders may not know much about knowledge management and will be neither supportive nor hostile. If they stay out of your way, you can make some headway, but it is much better if you can help move them to become supportive or participative.

3. Lip Service

Leaders may appear to endorse a KM program but in fact are only superficially supportive. For example, they may advocate usage of an enterprise social network, but then continue sending email. They may say, “Everyone should fill in their personal profiles,” but they have someone else fill in theirs. Instead of using a KM tool, they may delegate it to someone else. They may say they want a KM program but fail to allocate budget and resources for it.

This is slightly better than the previous two responses but can be difficult to overcome. The appearance of support is disingenuous, but if you explicitly confront it, this may result in denial, defensiveness, and diminished actual support.

4. Supportive

This response is valuable, and includes helpful funding, messaging, and management involvement with goals, measurements, and recognition. This can get a KM program going and help it progress, but it is one level short of the ideal.

5. Participative

Senior leaders who lead by example, practice what they preach, and model the desired KM behaviors are the most likely to help your KM program achieve its full potential. Executives and their staffs should not only communicate about key initiatives. They should actually participate themselves in a visible manner.

Employees are used to receiving messages asking them to adopt some new process or tool or to behave in a specified manner. They tend to ignore these requests unless there is some obvious benefit to them, they expect to be directly measured on compliance or punished for non-compliance, or they have a personal interest or emotional connection to the topic. A better way to get the attention of employees is to see top management directly using the process or tool or demonstrating a task they have asked others to perform.

Leaders who demonstrate they are willing to do the very thing they have asked others to do are likely to see other members of the organization follow their example. Members of the organization will watch the actions of their leaders. If they perceive that the message is “do as I say, not as I do,” they will be unlikely to do what is requested of them. But if employees observe management actually taking its own advice, they are much more likely to follow suit.

“Practice what you preach” is a good motto. Leaders who tell employees to join communities should visibly be active community leaders or members. If they want people to start blogging, they should blog regularly, solicit comments, and respond promptly to those comments. They should do this themselves, not through subordinates. To model the KM behaviors they want others to demonstrate, they should share, innovate, reuse, collaborate, and learn in an open and visible way.

Examples of Supportive and Participative Leadership for Knowledge Management

The best way for senior leaders to support and participate in KM programs is to make The 10 Commitments:

  1. Approve a reasonable budget for people and other KM expenses.
  2. Ensure that all KM leaders have the time to do a good job in the role and are allowed to meet in person once a year.
  3. Learn how to give a KM program overview presentation.
  4. Learn how to use KM tools and use them to lead by example. Show everyone how easy it is to actually use the processes and technology.
  5. Communicate regularly about how the organization is doing in KM. It should be on the agenda for all meetings, con calls, and webcasts.
  6. Provide time during leadership team meetings and employee communication events for KM messages. The other leaders need to be reminded regularly of the importance of KM in achieving the organization’s goals.
  7. Ensure that KM goals are really set for all employees and are enforced. It’s not sufficient to communicate goals in a high-level message. They need to actually be assigned, monitored, and achieved.
  8. Inspect compliance to KM goals with the same fervor as for other key performance indicators. If KM indicators are reviewed along with the usual business metrics, it will be clear that they are just as important.
  9. Reward employees who share, innovate, reuse, learn, and collaborate. Rewarding desired behaviors provides positive reinforcement, offers motivation, and communicates to everyone how such behaviors are valued.
  10. Ensure that time is allowed for sharing, innovating, reusing, collaborating, and learning.

Examples of Participative Leadership

At HP, an internal blog platform was created as a skunkworks project by the imaging and printing group. Initial participation was limited to a few early adopters. Then the Executive Vice President of the group started an internal blog, and it was obvious that he was actually writing and posting himself, not through a ghost blogger. This triggered many members of the group to comment on his blog, create their own blog posts, and comment on each other’s posts. Morale increased because employees could see that their senior leader was soliciting their advice and reading and replying to their comments.

HP’s social networking profile (me@hp) gained a small number of users each week. When the Senior Vice President of the consulting business posted her profile and sent out a note to the entire organization about it, there was an immediate spike in new profile creation.

At Buckman Labs, Bob Buckman wrote notes to people in his company asking them, “What knowledge have you shared with your colleagues today?” He made it clear that only those who got with the new KM program would succeed. “The most powerful individuals in the future of Buckman Labs,” he said, “will be those that do the best job of transferring knowledge to others.”

--

--

Stan Garfield

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/