CKO appointment – internal or external?

A common question when implementing Knowledge Management  – should your KM team leader, or CKO, be an internal appointment, or should you look externally to fill the role?


There are advantages and disadvantages to both options, as I explain below.

Internal appointment

As we have often said, Knowledge Management is a simple idea, but very difficult to do in practice.
The idea – that people should share knowledge with each other and learn from each other – is not a complicated idea. The complicated thing is getting it to actually happen. Implementing KM is about culture change, and culture change is both difficult and highly politically charged.

The primary value in having an internal appointment (and not just an internal appointment, but an internal change agent), is that they know the politics. They know how to get things done in the organisation; they know how to drive change. And that, as we know, is the difficult part of KM implementation.

The internal appointment has existing networks they can use, they know the business priorities, and the way the organisation works.  They may also know the real reasons why previous KM attempts failed.

The disadvantage is that they might not know much about KM, and will need external mentoring and coaching in the details of KM and its implementation.  There also might be a relatively small pool of change agents available within the organisation. And in addition, if the organisation has already tried KM with little success, an internal appointment may be too tied to, and influenced by, the approaches of the past.

There may feel like a lack of urgency of the appointment is internal, and the internal appointee may already have rivals at the firm, and can also find themselves transferred out of the role as quickly as they transferred in as priorities shift.

External appointment

It will be easier to find an external person with a history of KM success in other organisations, and very often a new appointee, with a clear view on KM and a wealth of experience of what “good KM looks like,” can be a breath of fresh air. It may be difficult to find such strong and passionate change agents within the organisation.

They will have experience in KM, a repertoire of interventions, and some good success stories to share.  An external appointment might be on a fixed term contract of a few years, which gives KM an urgency, a project-like structure and a clear cost-benefit equation.

The disadvantage is that the zeal with which an external appointee will bring to KM may be met in equal measure by internal resistance. Organisation often reject “foreign bodies”, and the best change comes from within. The external appointee will not know the “language” of the firm, or the key players, or the unwritten rules and assumptions. They will need strong support from the CEO, and to surround themselves with mentors and coaches with decades of tenure at the organisation, to help steer the CKO through the political maze.

There may be a higher threshold to get started for an external appointee, and if they are on a fixed contract, they will still need to find an internal person to whom to transfer the accountability for KM at the contract end.

What most people do
As the diagram shows,  85% of the respondents to our KM surveys said their KM team leader, or CKOs, was an internal appointments, and 13% said it was external, with 2% “don’t know”s. That doesn’t mean an internal appointment is better; it just means its more common.

Our recommendation is as follows:

If you can find a good, experienced change agent within the firm who “gets” the vision and the opportunity KM can bring, then give them the CKO role but with coaching and mentoring from external experts. Their knowledge of how to change the organisation is more important that their lack of knowledge of KM.

If you cannot find such a person, or if KM exists but needs a shake-up, then look to hire someone external, and give them a wise “chief of staff” who knows the organisation inside out and can help navigate the politics associated with change. And if you are hiring your CKO externally, follow this piece of advice from a Knowledge Manager I interviewed:

If I was recruiting somebody external and I had an interview and I asked “do you think you were successful (in your last KM implementation)” and they said “yes we were absolutely successful” I would instantly be suspicious, because knowledge management is not straightforward. I want practical evidence that it was painful. I want to see the blood and the guts”.

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