Feds ponder CKO role

While agencies begin to embrace the concept of knowledge management to improve federal employees' access to information, observers in and out of government disagree on the role of the chief knowledge officer, a position that has been created to lead the charge into this new territory.

In the past month, two agencies have created positions for a CKO, a "knowledge management czar" who will report directly to or work beside the chief information officer. Although some federal officials believe the position itself may not be needed, most agree there is a need to focus agencywide knowledge management efforts.

"Anything that can focus the idea of using information to make decisions will help," said Kurt Molhom, administrator of the Defense Technical Information Center at the Defense Information Systems Agency. "It may be a change of semantics, but if a change of semantics makes people think about it, that's good."But putting in an extra position rather than simply encouraging agencies to develop new programs and initiatives may not be the answer, said Bob Woods, president of Business Applications Solutions, ACS Government Solutions Group Inc., Rockville, Md. A CKO may help put in place some practices and processes that can benefit an agency, but the extra executive ultimately may get in the way, he said.

"It's like putting a fourth player in the outfield," Woods said. "More stuff may be caught, but more may also be dropped as they try to avoid running into each other."

Earlier this month, the General Services Administration named then-CIO Shereen Remez as the agency's first CKO. On the same level as the CIO, she reports directly to GSA administrator David Barram and is responsible for coordinating and managing all knowledge management efforts between the information technology and human resources groups at GSA.

The Coast Guard also is looking for a CKO and put out a position announcement last month. The Coast Guard CKO will be under the CIO, heading up the new Office of Knowledge Management and Information, and will be responsible for finding new ways to use IT acquisitions.

GSA had several individual programs running in many of the regional offices throughout the agency to test the idea of knowledge management, said Ann Gladys, director of the IT Solutions Development Center and Acquisitions Division at GSA's Federal Technology Service in San Diego.

The success of those pilots showed the potential of what could be done with knowledge management, but now GSA as a whole can benefit from a single leader for new initiatives, Gladys said.

Remez said after her appointment that much of what she will be doing in her first few months on the job will be focusing on changing the culture at GSA to accept and appreciate what knowledge management can do for the agency. That will include encouraging and rewarding innovation and new processes and meeting personally with employees across the country rather than sending out memos, she said.

The Coast Guard CKO also will take on the same cultural challenge to motivate managers to "incorporate vision, strategic planning and elements of quality management into the full range of the organization's activities; encouraging creative thinking and innovation; influencing others toward a spirit of service; and designing and implementing new or cutting-edge programs/processes," according to the position announcement.

"The function of the CKO is crucial to the success of the nation's transportation system in an age of growth, increasing complexity and decentralization," the announcement said.

But the decision by GSA and the Coast Guard to make the CKO a position closely linked to the CIO may cause problems for the agencies by confusing priorities and employees, experts said.

Al Pesachowitz, CIO at the Environmental Protection Agency, agreed. Agencies are spending a lot more time collecting information rather than analyzing and using it, he said. That makes it difficult for agencies to keep track of what information they have at hand. "Having a chief knowledge officer is important in terms of trying to capture knowledge so [that] we don't have to re-create it," Pesachowitz said.

Kathy Adams, assistant deputy commissioner for systems at the Social Security Administration, said agency employees need to learn how knowledge management can help them in their jobs and help their agency, and a CKO can direct that effort.

The real key to knowledge management is not using a tool but getting people to understand what knowledge management is and what they can do with it, Adams said. One of the CKO's main functions may be getting people to understand the concept that "the real value of knowledge is sharing it," she said.

The Delphi Group, a Boston-based consulting firm, recently did a survey of knowledge workers in multiple industries about how they defined knowledge management. The survey included questions about the role of the CKO.

One thing that came through in the survey is that GSA's and the Coast Guard's approach is almost the opposite of what organizations have found to work for their employees, said Richard DiLonardo, director of international operations at Delphi.

"A bad place for a chief knowledge officer to be is in the same place or same person as a CIO," DiLonardo said. "Knowledge management is only peripherally related to technology. Knowledge management relates to the culture of an organization; technology isn't the focus.''

But the EPA's Pesachowitz said he thought GSA chose a good organization by having an executive focused on knowledge management separate from but working with the CIO.

In such a situation, the CKO can bring a focus on knowledge management that otherwise would get lost in the CIO office, where employees are so busy with issues such as the Year 2000, security, privacy and program management. "In my time in government, I haven't seen it slow down and I don't think it's going to," he said.

---Elana Varon contributed to this article.

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