Knowledge Leadership

I recently had the pleasure of meeting the class of incoming students at Columbia’s Information and Knowledge Strategy program and conducting an introductory learning session with them in tandem with Kate Pugh, the program’s academic director.

Take it from the top

This master’s degree program is designed in an ingenious way.  Unlike many programs in the knowledge disciplines that begin with the “What” of how to execute them, at Columbia we start with the “Why” — which in this case means the organizational strategic imperatives that drive all enterprise activity, including (but not limited to) knowledge activities.

I flashed the following table on the screen. The first dimension is familiar to most of us. STRATEGY is where we’re going; TACTICS is how we’re going to get there.

STMLThe second dimension is perhaps less familiar, but also of great importance.  Where management as a discipline is nearing its half-century mark, leadership is both less-understood and more-discussed lately.

What’s the difference?

My own definitions are in the table above.  While MANAGEMENT is primarily concerned with the allocation and control of resources, LEADERSHIP is about inspiring, motivating, and guiding people as they move toward organizational goals.five levels

Jim Collins’ five-level hierarchy (at right) places leaders above managers in terms of their respective impact and effectiveness. While the manager “organizes people and resources” in pursuit of organizational objectives, the leader “catalyzes commitment to, and vigorous pursuit of, a clear and compelling vision.”

A tale of two Apples

Employees obey managers; people follow leaders.  A graphic current example is the recent Steve Jobs-Tim Cook partnership that featured an abrasive, market-creating visionary (Steve) working closely with a talented, down-to-earth execution wizard (Tim).  It was a great team that led what became the most successful company in the history of the world.  The jury is out on whether Apple can regain its visionary leadership following Steve’s untimely death.

Apple imagesJohn Lennon and Paul McCartney had a similar dynamic at work in the 1960s while building the Beatles, an industry-disrupting entertainment enterprise.  While both were titanic creative geniuses, John was by most accounts the leader — a protean visionary, arrogant and tough on people…while Paul was a people-pleaser, “the nice Beatle”, who essentially managed the group after their original manager (Brian Epstein) died suddenly at the peak of their success.

Eager to please

At Columbia, I support knowledge services pioneer Guy St. Clair in his course Management and Leadership in the Knowledge Domain. We’re applying these two approaches to the production and use of organizational knowledge.

Knowledge professionals are some of my favorite people in the world.  They’re typically smart, well-informed, flexible, and eager to please.

Sometimes too eager.  The risk among knowledge people is that they become so responsive that they forget to (or lose the ability to) be anticipatory.  They become order takers/fulfillers without knowing (or, sometimes, caring to know) the underlying needs that are driving their clients’ requests for information.

One corporate intelligence manager I spoke to recently calls this the “stick-fetcher” syndrome — where people are good at retrieving information, yet not so good at (or attuned to) solving client problems.  These are the people (as I frequently point out in my lectures) who are not adding optimum value, and who are most vulnerable to being weeded out during the next financial crunch.

“Knowledge management” is dead

No less an authority than Larry Prusak, who co-wrote one of the most prominent books on KM (Working Knowledge), agrees that the term “Knowledge Management” no longer serves us well.  He recently said, “You can’t manage knowledge…it is clearly working with knowledge, but the words got there, and there it is.”

The term has always seemed Orwellian and off-putting to some.  I remember being in a meeting with senior research scientists years ago at a major pharma company, some of whom found the term hilarious, balanced by others who found it sinister.

From operations to front page

I’ll advance two propositions:  (1) the issues that “knowledge people” work with and champion have long been considered tactical and operational by most senior executives, and (2) this is starting to change and will much less frequently be the case in the near future.

Why do I say this?  Knowledge-related issues pose ever-greater risks to modern organizations, in both the positive sense (of opportunities), and in the negative sense (of threats).  In both cases, these can be high-profile front-page issues.

On the upside, we hear a lot about the opportunities presented by Big Data and analytics for managing costs, creating revenue streams, and creating new products and ways of competing.

On the downside, we hear too often of major cyber-threats to corporations and health care facilities that compromise the privacy and financial well-being of hundreds of thousands of their customers.

The point is that these are now issues that represent huge “value pivots” for companies, on both the upside and the down.  If you get them right, you can win big; if you don’t, you could jeopardize the health — and even the very existence — of the organization.  C- suites and corporate boards need to be on top of these mission-critical developments.

Long live “knowledge leadership”

And where will senior managements seek counsel in these issues?  From the knowledge people, those same people who were dismissed  as “tactical” until recently.

To meet this new challenge, knowledge people will need to broaden their outlook. They’ll need to reposition themselves from being knowledge managers to being knowledge leaders. To do so successfully, they’ll need to burnish their technical skills and knowledge with skills and knowledge about people and how organizations actually function.

That’s what Kate, Guy, and the rest of the outstanding faculty are doing at Columbia’s IKNS program.  And that’s why I’m so excited to be a part of it.

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    COMPETING IN THE KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY is written by Timothy Powell, an independent researcher and consultant in knowledge strategy. Tim is president of The Knowledge Agency® (TKA) and serves on the faculty of Columbia University's Information and Knowledge Strategy (IKNS) graduate program.

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