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Arun Hariharan


The CEO’s Role in Knowledge Management

Belief is the most important factor

Published: Monday, November 23, 2015 - 08:31

I do not presume to preach to business leaders (CEOs and other senior managers). However, having helped a number of organizations and their leaders with knowledge management (KM), I’ve observed certain leaders who are able to achieve greater and more sustainable results from KM than others, despite having similar KM experts and technology at their disposal. Following is a list of the qualities that seem to set these leaders apart from others.

1. Expecting significant business results from KM. Leaders get the results they expect from KM. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the leader’s expectations are low, naturally, their involvement in KM will be low, leading to low results. The reverse is equally true. Leaders with high expectations know that it’s worth spending their time on KM, and this gives them results. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, either way you are right.”

2. Treating KM as a strategy and not a task. Knowledge management is a strategy to achieve sustained success in business, not a task to be left to junior staff or consultants.

3. Involvement and reviews. Leaders with high expectations from KM get involved; their involvement is primarily in the form of regular reviews and guidance to their teams engaged in KM initiatives. I’ve worked with leaders who regularly review measurements related to their KM programs—including how much the KM program helps as well as the actual business results. This sends a very powerful message about the leaders’ priorities. Furthermore, this faith in KM is not misplaced. These leaders achieved significant business results from KM consistently, year after year. Several examples of actual KM implementation and its results are given in my book The Strategic Knowledge Management Handbook (ASQ Quality Press, 2015). These leaders also know how to review KM. Some examples of lagging and leading measures of KM can be seen in the table below:

Examples of measurements of business results (lagging measures) from initiatives such as replication of best practices from internal and external sources or implementation of employees’ ideas

Examples of enablers (leading measures)

• Financial benefits (revenue or cost savings)
• Increase in customer satisfaction scores
• Reduction in customer complaints
• Improvement in internal, process-related measures

• Number of best practices shared/published
• Number of best practices replicated with business results
• Employee engagement in KM—number of employees who shared knowledge last month, or who replicated knowledge shared by other employees or from external sources, with business results

4. Making KM a key part of performance appraisals. Nothing sends a more powerful message about the leader’s seriousness than making KM part of employees’ performance appraisals and linking employees’ growth and bonuses to it. I have known leaders who made KM part of the performance appraisals for every person in the organization, beginning with senior managers.

5. Making senior people accountable for KM results. The companies I worked with that achieved the greatest business results through KM had business leaders who made the senior staff (typically people directly reporting to the CEO) accountable for KM in their respective areas.

6. Investing in KM talent. Successful leaders recognize the value of investing in KM specialists or facilitators who bring the requisite experience and aptitude to help the company with the cultural and the technical aspects of KM, and to translate this into business results.

7. Spread the KM culture. A practice that we tried and found useful was to consciously and deliberately involve more and more people from various departments and across the hierarchy in knowledge-sharing and replication activities. This helped to create and spread an organizational culture of sharing and copying good practices.

8. Invest in rewards and recognition. Rewards and recognition, given in a visible way, play an important role in encouraging a culture of knowledge sharing and replication. Rewards play an especially important role in creating the desired culture during the initial years, when a company first embarks upon its KM journey. Make it a point to reward people who engage in knowledge sharing or use knowledge shared by others to obtain business results. Recognize these employees in a visible manner to send the message across the organization that this (sharing and copying, and not re-invention) is the expected behavior in the company.

9. Set personal examples. Another quality of successful leaders is that they set personal examples. I have seen CEOs personally share knowledge or an occasional good practice from a competitor and encourage their teams to replicate it.

You may be able to think of more qualities or priorities that a business leader can bring to his or her organization that will lead to sustained business success through KM. The business leader’s belief is the greatest factor that will determine whether his company will achieve significant results through its KM program.


About The Author

Arun Hariharan’s picture

Arun Hariharan

Arun Hariharan, author of Continuous Permanent Improvement (ASQ 2014), and The Strategic Knowledge Management Handbook (ASQ 2015) is a strategic quality, knowledge management (KM), and performance management practitioner with nearly three decades of experience in these fields. He has worked with several large companies and helped them achieve substantial and sustained results through quality and customer focus. He is the founder and CEO of The CPi Coach, a company that provides partnership, consulting, and training in business excellence and related areas. Former roles held by Hariharan include president of quality and knowledge management at Reliance Capital Ltd, and senior vice-president of quality and knowledge management at Bharti Airtel Ltd, India. He is a frequent speaker at quality and KM events around the world. He is also the author of more than 50 published papers on quality and KM.