Learning Theories/Knowledge Management: Leadership

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Leadership ultimately is an interaction or relationship between the leader and the led. Knowledge Management (KM), as Wheatley points out, is a process that requires that investment and relationship to exist on a deeper level of motivation (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 2004). To effectively understand how to lead learning organizations the leader must understand what Garvin (1993) calls the three M’s. They are management, meaning, and measurement. By effectively leading in these categories a leader can learn to manage KM. Ultimately the three M’s are created and managed by ideas. Cummings challenged this by saying, “Leaders are idea brokers that enable the exchange of ideas to benefit their organization” (Cummings, Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 2004). This exchange of ideas is part of meaning and measurement, the ability to procure new knowledge and then integrate that into the framework of the organization. The overall mission of a leader in the world of KM is to learn how to guide the internal marketplace within their organization. By doing this, the leader creates an organization that is a learning team dedicated to meaning, management, and measurement within KM.

The understanding of the three M’s will be largely determined by one perspective on organizational learning. Ortenblad (2002) suggests two basic perspectives that might lead in two distinct paths for leaders to consider. A futuristic perspective would conceptualize individuals as agents of learning for the organization; the organization provides a positive learning culture and climate for the individual; the knowledge gained by the individual is stored outside the individual in the organizational memory. Ortenblad suggests that a second perspective, an interpretive perspective, is becoming a dominant paradigm. Reality is seen as a subjective phenomenon; knowledge is viewed as context dependent; learning is a social practice, taking place between individuals; knowledge cannot be stored because it is determined by the situation.

To understand the meaning, management and measurement of learning organizations is a difficult task. The interpretive perspective places this task into the shifting sands of relativism and contextualization. Relativism makes measurement almost impossible because the norms are in constant flux. If the situation or context is the determining factor for knowledge, then learning is not based on the foundation of truth but on the environment. The implications of such a perspective are widespread including business ethics and cultural morality. The bandwagon of this popular paradigm should not be jumped upon too quickly.

The most important thing leadership can do in ensuring the success of knowledge management in their organization is selecting a Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO). The CKO is the organization's expert on knowledge management and integration. According to Bontis (2002), CKOs are responsible for:

  1. Promoting stability in an ever-changing environment.
  2. Provide the timely delivery of products/services.
  3. Fostering organizational synergy by sharing resources and knowledge.
  4. Ensure the feasibility of specialization.

In addition, in order for CKOs to be effective, they must understand how to implement technology is an enabler for capturing, storing, and sharing knowledge, as well as aligning it with the values of the organization. Therefore, leadership should find candidates for CKO who are enthusiastic, idealist, creative, resourceful.

As a leadership skill, knowledge, according to Northouse (2004), "is inextricably related to the application and implementation of problem-solving skills in organizations" (p. 43). Mumford, Zaccaro, and Harding, et al. (2000), as cited by Northouse, state that knowledge impacts a leaders ability to determine complex organizational problems and to develop a solution. "Knowledge refers to the accumulation of information and the mental structures used to organize that information" (p. 43). This type of mental structure is called a schema, simply a mental diagram used to assimilate information into useable knowledge. Once a leader formulates information into knowledge, individuals are more inclined to follow based the leaders expertise. In previous eras, information/knowledge was considered a power base. According to Greenberg and Baron (2003), information power has become a lesser power due to technology and the availability of information to more people than ever before. In the past, information was reserved for those who held top positions, using information/knowledge for their benefit and allowing that information to be distributed only on a need-to-know basis, or even in a biased manner. In a culture saturated with information/knowledge, it is imperative that leaders use information/knowledge for the benefit of followers and the organization as a whole and not for power accumulation.

As a result of their research, Kluge et al. (2001) tell us that knowledge management presents unique leadership challenges. “From a leadership perspective, knowledge management has been viewed more like a craft and less like a science. Because of the very nature of knowledge, it is difficult for managers to predict what measures can really improve performance, and how to encourage and guide knowledge flows within an organization (p. 191). The chief executive, they say, must assume the role of promoting knowledge management throughout the enterprise. He or she must set the tone for the organization and demonstrate that knowledge, and its management, are taken seriously. In fact, according to some experts, if the senior leadership of an organization is not able to adopt and embrace a KM program, it is far more likely to fail than to succeed (Rosenburg, 2004). Having a dynamic personality or being the ‘charismatic leader’ is no longer a viable leadership model for executives to rely upon. Leaders within organizations must be able to learn and demonstrate competency. Those people being led desire a person who not only frames a compelling vision, but also can provide evidence that they have the knowledge and insight from which the vision is derived. In short, knowledge and learning have become part and parcel to ‘leadership’.

Bolt and Brassard (2004) articulate this point by identifying those characteristics of effective CEOs that support their learning and knowledge management. Here are some of the most important attributes that they identified (Bolt & Brassard, 2004, pp. 162-163):

  • They have a desire to learn: They integrate learning in all that they do and try to pull knowledge from every situation.
  • They have an open and curious mind: They seek out people who think differently or might provide a different perspective.
  • They show humility: They are willing, in fact eager, to learn from their mistakes. They do not have to ‘know it all’ and respect people who share that value.
  • They make their learning public: Feedback is important. Taking the time to publicly seek input and letting people know that they are working on learning more about an issue or topic.
  • They tolerate risk: Mistakes are important as learning tools. People need to learn from their mistakes, but must not shy away from risk for fear of making a mistake. They also understand that learning absolutely needs to occur at a faster rate than the rate of change within the organization.
  • They walk the talk: They pay it more than lip service; they fund and dedicate resources to learning, through good times and bad.

McCollum (1998) states that there are three fundamental tasks that leaders face: “creating strategies to adapt [the] organization to the environment, building a structure that is capable of implementing [the organization’s] strategy, and building the capacity of the members of [the] organization” (Spears, 1998, p. 338). It does not take a stretch of the imagination to understand that each of these fundamental tasks requires ongoing organizational learning in an environment of knowledge management - both explicit and tacit, and best understood through the modes operandi of shared communication. But where and how do leaders begin facing these tasks? Heil & Alepin (2004) state that it will require most leaders to “rethink their leadership...in order to lead authentically...not only [for the purpose of] build[ing] more effective, more human organizations, but...to enrich the lives of every person…” (Goldsmith, 2004, pp. 158-159).

According to John Kotter there are eight steps to transform an organization through leadership. These eight steps are: "1. Establish a sense of urgency, 2. Form a powerful guiding coalition, 3. Create a vision, 4. Communicate the vision, 5.Empower others to act on the vision, 6. Plan and create short-term wins, 7. Consolidate improvements and produce still more change, 8. Institutionalize new approaches" (Kotter, 2003)

Leadership and Knowledge Management (KM) intermingle the vision and influence of leadership with the available knowledge base within the organization. When effective leadership elicits and draws upon the myriads of experience, wisdom, understanding, and knowledge inherent in the work force in synergistic fashion creating shared vision, the organization sits like a space shuttle ready begging for launch. In the context of a rapidly changing world and an increasingly competitive marketplace, successful organizations of today and tomorrow must harness and align all its potential and knowledge. Therefore, Goldsmith, et al. (2004) suggest, "Nothing is more important to the success of knowledge management initiative than the support of leaders and the visibility of KM role models. Generally speaking, the higher up in the organization these role models are the better" (p. 9). 243).

Yogesh Malgotra says, "Knowledge Management refers to the critical issues of organizational adaptation, survival and competence against discontinuous environmental change. Essentially it embodies organizational processes that seek synergistic combination of data and information processing capacity of information technologies, and the creative and innovative capacity of human beings." http://www.brint.org/managementfirst.html (Retrieved May 13, 2006). Mark Effron (Goldsmith, Morgan, & Ogg, 2004) contends that “the sheer concept of knowledge management is fundamentally flawed -- it involves neither knowledge nor management and therefore cannot be expected to succeed” (p. 39). Instead, he suggests we must “begin to focus on helping organizations truly share the intellectual capital their workers possess” (p. 39).

But does leadership always have to come from the top down? Patricia Wallington (2002) poses the thought that leadership skills can be found at all levels of an organization. Lower level employees can—and should—exhibit leadership to influence those at the top of the organization. Before doing so, however, the individual should consider how to be most effective when attempting to lead from below.

Wallington (2002) lays out the following steps in determining the right time and place to lead from below:

  1. Cultural Permission – Assess what your corporate culture supports or allows.
  2. Prepare the Way – Develop a relationship with key senior leaders.
  3. Pick Your Spots – Not every issue is a candidate for leadership from below.
  4. Judge Not – Try not to be judgmental about leadership.
  5. Grow Your Own Leadership – While you work on influencing the senior leadership of your company, set the stage for your own development.

How might one successfully lead and draw upon the un-mined gold of intellectual capital and harness it to pull the wagon of the organization to a new day? Morgan (Goldsmith, Morgan, & Ogg, 2004) believes that the past leadership assets of superior knowledge and technical expertise alone cannot create a flourishing organization. Technology’s explosion and overabundance of information availability creates demand for a better type of leadership. Competitive advantage today means sharper and finer lines of work, teamwork, and “investment in human capital” (p. 136). Beyond effective use of human resources, we must draw the best from the best leaders in our organizations. Retraining successful leaders from yesterday becomes a key challenge to leadership in a learning organization concerned with KM. Morgan suggests that developing human potential and capital must earn the trust of leaders through integrity and building meaningful relationships. Their “forward looking vision” (p. 138) must be compelling and inspiring. This integrity and vision must be disseminated and carried throughout the organizational culture and embodied by top executives. In addition, the organization and leaders must attract and retain top talent and deploy them for greatest return. In further consideration of leadership's intense involvement in successful KM, Goldsmith, et al. (2004) also suggests, "If you can't get leaders on board, your KM initiative may be doomed before it gets started. On the other hand, when leaders at all levels (supervisors, managers, and executives) use the KM system, they encourage others to do the same" (p. 243). As suggested by the very word, leaders need to take the lead in practicing appropriate and successful KM.

Case studies & workplace examples[edit]

Leading KM is a daunting task, especially when you are leading from the middle. Only a few lead at the top in organizations, most of us find ourselves leading from the middle. We influence those above us and below us in any way we can. One of the ways I have experienced leading KM from the middle is by providing the first step and championing the partnership for KM within the organization. As a leader over my department I initiated KM within it first. After championing the initial effort we then offered positive help to other departments. Without anything to gain we invested into other's creating bridges that one day will come back around. By leading with what was in our hands, we invested into the whole of the organization without immediate personal benefit.

As the Center for Life Calling and Leadership seeks to propagate itself within the university (IWU) as a whole, one of the difficulties that remains is effectively promoting and integrating Life Calling knowledge within other university departments and helping them utilize that knowledge to better meet the needs of their respective students. Each year, the Center hosts a workshop targeting other departments in an attempt to educate and facilitate open discussion that equips these individuals (faculty and staff) with tools to assist students and/or the understanding of our services and how that becomes applicable to their ability to assist students in their educational journey. Presently, the Center is in an exploratory phase seeking ways to better integrate Life Calling knowledge more effectively into other university departments.

Empowerment of employees plays a critical role in leading knowledge management in an organization. Employees must know that they have a personal responsibility for contributing to the overall knowledge of the organization. As leader of a team of 25 customer service associates, we took the image of empowerment to heart and allowed the team to participate in owning, refining, and implementing their own knowledge management database. Although I, as leader, laid the initial framework and the objective for the project, the team was given ownership of their own piece of the tool, to ensure that they could contribute and share their knowledge with the entire team. By allowing the team to play an integral role in the establishment of our knowledge database, they were more comfortable in using it and taking ownership of updating it as processes changed along the way.


Knowledge Management: Processes · Knowledge Management: Change

Knowledge Management: Processes · Learning Theories · Knowledge Management: Change
Introduction · References ·  This box: view  talk  edit 
Theories : Behavioralist · Constructivist · Post-Modern · Adult Learning
Organizational Learning : Contributions by Discipline · Triggers · Influencing Factors · Agents · Processes · Interorganizational · Practice
Knowldege Management : Challenges · Processes · Leadership · Change