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Knowledge Management
and Leadership Development: A Primer
Robin Root, PhD

"Leadership is a complex process by which a person influences others
to accomplish a mission, task, or objective and directs the
organization in a way that makes it more cohesive
and coherent"
(Donald Clark,, 1997)


The most important shift in the leadership development agenda in the past decade has arguably come from innovations in knowledge management, an often overlooked activity. This paper offers an introduction to the concepts and, more importantly, relevant tools as they relate to leadership development at all levels and across sectors.

Knowledge management is both a resource and a strategic imperative for leadership development in the governmental, non-governmental, private and educational sectors. As a resource, the diverse tools of knowledge management empower senior managers and executives to better identify and leverage an organization's tangible and intangible assets. In the process, they further develop themselves in their leadership roles. As an imperative, experts are agreed that the knowledge economy of the future will reward leaders, of organizations large and small, who thread their strategic and operational processes with concepts related to knowledge management: intellectual and social capital, intangible assets, tacit knowledge, and communities of practice. Because many of these are tools are available through the Internet, and part of a highly competitive industry, they are no longer limited to an isolated corporate elite.

Knowledge management applies to the definition of leadership offered by Clark at the start of this paper to the extent that it facilitates the innovative process by which tools and concepts can broaden an organization's understanding of important assets. The question is how leaders can initiate and maintain this process to the benefit of the organization and those it serves.


In essence, KM is critical to leadership development because both are primarily about communication and relationship-management, and secondarily about skills and content-creation, and then technology infrastructure. Indeed, no amount of bells and whistles software can compensate for the trust required to entice a successful sales executive, or a lawyer in a large law practice, to reveal her stellar client service practices unless there is trust, reciprocity and substantive incentives in place to encourage such gestures. The most challenging piece of the knowledge management process from a leadership development perspective, is identifying where knowledge lies in an organization, creating the trust to disclose it, and supporting the infrastructure to disseminate it; in other words, communicating its individual and collective benefits, and laying out a strategy for formalizing a communications process that by its very nature is often informal and untapped. Since the leader of an organization is the only person structurally set both within and above the entrenched cultures, and turf battles, of an organization's departments or program areas (whose individual budgets compete against one another), only he or she can reliably and credibly articulate the advantages of crossing over and establishing substantive contact and communication between different divisions.

How do you make knowledge ? what people (employees, customers, clients, stakeholders) feel and know ? tangible, actionable and profitable? How do you collect, catalogue, evaluate, update, and disseminate the knowledge of an organization for the purposes of increased efficiency and/or innovation? How do you make it an integral part of leadership development?


A notable accelerator of leadership development is creating leaders throughout an organization. KM facilitates this process by clarifying who knows what and the conditions under which that knowledge is ideally relevant, applicable, and revenue-generating/mission-enhancing.

Cited by both The Wall Street Journal and Business Week, Paradigm Learning is one of many companies developing training products; their own (e-Velocity) was named one of the year 2001's 'Top Ten Training Products' by Human Resource Executive. Below is the sketch of a case study in which leadership development under rapidly changing conditions, knowledge management, and organizational effectiveness were bound up in one (this is one of many offered on its excellent website,

Challenge: Accelerate Culture Change

A major bank was expanding rapidly through a series of acquisitions and becoming a world leader in financial services. Executives realized that the critical link in the culture was to develop its first-line leaders: the 30,000 people whose behavior most influences the 100,000+ associates who have day-to-day contact with customers.

Unique Solution: Design a large-group leadership development activity that introduces a company's new leadership model to 30,000 front-line managers.

At Ford Motor Company, CEO Jacques Nassar recognized that his own firm had become inflexible and as a result, innovation had slowed. He was faced with a situation of encroaching competition, which made accelerated innovation on the part of all employees an imperative. This would require that decision-making occur throughout the company, creating "nimble leaders" with an eye on demonstrable business results ( The authors write, "Ford wants to grab its people by the throat and shake them up. A project that creates discomfort promises great learning and profound improvement. Ford's new leaders are actually responsible for instigating discomfort, for forcing change up to the higher levels of an unwilling organization, while Nasser forces it down from above." (Charla Griffy-Brown and Scott Fletcher, This is a prime example of leadership development in the knowledge economy.


Nancy Gioia, a chief program engineer at Ford, heads a team of engineers, designers, marketers, and purchasing managers who work on the Ford Thunderbird. A Capstone graduate and a key senior executive, Gioia has been with the company for almost 18 years. But Gioia has another job: She's a mentor to participants in the New Business Leader and the Experienced Leader Challenge programs. On the first morning of a recent NBL session, she sat down with six participants to review their Quantum Idea Projects and to offer feedback. This is what she told them.

Always stretch. "Where do you want to stretch to? Pick one or two challenging things that you want to learn, because those things will usually prove to be the most rewarding experiences. Keep pushing yourself. Start to explore areas outside of your silo."

Truly transform. "Ask yourself, What does it take to be transformational? Is what you're doing not only transforming the company but also transforming you as a leader? Understand what it is that you want to get out of this."

Favor a bias for action."Anybody can write up a business plan. You need to put your plan into action. That's what transformation is about. Lots of people and things have the potential to slow you down. Don't let them."

Create a "teachable vision." "So now you have a transformational idea. Well, how will you present it? You have to get on the right person's calendar. Or, if you've got only a few minutes with someone in an elevator, you have to be persuasive ? fast. You need to know how to use those few minutes as effectively as possible."

Value your teammates. "Work in groups, and leverage the variety of perspectives that you'll find in those groups. Use your team this week to create a network that you'll use for the rest of your career. And when you get back to your workplace, bounce your ideas off of your colleagues. Share your ideas and your energy."

Revel in change. "Your idea will change over the course of this week, as you learn more and hear new perspectives. Come Friday, your idea may bear no resemblance to the one that you came in with on Monday. That's healthy. It means that your idea is getting better." (


To the extent that KM is a strategic imperative for leadership development, it is fundamental to relationship-building (internally to the firm and externally with clients) and maintenance. For this reason, familiarity with KM concepts and their application are an increasingly important requirement of leaders within organizations. One way to achieve this familiarity is to assess current processes of knowledge sharing, i.e., communication, within and among departments in your firm. Ask the question, how is knowledge currently used, stored, communicated and valued? As a leader, begin by taking an inventory of the organization's intangible assets ? e.g., its values (an accounting firm ? to conduct itself with transparency and integrity), legacy (for an educational non-profit organization, providing information to school districts on school reform), experiences (philanthropic foundation ? brokering partnerships between the private and public sector in developing countries) and relationships (in a law firm, the spread of clients and services) ? that add value to its performance and create a flowchart of how information is accessed and transformed. Above all, identify WHO benefits or makes use of these assets and how, specifically, the behaviors and communications methods, e.g., email, that allow different stakeholders, constituents, or clients to keep coming back as a result of these assets.

Generically, a template of this flowchart, which represents an iterative process, might appear as follows:


First generation inputs: What does each department know? ? How do they know this? ? How does what they know fit with the firm/organization's mission? ? Who uses this knowledge, when and how?

Process: Whether in company-wide or inter-department roundtable formats or over a company intranet, submit this "knowledge" for comment by other departments. Test the question inter-departmentally, what do you believe other departments know? ? How does that knowledge relate to what you do? ? If you need that information, how do you currently access it and how do you use it? ? Are there obstacles? What are they?

First generation outputs: A better understanding of current knowledge flows and obstacles; relative knowledge strengths and weaknesses of different departments; draft of template for selecting a technology system for improving the cataloguing, sharing, and commentary on organizational knowledge.

The first step then is to undertake a self-assessment that assists a leader or senior manager in distinguishing between a reaction versus a strategic response to organizational challenges and change. There are a number of assessment tools that perform this function: the Blake and Mouton Managerial Grid (Robert Blake and Jane Mouton, The Managerial Grid III: The Key to Leadership Excellence, 1985), Stafford Beer's Viable System Model, the Leatherman Leadership Questionnaire ( and Myers-Briggs, among others. The key, according to leading knowledge management theorist and practitioner, Yogesh Malhotra, is to constantly assess and reassess routines that are embedded in decision-making processes, in order to surface the assumptions that may inhibit learning and innovation and stretch beyond traditional information systems to a dynamic knowledge-based organization (From Information Management to Knowledge Management: Beyond the 'Hi-Tech Hidebound' Systems," In Knowledge Management for the Informational Professional, eds., K. Srikantaiah and MED Koenig).


Clark recommends beginning with an assessment of which of the "four leadership frameworks" (structural, human resource, political, and symbolic), based on work by Bolman and Deal (Reframing Organizations, 1991), you operate by and under what conditions. Whether there are four or forty frameworks is less important than understanding that both leadership development and knowledge management involve the acquisition and reflection upon information and experience to determine when and how to maximize each framework.

This first level of assessment provides the foundation for step two: assessing what the organization knows and how, and having employees undertake a similar process of assessment. This in turn will help to ask and answer the next round of critical questions: What skills are needed? How do they fit within the organizational framework? Who has these skills? How did they acquire them? How can they be taught? How as a leader do I foster continuous learning?

In their article, "Beyond Training: Reconceptualising Learning at Work," Bryans and Smith outline seven principles for developing a framework that goes beyond training to a "conception of personal/personnel development which is richer and more responsive to the conditions of a knowledge economy and which moves us to a new paradigm: a way of valuing thinking and feeling. Organisations which take knowledge management seriously will share many of the characteristics of the 'learning organization' ..." (Journal of Workplace Learning, vol 12, no. 6:

Seven Principles of a Knowledge Management Framework

  • Openness ? setting the tone which allows learning to happen
  • Uncertainty ? expecting uncertainty and making it an acceptable state of mind
  • Complexity ? Acknowledging complexity to avoid the rush to the quick fix
  • Relationships ? Learning is a fundamentally social activity; value the expanding and deepening of purposeful relationships (internally and externally with constituencies, customers and clients)
  • Reflection ? Build and maintain processes that make reflection a values activity in the organization to heed the maxim: "Know what we know"
  • Reframing ? Reinforce efforts to think across departments, outside of silos
  • Restoration ? As new knowledge is cultivated, retain insights and experiences gleaned in earlier iterations

The role of the leader is crucial in establishing, integrating and modeling these principles and can be initiated at virtually any time; ironically, times of crisis or intense change provide a prime opportunity, since routines are disrupted and there is not only space but a need for establishing new and engaging routines.

For the leader, a knowledge "audit" by department or program area will yield more specific, contextualized, and relevant information to the challenge of ultimately creating a sound knowledge management system. Most knowledge audits are proprietary services; however, provides an very brief sampling of the broad issues such an audit would explore. In terms of understanding the parts of a knowledge audit the following link provides a comprehensive listing of resources: and its sublink For a calendar of workshops to learn more about knowledge audits, consult and

Third, take note of the gaps, e.g., values that are no longer relevant to the mission, that emerge in this process. Through this initial exercise, leaders can begin to appreciate the goal of knowledge management to capture, document, leverage and transform and the role of the leader in managing this complex process.

This third step lays the foundation for designing a tactical framework for establishing a knowledge management system. With an organization's knowledge assets surfaced ? e.g., using the employee to employee portal at Ford, one of the world's largest corporate portals, tips on painting cars generated by workers at a plant in India and shared with those in the U.S. (Charla Griffy-Brown and Scott Fletcher, Knowledge Management and Business Portals, ? senior executives can begin delineating what are often called "buckets of knowledge." Taking a pharmaceutical example, two buckets of knowledge might include supply management processes preferred by non-franchised versus franchised drug chains. Law firms are advised to deploy knowledge management for effective marketing, by asking and answering the questions: Whom do we know? What do we know about them? What is our expertise vis a vis different kinds of client? What are our areas of practice and geographic targets? ( management.cfm).

With buckets identified, the fourth step involves asking department heads and leading sales persons to convene and document the best practices within each "bucket" and, most important, to identify the users of this information, since it is ultimately by user, e.g., marketing representative, patient advocate, high school teacher, that the content areas will need to be organized around for leadership development and KM to achieve the combined results of increased learning and effectiveness.

This interactive and iterative process, guided by either an experienced coach, a focus group facilitator, or a company like Paradigm Learning serves at least three purposes:

  • To elicit tacit knowledge about practices that employees may have taken for granted (e.g., the nurse or hospital staff person who constructs the weekly operating room schedule, who knows by experience that Dr. X generally arrives 15 minutes late to her surgeries, and implicitly factors this into the schedule);
  • To make more apparent their value (in this case, to the hospital's bottom line of empty operating rooms and delayed surgeries requiring extra overtime for nurses and orderlies and apologies to patient and families) and,
  • To demonstrate a sustainable process for cataloguing and sharing critical information (in other words, creating incentives for timeliness on the part of surgeons or disincentives for their delays).

Making these practices readily accessible, through an intranet or other shared database software (step five), providing moderated space for commentary by other employees, and extending ultimately beyond the organization to the client or constituency to participate in developing critical knowledge allows leaders in all sectors to demonstrate, support, and create the value of company-specific knowledge and its distribution within and beyond the organization. This process creates a leadership "multiplier effect" inside an organization sets the foundation for 'communities of practice' to form. According to Community Intelligence Labs, a recent study by the American Productivity and Quality Center says, "Communities of practice are the next step in the evolution of the modern, knowledge-based organization" (

A community of practice is variably defined as any grouping of individuals collaborating on the same problem, a "bucket," with overlapping and mutually reinforcing agendas. For best practices of Communities of Practice, link to Communities of practice and the role in facilitating leadership development is substance enough for a separate issue paper, but for the same of this paper's topic, suffice it to say that leadership development can be measured by the extent to which there are vibrant communities of practice within an organization, which become the organs of efficiency and innovation in their collective problem-solving.

Finally, as "buckets" are developed, communities of practice established, and a technology selected, step six requires vigilant documentation of how these "new" processes invigorate an organization and add to the bottom line ? financial and/or social. How, in other words, will the value and success of the knowledge sharing process be measured? A focus on results, admitting that the result in this case often lies in having established a process, is critical to eventually integrating knowledge management and sharing practices across departments, rather than siloed in its own corner. On this step, Michael Gilbert, the publisher of Online Nonprofit News (, notes, "the process of classification and reclassification, not just having a useful taxonomy, is itself one of the most powerful forms of knowledge building."


As this paper has demonstrated, KM as a resource and an imperative for leadership development can proceed through formal and informal processes. The key is support from the top to probe, reflect, communicate, catalogue, and cultivate employee experiences and know-how. Doing so democratizes leadership development ? and organizational development ? because under ideal conditions, KM will be integrated at all levels of business operations, and not sequestered in its own peripheral department or as a pet project of the Chief Knowledge Officer.

The sum total of these examples is that KM is about knowledge sharing through interpersonal, interdepartmental collaboration, and relationship management with clients, customers, and constituencies; sharing that is enabled by different information and communication technologies. From a leadership perspective, therefore, KM is about creating the conditions for widespread and sustainable participation, i.e., trust. Some further resources to learn more about how business leaders are fulfilling these new roles, responsibilities, and missions as a result of KM include:


  • The authoritative on-line resource for knowledge management, leadership and technology ? an excellent place to begin educating oneself and making contacts:
  • Side-by-Side ( is a community of business leaders who base their team-work/leadership development strategies on Side-By-Side leadership development processes. Its site notes that the program's evidence-based approaches to knowledge management and leadership development have drawn hundreds of adherents to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenues and cost savings to its clients, which include Fortune 500 companies and non-governmental, religious, and educational organizations equally ( These include the following transformations:
    • From one way directing to two way mutual influencing;
    • From one managerial context of leading through organizational authority to five flexible dynamic elements;
    • From being afraid of creativity to embracing breakthrough thinking and the resulting innovations;
    • From a faulty emphasis on leadership style to a flexible tool kit of principles and skills that promote breakthrough thinking and action in mutual relationships across the five elements.

These leadership principles advocated are recurring fundamentals of KM. Side-by-Side is instructive for novices and experts alike in the fields of KM and leadership development.

  • Resources for understanding the relationships between leadership development, emotional intelligence, and intellectual capital:
    • Human Dimensions, Inc.:
    • Kesslin Associates:
    • Lead Well Institute:
  • Be technology agnostic; in other words, let the kind of knowledge gathered at your organization, and the relationships that sustaining this knowledge, drive the technology infrastructure you select. This was the strategy of Accenture solutions in helping organizational leadership create the United Nations intranet, among numerous other projects.
  • For more information on technology fundamentals of KMS: see "Eight Things That Training and Performance Improvement Professionals Must Know About Knowledge Management."
  • An authoritative resource on knowledge management research:
  • On-Purpose Leadership, Inc.: offers learning and leadership development curricula for corporate and non-profits sectors. Also offers on-line assessment tool.
  • Instructive leadership development and knowledge management case studies:
  • A starting point for those thinking about the technology of knowledge management:


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