Entovation International - Delivering Knowledge Innovation Strategies for the Millennium
Virtual Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO):
Leading through Strategic Conversations
by Debra M. Amidon

It was 1983. A $13.2B Fortune 50 company with 120,000 employees had asked us to scout, finance and transfer worldwide knowledge into their company to yield new products and services in the marketplace in advance of their competition. We accomplished this through the Office of Sponsored Research that funded 240 projects in 100 worldwide universities. We managed liaison relationships with over 50 research consortia ranging from a $10,000 research center affiliation to the multi-million dollar investment in the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC) in Austin, Texas. The business agenda was one of organizational learning, not technology development. The skills required for success were based on relationships, partnering and strategic conversations. We called it "Virtual Research & Development", our global network of expertise.

Dynamic Entovation Engagement Process

Even then, we realized the base of knowledge did not reside inside the firm. Creativity and new ideas often came from alliance partners, customers and even competitors. We knew that there were connections that needed to be managed and not left to serendipity. We used the term "virtual" to capture the essence of our objective an international innovation infrastructure within which ideas were created and put into action to produce marketable products and services in advance of the competition. This was our innovation strategy. In organizing the staff, we made several planning assumptions, one of which was that networks will link science and society in ways yet unimaginable.

Evolution of the Network

The ENTOVATION Network has grown to include over 5000 people in 60 countries. Network growth has occurred in five phases during which the role of virtual CKO as changed as well.

The 5 Stage Entovation Evolution

1. Defining distinctive competencies (1993-1994). We defined distinctive competencies and made the network international in scope.

We established a Website and our list of e-mail addresses was converted into an electronic dialogue, one of the first in the knowledge field. Here the CKO role was one of research and crystallizing the various facets of the evolving knowledge profession.

2. Structuring the Network (1995-97). We realized we needed to better structure the network, as a holonomy, and define the purpose and a set of principles to guide our action. The network had 2500 people in 40 countries. As the CKO, now the role was to identify pockets of expertise from around the world who were both researching progressive methods as well the leading practitioners who were practicing knowledge techniques with significant bottom-line results.
3. Sharing the Wealth (1998). Now we sought to share the wealth, position our view of the knowledge economy in a way to promote further dialogue, and enhance visibility through the Network and the knowledge press. The role as CKO was essentially that of a managerial architect, tasked with articulating the evolving vision and framing the dialogue both electronic and face-to-face. The author also served as the community conscience to maintain a code of values, ethics and standards to emulate.
4. Transforming into an Innovation System (1999). We've sought to transform the innovation system, by featuring top colleagues on the Website, overhauling the Website, and serving in an advisory capacity to the World Bank. Again, the author's role as CKO has been to maintain the expansion process into countries not yet represented on the organization's map. There is significant interest from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East developing nations.
5. Leveraging Collective Competence (2000 and beyond). As we look to the future we will be hosting a global knowledge management roundtable and participating in research on using the architectures, methodologies, and research-to-date from participants in the Network.

The author's role will be to shift to one of training and mentoring the trainers, developing the standards for a certification program, and assisting nations transforming into knowledge economies.

Lessons Learned: The Network in Retrospect

In a recent professional meeting, a newcomer in the knowledge field asks, "Are you based in the United States, the United Kingdom or Canada?" The confusion is understandable since the headquarters are in Massachusetts, the Website - until recently - was based in England, and the Banff Centre in Calgary, Canada will conduct our research agenda.

Our experts come from all over the world. Therefore, it matters not the base operandi of the Chief Knowledge Officer for such a worldwide virtual laboratory of ideas. With such advancements in computer and communications technology and the fact that quality expertise has no boundaries of national origin, the network can function and quite well, wherever there is a phone jack. On the other hand, one of our primary assumptions is that the network is both technical and human.

One cannot underestimate the value of face-to-face communications, even brief interactions. There have been numerous occasions when presentations and even entire conferences have been planned without the principals meeting one another except by phone or e-mail. However, relationship or social capital, which may be the lynchpin to a successful future, is enhanced when people are afforded the time to share, without technical limitations, their values, operational standards and aspirations. We can take a look at the evolution of the Network and evaluate some of the forces that were enabling growth and those resisting factors inhibiting progress.

What Went Right?

People were ready for a positive, constructive change beyond downsizing. People know intuitively there is a better way to operate even if they cannot define it precisely.
There was an increasing receptivity to advancements of and experimentation with technology.
The quality of the intellectual capital especially the collective wisdom was unsurpassed. There are many people entering the field.
However, much of the material in publications and the Web are not of much value. Sifting the chaff from the wheat is essential. 'Knowledge about knowledge' may be the most valuable expertise of all.
There ensued an inevitable realization in the value of knowledge innovation. To date there have been two distinct communities: the innovation community and the knowledge management community. Most major research efforts are discovering the focus must be the innovation process.
Good people surround themselves with other good people, so the referral network was exceptional.

What Went Wrong?

Articulating progressive concepts is the easy step, but having managers put the concepts into action is another. Many decisions were made on moving the mission versus making a profit. Sometimes, it may have been the wrong decision.
Volume of activity on the Website and e-mail was unexpected. This is in terms of the activity on our own site as well as the increase in sites that provided competition. We also underestimated the degree of innovation in the Internet requiring significant investments to improve market image and services.
Building credibility as a virtual network is difficult in contrast to the established major consulting firms.
Managers are still seeking the quick fix and best practices rather than understanding the fundamental changes required and the need to establish standards.
Reciprocity doesn't come easy because of a basic competitive work ethic. Virtual reliance upon others for building substance is risky to say the least. One is always subject to their priorities. Worst, one is vulnerable to others taking your ideas and moving them into competitive products and service if proper legal agreements are not in place.

In the beginning, we wondered how to tap into the combined insights of worldwide experts from diverse backgrounds. The answer was simple; let's query them. The ENTOVATION Network is one example of how a community of experts can respect the competencies of one another, learn from a diverse set of perspectives, and contribute to a common language and a shared vision. It is not perfect, few enterprise are.

It capitalizes upon the best of what a knowledge economy will afford - flexible, fluid relationships, contributing toward the common good. 

Amidst the complexity of the knowledge era, we must both simplify and magnify our relationships. No longer are finances the scarce resource to be managed. It is how we choose to spend our time, in communication with whom and to what end. If a virtual Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) is the one who exercises leadership without authority; then the onus is upon each of us to architect our time with one another face-to-face as well as remotely with meaningful dialogue.

As the Virtual CKO for ENTOVATION International, the author has been a privileged participant in the evolution of the knowledge movement and worked with many at the heart of the knowledge management movement.

These excerpts (originally published in the I3 UPDATE No 35) are from the chapter 'A Virtual Chief Knowledge Officer: Leading through Strategic Conversations', Debra M. Amidon, from the forthcoming (May 2000) book "Knowledge Management in Practice: Chief Knowledge Officers and Chief Learning Officers", ASTD (American Society for Training and Development). For publication details, contact Dede Boner (Email: ncmdede@idsonline.com)