Where Should KM Leadership and Governance Belong in an Organization?

Whenever an organization invests in Knowledge Management (KM) solutions, whether it’s a new technology, process, or program, the question of who should have ownership and governance over these new tools and ways of working almost always arises. This KM function, which should include dedicated roles and responsibilities for maintaining and improving KM within an organization, is housed within different departments or business units. Through my years of KM consulting, I’ve often received the question of where it should be located in an ideal state. Though there are other organizational models that will certainly work, this blog presents the top four options I’ve seen, and which an organization should consider when deciding where KM Leadership and Governance belongs.

4. Human Resources (HR) Department

Many past KM organizations have been housed in HR, aligning the natural “people” role of HR with the focus on tacit knowledge capture and sharing of KM. Beyond making sure that employees get the training and development they need, it is also HR’s responsibility to create a culture of collaboration, accomplishing this by implementing programs that connect people to one another from across the organization. KM helps to improve this flow of knowledge and information through programs and initiatives like Communities of Practice, Succession Planning, and Knowledge Sharing Sessions. KM functions that live within the HR department emphasize a focus on the people within an organization and what they need to be successful in their roles. However, KM placed within the HR line runs the risk of separating KM from a focus on business value and returns. Indeed, we’ve seen the placement of KM as an HR line function decreasing, and we’re happy with this trend. Though it can be successful, KM sitting within HR too often relegates it to a support function, and one that limits the full and potential scope of KM.

3. The Learning and Development (L&D) Department

While placing KM in HR trends lower and lower, I’m increasingly seeing KM as part of the L&D Department of an organization. One of the key missions of KM is providing people with access to the knowledge and information they need to do their jobs, and in mature learning organizations, L&D delivers those resources and learning experiences. L&D is centrally responsible for the professional development and capabilities of its workforce and to ensure that people are getting the proper training and development opportunities. This is all the more critical in today’s current state of the great resignation, where organizations are seeing a massive churn in staff and are finding it especially important to onboard and upskill new joiners. 

Mature KM and learning organizations invest in proper knowledge transfer, content management, and mentorship practices, all of which overlap between the realms of KM. When KM is governed from within the L&D Department, there is a focus on the quality of knowledge resources being delivered to people to help onboard and upskill as they work towards their performance goals and grow in their career. In short, a “merger” of KM and learning can drive the creation, delivery, and exchange of people-centric knowledge and the learnings they need to perform in their positions. It is a natural fit, but on the downside, placing KM within the learning group creates potential separations from the business, similar to the HR option above. In the wrong organization, that will lower the visibility or perceived importance of KM, thereby separating KM from its most important attribute; its ability to solve real business problems.

2. Business Line

Business Lines vary depending on the type of organization and can mean a bunch of different things. What I mean, in the context of this blog, is that KM is placed as part of the mission operations of an organization, such as marketing, sales, or production. Said differently, these are the revenue-generating or customer-facing, parts of a business. In many cases, this is an ideal part of the organization for KM to live because it is much easier to draw a connection between KM efforts like self-service knowledge bases for customers, personalized recommendations of products and services, and sales relationship management, to hard Return-on-Investment (ROI). 

An organization that chooses a business line as the part of the organization where KM is governed can more easily gain investments and buy-in towards their efforts because they help improve the cash flow of an organization as a result of its focus on delivering the necessary knowledge and information to people who are directly supporting customers. At the same time, KM placed within a business line can still (and should) draw upon engagement and information sources from HR, L&D and other support functions, but can do so driven by business need and value. The prominence and, ideally, business criticality of this placement also puts a more permanent, longer-term investment in KM and engenders executive support and accountability.

1. Stand-Alone Department Reporting to the Chief Operating Officer’s (COO) Office

There are various other places where you might find a KM function – such as IT, communications, or legal/compliance – but the number one ideal option is as a standalone function reporting directly to the COO. This is where I’ve seen KM “stick” and succeed most consistently. KM is necessary for the efficiency and effectiveness of all organizations. When KM has a bird’s eye view of the needs of the entire organization, it can make strategic decisions that benefit all of the different parts that make up the whole. KM becomes a unifying force that connects people to the resources they need regardless of where those resources are within the organization.

When KM is governed as a stand-alone department, it can better align its efforts and decision-making with the organization’s strategic objectives, as opposed to just the goals of one department. There are also significant cost savings and reductions in risk when this standalone function reports to the COO, because the organization can make enterprise-level decisions regarding investing in KM technology – like intranets, company-wide policies, and practices related to security of information – and process improvement efforts that lead to more efficient delivery of products and services. Ultimately, the COO is responsible for all operational aspects of an organization and when KM is tied to this focus, it can reap the most benefits, both financially and in support of employee and customer satisfaction.

Put simply, when the COO “owns” KM, there is an executive focus that flows down through the entire organization, not just placing KM in a location to be effective, but also clearly communicating the organization’s belief in, and prioritization of, KM.

Any organization that will be successful at enterprise KM will be deliberate about where the KM organization sits, what its authority is, and how initiatives are elevated to leadership for support, sign-off, and sustainment. Regardless of what you’re implementing, always consider what roles will need to be defined and filled to make sure that the solution is kept up-to-date overtime in response to changes within and outside of the organization. This requires an understanding of the organization’s culture, leadership style, decision-making preferences, and predominant motivations. 

There is no one-size-fits-all to KM organization design and implementation. Based on what you know about the organization, you can structure the KM department or governing body to function in a way that supports the upkeep and improvement of your KM tools, programs, and practices. If you need support designing your KM Function to help you achieve your KM strategic goals, contact us.

Zach Wahl Zach Wahl Expert in knowledge and information management strategy, content strategy, and taxonomy design. Zach is passionate about forming and supporting high-functioning teams and facilitating results-focused outcomes with his clients. More from Zach Wahl »