Why It’s So Hard to Engage Senior Leaders in KM—And What to Do About It

Lauren Trees's picture

Executives are very busy people. They can also be skeptical when it comes to new initiatives, especially when they can’t immediately see how an investment will translate to the bottom line. That’s a big factor in why it’s so hard for knowledge management teams to get leaders on their side, much less convince them to become active participants in KM platforms and approaches.

If your organization’s c-suite is passionate about knowledge sharing and provides all the support your KM program needs—congratulations! You’re one of the lucky few, and you can stop reading here. For most firms, getting executives to walk the KM talk is a struggle. And even when a KM team manages to build senior leader buy-in, it can fall apart quickly when there’s turnover at the top or a shift in strategic priorities.

APQC’s knowledge management metric of the month highlights results from our Promoting Knowledge Management and Making It Stick survey, in which 41% of respondents said senior leaders are the hardest segment of the workforce to engage in KM. An additional 23% reported that line managers are the most challenging audience. It’s clear that many people in leadership positions are not providing the active sponsorship and support that KM programs need to thrive.

Hardest Group to Engage in Knowledge Management

There is no magic formula for getting senior leaders on board, but APQC has lots of experience persuading KM skeptics and turning lukewarm sponsors into passionate advocates. Below are 5 recommendations to help you better engage leaders in your KM effort.

1. When starting out, clearly state the business problem KM will solve.

APQC strongly recommends that new or expanding KM programs develop a business case to articulate the exact inputs required for success as well as the expected outputs. But even if you don’t take it this far, you need to define KM’s mission in a context that will resonate with leaders. How will improved knowledge sharing and collaboration help the business? What problem will KM solve, or what new opportunities will open up due to better KM?

Be as specific as possible, and shape your argument around challenges your executives care about (it helps if you can talk to them about their priorities). For example, if search is a pain point, you might emphasize the potential for time savings through improved content management. But if rapid expansion is causing strain, you could focus on reducing time-to-competency by connecting new hires to experts and expertise. No matter what angle you take, aim to link your KM proposals to measureable goals, rather than vague imperatives to reduce siloes or build a more collaborative culture.

2. Involve business leaders in setting the KM strategy and priorities.

People support what they help create. Including leaders in KM strategy development builds buy-in while establishing a shared vision for when, why, and how improved knowledge flow will affect business outcomes. Not only will this increase the likelihood of sustained sponsorship and funding, it also encourages alignment between KM and business strategy, boosts stakeholder accountability, and multiplies the chances that the KM program will be able to measure business impact.How to get senior leaders to care about KM

It’s equally important for established KM programs to get leadership input as part of ongoing strategic planning. Organizational strategies are becoming more agile in response to internal and external changes. KM should tap into leaders to ensure that KM priorities flex and evolve along with the business as a whole.

3. Go after quick wins where possible, but set realistic expectations regarding the timeline to see results.

Leaders are often impatient, and they want to see ROI as soon as possible. To prove that KM is working, we recommend scoping your initial projects to include some quick-and-dirty results—ideally within six months. You might score an easy win by identifying different business groups that are paying for the same tools or subscriptions without even knowing it. By consolidating these purchases and centralizing access to the information, you can show your sponsors a hard-dollar savings. Similarly, if you capture a few high-profile success stories outlining how communities of practice solved a problem or prevented a big mistake, that can help persuade leaders to stay the course.

But it’s also important to manage leaders’ expectations. Some KM benefits take years to accrue, even with a well-funded and sustained effort. We recommend being honest about what you can achieve when, establishing a timeline with interim milestones, and promoting KM as a long-term investment in the organization’s future.

4. Establish a communications and training plan specifically for leaders.

In recent years, KM teams have gotten very savvy about tailoring their messaging to different audiences. Each subset of the workforce is more likely to respond to communications and training that focus on its unique needs, circumstances, and reasons for participation. Leaders are no different, so it makes sense to customize messaging and outreach tools for them. For example, a management-oriented training module might explain the benefits of getting the experts under you to codify their knowledge and then provide tips for selecting and motivating knowledge transfer participants.

As part of any outreach to leaders, it’s important to be explicit about what you need from them. Request time on all-staff meeting agendas, ask them to drop by high-profile KM events, and give them talking points. Furthermore, many KM programs encourage leaders to “actively participate” without defining what that means. If you want your executives to create expertise profiles, contribute to virtual forums, and role-model collaborative behaviors, you’ll need to outline the expectations and then coach them so it’s fast and easy. Executives have packed schedules and may be hesitant to admit they don’t know how to do something, so a little hand-holding goes a long way.

5. Use metrics and analytics to demonstrate KM’s value.

Many organizations come to APQC looking for a surefire way to calculate KM’s ROI. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple. While KM can and does contribute bottom-line value, it can be time-consuming and difficult to isolate its impact from the other myriad changes and improvements going on at any one time.

Despite this, executives respond to evidence, so it makes sense to think broadly about KM’s contributions to the business, monitor the data you can collect, and report your results. APQC recommends the value path measurement technique to show correlations between KM activities and business outcomes. However, organizations use a range of approaches, from direct measurement to user surveys and quantification of success stories. We find that a combination of program metrics, employee testimonials, and compelling success stories is usually the most effective way to convince leaders that your KM program is making a difference.


Roger Herres's picture

Lauren, outstanding article for discussion. As the KMO for my military organization, this has been the underlying challenge in establishing an maintaining a solid KM program. The recent study rings very true in the military environment that the Senior Leaders are the hardest to engage and get support and buy-in for KM efforts. You framed the recommendations very well starting with developing a business case. In the military we do that best by directly tying it to the organizations Mission and Vision statements if possible. Involving Senior Leaders can be tricky, one way we have done that is to establish a KM Steering Committee (KMSC) made up of our Chief of Staff and all Directors meet Quarterly, and the KMO leads discussion on the organizations KM Working Group (KMWG) efforts, and receives guidance on desired priorities or KM strategic planning. To keep leader support and interest alive our KMWG focuses on "Quick Wins" as much as possible. Long term KM projects seem to stall out due to turn-over of personnel in a military organization. With KM and strategic planning we try to keep realistic time frames using quarters rather than months to avoid time crunch and allow flexibility in planning and manage expectations. In addition to training our workforce in KM related topics, we do try to focus some special training on the senior leaders or KMSC. We use that forum to select special topics engaging the leaders in how KM supports the overall organization mission and achieves the goals to improve efficiency and effectiveness of the staff. We introduce new methods to accomplish daily staff work which is hard in military environments, but KM does show you can teach old dogs new tricks! Using metrics to demonstrate KM value is an area we are starting to focus on more now. We have long believed in the concept of maturity models to measure and show value in organizations. The US Army has officially integrated their KM Maturity Model (KM3) into their basic KM doctrine, and teach it to their KMOs and organizations. We have used that KM Maturity Model during initial organization KM Assessment to provide a baseline or starting measure of where we sit. As we evolve and use the Army KM process to Assess, Design, Develop, Pilot, and Implement a KM program, we will use the KM Maturity Model as a tool to re-assess and guide us to mature and continually seek improvement. All this being said, the five areas of focus seems easy enough, and although it is being touched on and done, it still seems like a constant struggle to get KM to take root in a military environment. That all points to engaging and getting the senior leader support, however you can. In the civilian world I think that is possible, because it comes down to dollars and cents which you can make a business case for. In the military, it takes decades, maybe centuries to change the ways organizations work. The current model of military staffs originated in Napoleon's armies and has changed little to today. The culture of military mindsets may take yet another decade to be embraced as a part of the critical elements of a staff along with Personnel, Intelligence, Operations, Logistics, and Communications. In the mean time, us KMOs just keep pushing the best we can.

Lauren Trees's picture

Thanks so much for your detailed response, Roger. It sounds like you have a strong infrastructure in place for senior leadership support, which is fantastic, I didn’t have room to emphasize it here, but I agree that a cross-functional KM steering committee is integral to both leadership buy-in and strategic alignment. But even if you do everything right, it can take a long time to change the way an organization operations and how leaders think about the flow of knowledge – and in the military where there’s lots of natural churn, it can be even more difficult. I am so glad you and your colleagues are focused on the end goal and committed to staying the course.

Lauren Trees, KM Knowledge Specialist, APQC