The Ethical Challenges Facing the Cheif Knowledge Officer


J J Britz and M M M Snyman



Since the development and the introduction of the knowledge economy Knowledge Management has become an important scientific concept and many disciplines have laid some claims on it. As a re-discovery of the use of knowledge in an economic way to gain a competitive advantage in business it resides mostly in commerce and industry.

Currently it comprises of a theoretical discourse, and a practical activity. As such it main focuses are both on a business practice as well as a theoretical field of study (McInerney, 2000:1009). The fields of study include amongst other the following: the chief knowledge officer, learning organisations, tools and techniques of Knowledge Management and theories underlying the sharing of knowledge. However, both the theory and practical applications are to a certain extend in a developing stage. Little or no attention has also been given to the ethical issues such as the role of trust in the sharing of knowledge, fairness in knowledge exchange relations and the relationship between power and dependency.

Research question

It is against this background that the authors of this paper will address the ethical concerns regarding the sharing and use of knowledge in an organisation. The focus will be specifically on the Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO). The research focuses in particular on the identification of the main ethical challenges facing the chief knowledge officer (CKO) and the finding of solutions to these challenges. The content is structured in the following manner:

  • A brief overview of knowledge management
  • The role and functions of the CKO
  • The main ethical challenges facing the CKO
  • Identification of norms that can be applied to assess these challenges
  • Formulation of ethical guidelines for the CKO


Brief overview of knowledge management

This part of the paper will cover the following issues: The development and importance of Knowledge Management; the concept ‘knowledge’ and current trends in Knowledge Management. The following work definition, based on McInerney (20001), will be used: “Knowledge management is an effort to increase useful knowledge within the organization. Ways to do this include encouraging communication, offer opportunities to learn, and promoting the sharing of appropriate knowledge artefacts” (2000:1014)

The role and function of the CKO

It will be argued that the main aim of a CKO is to assure that knowledge, which is the most valuable resource in any company, must be maximised to its full potential to enable a competitive advantage. The CKO must therefore manage the processes surrounding the creation, sharing and utilising of knowledge. The following roles and functions of the CKO will be touched upon:

  • Strategist (e.g. strategising ways and actions to capture tacit knowledge and to make it available for r-use and innovation focusing on the support for the mission and objectives of the enterprise)
  • Entrepreneur (e.g. focusing on the establishment of new Knowledge Management capabilities)
  • Evangelist (e.g. convincing companies of the value of knowledge and Knowledge Management)
  • Technologist (e.g. determining and choosing technology channels for the distribution and sharing of explicit knowledge)
  • Environmentalist (e.g. creating an environment that stimulates and facilitates knowledge creation and sharing)
  • Designer (e.g. redesigning performance measurement and executive appraisal systems)
  • Facilitator (e.g. enabling and not controlling the creation and sharing of knowledge)
  • Change agent (e.g. persuading individuals and groups to accept and internalize the view that Knowledge Management matters and can make a difference)

(Earl and Scott, 2000)

The main ethical challenges

Based on these roles and functions of the CKO the following ethical issues will be discussed:

  • The role of trust in the sharing of knowledge
  • The protection of tacit and explicit knowledge that is not protected by IP legislation
  • The fair/unfair exchange of knowledge
  • The relationship between power (those who know) and dependency (know-nots)

It will be demonstrated how these main ethical themes come into play in the different roles of the CKO.

Applicable norms

Following from this applicable norms will be identified that can be used to guide the process of moral reasoning pertaining to the abovementioned issues. These norms are:

  • Justice and more specifically justice of recognition, justice of reciprocity, justice of distribution, justice of contribution, justice as enablement and justice of retribution.
  • Freedom (positive and negative freedom)
  • Rights (more specifically information rights)

Ethical guidelines

Based on the application and interpretation of these norms ethical guidelines will be proposed for the professional activities of the CKO.


Baumard, P. 2001. Tacit Knowledge in organizations. London: SAGE publications Davenport, Thomas, H & Prusak, L. 1998. Working knowledge. How organizations manage what they know. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Earl, M.J. & Scott, I.A. 2000. What do we know about CKOs? In: Depres, C and Charvel, D (eds). Knowledge horizons: The present and the future of Knowledge Management. Boston: Butterworth-Hienneman: 195-203

Foucault, M. 1977. Truth and Power, In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & other Writings 1972 – 1977. Ed Gordon, C. Pantheon Books: New York.

Lötter, H.P.P. 2000. Christians and Poverty. DD Thesis. Pretoria: University of Pretoria

McInerney, Clair. 2002. Knowledge Management and the Dynamic Nature of Knowledge. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 53, no 12.

Pitkin, H.F. 1981. Jusitce: On Relating Private and Public. Political Theory, 9 (3): 327 – 352.

Rawls J. 1973. A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Skyrme, D.J. and Amidon, D.M. 2002. “The Learning Organisation”. in Managing Knowledge: An Essential Reader by Stephen Little et al. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE The Open University.