Systems & complexity

Knowledge leaders as change agents in knowledge organizations

In a recent article, I discussed new research that showed how collaboration among group members in a sustainable resource use context is not enough to bring about change: it is important to also have at least one confident and knowledgeable person in each group.

What about change agents in the context of knowledge organizations? Professor Rachel Barker from the Department of Communication Science at the University of South Africa provides a theoretical perspective on this in a recent conference paper1.

Despite recognition that knowledge management should be applied across organisations at all levels, there are a lack of studies investigating the relationship between the use of knowledge management and strategic integrated communication by knowledge leaders during organizational change and transformation to create knowledge organizations. Barker’s study seeks to address this gap by critically reviewing existing literature and proposing a theoretical framework to indicate the interrelatedness of these concepts.

Critical review of existing literature

Barker states that while traditional approaches to change and transformation have been effective for many decades, contemporary approaches now recognise the importance of complexity, the participatory nature of change management, and the role of the external environment. She argues that the focus has shifted “to dynamic environments moving away from planned change and organizational development to the management of change and transformation at a strategic organizational level.” In making this shift, there is recognition of “the need for strategic integrated communication with the emphasis on true and interactive participation and a holistic perspective where all systems and subsystems are integrated to create shared ownership and commitment.”

For the purposes of the paper, Barker defines strategic integrated communication as “The result of the management of common interests between the organisation and strategic stakeholder(s) over time in order to achieve mutually beneficial goals through a high degree of reciprocity and continuous two-way symmetrical communication.” Communication can be seen as a missing link in approaches to strategic management and leadership, and in this context knowledge leaders make business sense.

Barker contends that in the 2000s, the focus shifted from learning organisations to knowledge organisations, as shown in the following table. She sees knowledge management in the emerging knowledge organisations as having “three main components: technological (systems), communication (strategic integrated communication) and human (stakeholders).”

Learning organizations
  • Popular in 1990s
  • How organisations should function, be managed, and cope with changes
  • Skills to create, acquire, and transfer knowledge to modify behaviours reflecting new knowledge and insight
  • Learning requires individual personal knowledge to transform into information that other individuals in the organization can use
  • Focus on the learning process
  • Enable adjustment to changes and expanding capacity
Knowledge organizations
  • In 2000s focus shifted from learning to knowledge organizations
  • Knowledge leadership and sharing of knowledge important
  • Individual (implicit) and collective (explicit) knowledge
  • Technological infrastructure, processes and systems
  • Process in which organizations assess the data and information that exists within individuals by translating individual knowledge into useable knowledge
  • Focuses on the result, the output from the learning process
  • Intellectual capital

To create a knowledge culture in a dynamic organization, “it is argued that knowledge organizations should transform, develop and nurture systems and processes to ensure knowledge creation, storing, codification and sharing in a meaningful way to expand ‘individual knowledge’ (implicit) to ‘collective organizational knowledge’ (explicit).” Individual knowledge resides “within the human minds in terms of innovation, creativity, participation, skills and adaptability to change during transformation,” and “organizational knowledge is formed through unique patterns of interactions, technologies,communication and humans which create and shape a unique organizational culture.”

To support the emerging knowledge organizations, Barker proposes a new knowledge leadership perspective, as shown the following table.

Traditional leaders (trait, servant, leader-member exchange, etc.)
  • Rationality and control to maintain organizational goals, resources, structures and people (individual independent agents)
  • No specific description of leadership behaviors to create high-quality relationships
  • Abstract definitions
  • No processes to address environmental changes, cultural differences, interpretation of information and strategic decision making
Contemporary leaders (charismatic, transactional, transformation, visionary, etc.)
  • Leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of mortality and motivation Emphasize values such as loyalty, equality, etc.
  • Focus on empathy understanding, insight and consideration; not manipulation, power or coercion but motivate and empower followers (although power can also be used as a positive intervention in transformation)
  • Four important skills: self-awareness, self-management, social involvement and relationship management
New knowledge leaders
  • Combine aspects of transformative and transactional leadership styles
  • Act as role models and change agents by encouraging learning through and stimulate them intellectually, institutionalize learning through the provision of incentives and training, foster a pro-learning culture through cross-functional and –discipline engagement
  • Intensify explorative initiatives by seeking to create new knowledge
  • Encourage the willingness for exploitation practices which aim to leverage existing knowledge through storage, transfer, sharing and application
  • Have a direct effect on the application of knowledge through knowledge sharing based on strategic integrated communication and the strategic intent of the organization
  • Provide strategic visions, motivate others, communicate effectively, model good practices and carry out the knowledge agenda through interdependent relationships
  • Religiously explain the goals of knowledge management to all concerned through interaction, vision, creativity, innovation and empowerment to create meaning

Theoretical framework

From her critical review of the existing literature, Barker has constructed the theoretical framework shown in Figure 1.

Theoretical framework
Figure 1. Theoretical framework (source: Barker 2016).

Characteristics of knowledge leaders

Barker identifies the characteristics in the following table as being important for knowledge leaders.

Knowledge leaders should be able to:
  • empower individuals to respond creatively to changing situations
  • adopt personal and active attitudes, individual and organizational goals
  • contribute to resonant leadership practices
Knowledge leaders should be:
  • self-aware and socially aware of emotions and goals
  • be equipped with skills such as self-management and relationship management which is characterised by transparency, adaptability, collaboration and motivation
  • associated with a supportive organizational climate due to a constructive organizational culture with the aim to inspire people to learn
Knowledge leaders should:
  • acknowledge the premises of the strategic intent of the organization by managing information through, among other things, motivation, innovation and creativity

Limitations and future research

Barker acknowledges the limitations of her research, with its conclusions being based on her knowledge and interpretations of existing literature. However, she argues that “the proposed theoretical framework is a good starting point to explain the knowledge-human-organization-relationship and could be a benchmark for more general studies.” Future research could refine and test the theoretical viewpoints in practice.


  1. Barker, R. 2016. Knowledge Management as Change Agent to Ensure the Sustainability of Emerging Knowledge Organizations, The 17th European Conference on Knowledge Management, Northern Ireland, UK, 1-2 September 2016.
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Also published on Medium.

Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes ( is a knowledge management (KM), environmental management, and education professional with over 30 years of experience in Australia and China. His work has received high-level acclaim and been recognised through a number of significant awards. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University and Research, and holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction. He is also the editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (, and teaches in the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) Certified High-school Program (CHP).

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