Search me: AKO enhances search, jumps tech hurdles

Knowledge-based site expands capabilities during transition to defensewide portal

As project manager of Army Knowledge Online (AKO) since mid-2008, Col. Earl Noble is working to transition the Army’s knowledge-based learning organization to a defensewide enterprise portal. In the meantime, his goal is to develop of a single entry point for synchronization of resources, situational awareness and operational security. He recently spoke with Defense Systems contributing editor Barry Rosenberg about new AKO capabilities, technical challenges associated with creating a federated system, and objectives of the newly implemented business process management capability.

DS: One of your most important enhancements to AKO in recent months was the introduction of Go Mobile, which enables personal digital assistants that run on Microsoft mobile operating systems to send encrypted e-mail messages through the addition of a Common Access Card reader. What’s your near-term road map for additional AKO functionality?

Noble: I’ve gotten a lot of comments about our search capability. It was challenging to use and didn’t help you find the documents. So we’ve rolled out a brand new search capability that’s faster, more focused and allows people to get to the documents they want more quickly. A lot of search engines work on the theory that you want to look at what everybody else is looking at. So search engines are focused on giving you the most popular documents and the most linked-to documents.

DS: Which is the way Google works, right?

Noble: Yes. But the users we have on AKO don’t work like that. Everyone is specialized in the Army. We have people who do armor, people who do artillery and people who do finance, and the documents from one are unlikely to be of interest to the others. It may be that they’re only interested in documents from one office. So they need to have a way to quickly find a specific document. We’ve built a tool called a Concept Cloud that shows relevant feeds to particular statements and lets you rapidly sort through everything to find what you’re looking for.

A lot of people go, "Hey, I posted this document yesterday, and now I can’t find it." What this gives them is a better way to quickly identify things. This search function is working right now on AKO.

In the future, we are looking at something called federating. That’s where other search engines share their databases with ours, which would allow people in the Army to search databases in the Air Force, Navy and NASA, for example. So one of our goals in the next few years is to start federating the process and develop a global search function.

DS: What are the technical challenges associated with creating that federated system?

Noble: It’s a matter of deciding how often you’re going to query each other’s database. Basically a search engine goes through all the info that is available and builds an index. You have to figure out how often you share the indexes with each other because you’d choke the network if it went on all the time. So how often do you query each other? How do we recognize each other? What are the credentials needed to validate that I’m getting a search data from the valid source and not somebody that's spoofing it?

We did a successful demonstration of federation with the Air Force last spring, where we searched one of their databases and they searched an Army database. So we’ve demonstrated that it works. Now we want to find a way to make it work efficiently, quickly and securely.

DS: What sort of time frame do you have for accomplishing that?

Noble: Over the next year or two.

DS: You recently rolled out a method called business process management. What is that?

Noble: BPM is a tool of automating processes. Today, if I’m trying to put out a newsletter, it has to go to several agencies to get their input. After it goes through the review process, it goes back to the author, who makes changes. The document goes through a lot of hands and eventually gets published. The BPM tool automates that process.

The people who are going to get the document are selected, the document is automatically routed to those people and a task is generated for each one of them to review the document. After the document is marked complete, it is routed to the next person in the chain. You don’t have to look up that name or remember who it is supposed to be; the process takes care of that for you.

At the same time, it is tracking how long the entire approval process is taking. We found that it was taking several weeks to do something we thought should take a few days. So the BPM tool automates the process by routing the documents. We even put little icons with people’s pictures on them so you could see who had the document. It was very easy to see that “Joe sat on this for 13 days and Bob sat on it for eight days.” So we ask ourselves: “Why are these two guys taking a long time? Are they overworked? Is there some other step in the process that isn’t being accomplished?”

It allows us to quickly identify the chokepoint, and [it's] much more efficient than if we had to sit around a boardroom and try to figure it out. BPM can do that for you.

DS: I’ll bet people took notice when you put their photos on the documents.

Noble: It does put pressure on you because you know you’re part of the process. Everybody knows. You get visibility into things and people move quicker.

DS: So that is an AKO functionality?

Noble: Actually it’s a tool that’s offered on AKO. The BPM software is commercial software that we bought from Apian Software. We went through several months of testing, and now it’s open to the world.

Anybody can use the process, but to develop a process requires training. So one of the things we’re going to offer through AKO is a one-week course that will be offered four times a year to train administrators how to create and use the BPM tool. It is not some lightweight function that everybody can click on. It is actually a power tool that lets you do things you can’t do otherwise. We consider the administrators the power users, but it’s available to all organizations. They just need to identify their BPM subject-matter expert, and we’ll offer them the training.

DS: The ban on flash drives and other portable memory media is pushing more people to AKO for document management. What are you seeing?

Noble: An interesting thing has happened. When I got here 18 months ago, we were getting 700,000 log-ins a day. Today, it’s 900,000 to 950,000 on a busy day. And we’ve gone over 1 million. Usually what happens is that usage gets high after Christmas and then slows down as you roll into summer when people go on vacation. But we have not seen a drop; we’re still sitting on 900,000 log-ins a day. Part of it is the services we provide, but certainly it’s due to the restriction we’ve put on memory sticks. You can move stuff up to the portal and download them without restriction on AKO.

DS: Is there a bottleneck?

Noble: No. We’ve built the capacity on our network for 2.5 million users. Today, I have 2.2 million. So I’ve got some head space in terms of capacity on my system.

DS: Document management is very memory-intensive, though. Correct?

Noble: It is. But this hasn’t slowed us down in terms of performance.

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