How knowledge management became sexy again

Editor's note: This article has been update to correct the spelling of Jive Clearspace (now Jive Social Business Software), as pointed out in the comments section.

Knowledge management got its groove back.

The Defense Department’s push to become more agile in its operations and the Obama administration’s push to make government more open and collaborative are inspiring DOD and civilian agencies to devise ways to connect people and share ideas, which is knowledge management in a nutshell, agency chief knowledge officers and experts say.

Moreover, advances in collaboration, social media and enterprise search tools are making it easier to aggregate, disseminate, move, search for and segment information from a multitude of systems and resources.

Established as a discipline in 1991, knowledge management covers the strategies and practices that an organization uses to identify, create, represent, distribute and enable the adoption of insights and experiences. Those insights and experiences represent knowledge, either embodied in individuals or embedded in organizational processes or practices.


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Knowledge management drew a lot of attention — and a lot of hype — starting in the late 1990s.

However, knowledge management initiatives started to fall short of expectations, and “people were perhaps buying technology but not making it tremendously useful for operations in government,” said Ronald Simmons, a senior knowledge management adviser at the Army Training Support Command, which is part of the Training and Doctrine Command.

Simmons should know. Involved with knowledge management for 12 years, he built the first virtual knowledge work environment at the Federal Aviation Administration before moving to the Marine Corps and then onto the Army to accomplish the same tasks.

After stints on the civilian and defense sides of government, Simmons said that “from an operational standpoint, [DOD] is probably going to take the lead, if they haven’t already taken the lead now” in knowledge management.

The goal of many of DOD's technology efforts is to add agility into defense operations, Simmons said. DOD is a massive organization spread across the world. To share knowledge collaboratively, DOD needs the right mix of technologies to make information easily accessible to military personnel worldwide, he said.

“I’m finding knowledge management is attractive to DOD and will come back around to the other agencies in that it gives agility to the whole workforce,” Simmons said.

Civilian agencies are already starting to get on the bandwagon as they gear up to make more information available to experts, specialists and the public.

“Knowledge management, just like the openness area, is being challenged by an explosion of digital information that is increasing exponentially every year,” said David McClure, associate administrator of the General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Communications.

Turning data into information and knowledge is becoming more of a challenge because of the volume of data created, McClure said.

And knowledge management is moving to the user, much in the way that business intelligence did during the past few years, he said. For instance, business intelligence used to be a special segment dominated by people who possessed the skills needed to navigate through systems and data. But in the past few years, the power of information is moving directly to the user, he said.

“That means that knowledge management, from an enterprise perspective, gets more exciting, if you will, and challenging,” he said. Why? “Because you are creating knowledge that can be used on the fly by a different set of users rather than experts in the agency.”

Beyond E-Mail

The emerging crop of collaboration and social media tools extends how, when and where knowledge is disseminated, knowledge officers say.

When Simmons first moved to DOD, he was “amazed that we fight wars in e-mail, because there is a better way to collaborate than e-mail.”

Simmons said he told DOD officials, “now if I can get you out of e-mail, then I bet you can move, aggregate, segment and search all sorts of capabilities of knowledge.” DOD personnel are excited about building a capability in which operational knowledge is not limited to one physical location but is accessible anywhere, anytime, he said.

Simmons’ special niche in knowledge management has been in building virtual work environments. In the case of FAA and the Marine Corps, those environments consisted of a platform based on Microsoft SharePoint collaboration software, business intelligence software, Adobe Acrobat, and Connect Pro for instant messaging, communications and virtual meetings.

Although social networking tools were not created with knowledge management in mind, knowledge management practitioners are looking at ways to use them. Knowledge management managers can successfully use the tools to give organizations the ability to operate without e-mail in a secure, transparent way, Simmons said.

Take MilSuite, the military’s knowledge management suite, which includes Milblog, MilWiki, and a Facebook-type application called MilBook, which sits securely behind an enterprise firewall.

MilSuite is an integrated platform available to users of Army Knowledge Online/Defense Knowledge Online, the Army’s primary knowledge management tool. Users can securely access the knowledge management suite through an AKO/DKO account or with a Common Access Card.

MilSuite is based on open-source software. The wiki runs on the same type of software that supports Wikipedia; the blog runs on WordPress, an open-source content management system; and MilBook is powered by Jive Clearspace, now called Jive Social Business Software, open technology that requires software licenses to run, Filler said.

All three components are linked via a virtual business card. If someone writes a wiki on systems engineering for the Army, another person from the Navy can see who wrote the wiki, view that person’s profile and find other people with whom that person is connected, said Justin Filler, deputy director of the Army’s Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical MilTech Solutions Office.

MilSuite allows users to transcend the traditional hierarchical command structure to share ideas. For instance, an Army general might ask the question: “How can we make satellite communications better?” Traditionally, an engineer would learn about the question through his or her manager and would answer the question. The engineer's answer would percolate through the command chain until it reaches the general, Filler said.

Through MilSuite, whoever has information can share it directly with the general, and other people who don’t necessarily know one another can also submit information. The decision-maker can filter information and contact individuals to get more information.

The Training and Doctrine Command is running a pilot project through MilSuite to update the Army field manual, known as the Tactic Technique and Procedure manual, Filler said. The process traditionally can take as long as two years because the manual has to go through a rigorous cycle.

For the next version of the manual, the command is putting it on the wiki so updates can be made more quickly. For example, if the manual needs to have instructions about how to change a tire on a Humvee, a solider in Iraq could add details about changing a tire in the desert to specify that a board must be placed underneath the truck to prevent it from sinking in the sand.

That’s the type of information that military personnel are sharing in MilSuite, which has about 63,879 users, Filler said.

Potential capabilities for the future could include more video, which is ideal for training, so there could be a MilTube component or MilDesk for people who want to collaborate in a cloud computing environment. Plus, there are more ways to share knowledge aside from text, so there potentially could be a MilPic or MilFlickr component, Filler said. The DOD community will drive this development, providing feedback on what functions they would like to see, he added.

Filler said he prefers to describe what MilSuite allows users to do as professional networking rather than social networking because in a knowledge management environment, users are talking about what they are working on — not that they went to the bar and had a good time, he said.

Trust Factor

However, people who collaborate through professional media tools can develop a relationship that is social, which is a good thing for building trust — an important part of knowledge management, said Susan Camarena, chief knowledge officer of the Transportation Department’s Federal Transit Administration.

“If you don’t trust the data, information or experience, you’re not gong to use it,” she said. “Social relationships that develop as a result of professional respect encourage trust.”

FTA has been on a knowledge management journey for the past two and a half years, said Camarena, who honed her knowledge management skills at the U.S. Agency for International Development before working with FTA.

For the first year, the agency's focus was on developing a broad but comprehensive strategy for implementing knowledge management. The aim wasn’t to set up communities of practices and Web portals right away. Instead, FTA officials did a methodical review and knowledge audit of the agency to see where they wanted to go with knowledge management, knowledge sharing and knowledge transfer.

Additionally, Camarena introduced the concept of templates as a way to collect and share knowledge. Many FTA employees have been with the agency for a long time and have a lot of information to share, so it is critical to document that knowledge. Camarena’s team of knowledge management liaisons are conducting structured interviews of seasoned personnel to capture not only what they do but also what they know.

All of that information has to go some place, she said. FTA is testing its Transit Knowledge Portal, a business process portal that employees will access to tap into FTA’s knowledge bank. The portal will also connect communities of interest at FTA.

The platform is based on Microsoft SharePoint, which is the collaboration technology that DOT already uses. FTA officials hope to take advantage of features such as MySite, which lets users set up home pages as they can in Facebook, Camarena said.

And as at DOD, FTA is considering ways to move beyond e-mail. FTA will still rely on Microsoft Outlook for e-mail, but Camarena wants to explore opportunities to take person-to-person communication and spread that experience.

Agencies must have a technology base to connect users, but ultimately, knowledge management is about the people and enabling them to share ideas, Camarena said.

Search 2.0

Social media users have come to expect immediate information, said Bobby Caudill, solution architect of global government solutions at Adobe Systems.

Typically, knowledge management started with a data repository, and organizations then add information to a portal, Caudill said.

Portals are good things, but most people don’t go to them to actually do their jobs, he said. For instance, AKO is a fabulously successful environment. But most users go there for functions that support their jobs, such as billing or travel request information, Caudill said.

The next step would be a collaborative environment that allows people to communicate synchronously, via Web conferencing tools, or asynchronously, as with Facebook, and meshing those forms of communication with a traditional portal. That would create an enterprise mashup of the various tools people use to do their jobs rather that things that support their jobs.

The environment has the “look and smell of a portal but has actually evolved from there,” Caudill said. The approach would give a user a single view into his or her job function, as opposed to a window that has multiple portlets.

Adobe’s attempt is the Adobe LiveCycle Mosaic, a module that aggregates multiple applications into a single, personalized view, which eliminates the need to sign in and update each application separately. The aim is to provide users with real-time, relevant and contextual information.

Enterprise search is another game-changing technology in knowledge management, GSA’s McClure said. “In order to capitalize on knowledge management, we talk about analytics and software that allows you to mine information,” he said. Search engines are the key to harnessing that information.

Agencies are informally collecting a large volume of unstructured data — defined as data that is not in formal databases — every day to manage processes.

“Search capability is going to be a key technology to enhance our ability to move into knowledge management much more effectively,” McClure said.

Many agencies have search capabilities. But they often treat documents as a whole, so the ability to find relevant snippets of information is limited, said Bob Carter vice president and general manager of the federal division of Vivisimo, a developer of enterprise search and information optimization tools.

Vivisimo offers a platform that provides a unified view of assets and works in conjunction with a variety of collaboration, document management and enterprise resource management tools.

Air Force Knowledge Now uses the platform to share information across communities of practice for 400,000 people daily, he said. The organization had a variety of tools for sharing information — SharePoint, customized tools, wikis and simple file shares — but had no way of cutting across thousands of communities of practices to navigate and find information, Carter said.

Despite new developments in collaboration tools and search capabilities, not everyone is satisfied with the direction of knowledge management in the federal government.

Knowledge management in the federal government is like patchwork quilt, said Neil Olonoff, chairman of the federal Knowledge Management Initiative and a contractor at Innolog who works with the Army.

Some agencies have succeeded with knowledge management, specifically the Army and NASA, but there is no formal federal program or central clearinghouse of lessons learned to help avoid wasteful duplication efforts, he said. Last year, the Federal Knowledge Management Group called for the establishment of a Federal Knowledge Management Center and a federal chief knowledge management position.

But at the time, too much was going on with the Obama administration, such as the debate over the passage of health care legislation and the economic crisis, Olonoff said. So the group plans to raise the issue again this year.

“There have been pockets of hope and success,” but overall, a lot work still needs to done, Olonoff said.

Reader Comments

Thu, May 6, 2010 Tim Wright UK

Mark you are absolutely correct. Information is not knowledge at all. This fundamental misunderstanding has led to many many KM projects failing as it has allowed technology vendors to re badge information management tools as knowledge tools which they are not. Of course it is also a seductive argument to senior management and easy to sell because a) they think they understand it because they have come across information management before b) it does not threaten them as they can continue with the same management and cultural practices which are generally the most knowledge hobbling parts of an organisation c) it allows them to demonstrate that they are “doing knowledge management” by a line in the budget for a new search engine and finally d) it is so much easier (even if useless) than proper KM In the context of KM knowledge is a verb not a noun! However Social Media tools with their strength in developing connection and gate keeper slaying can have powerful application in some KM activities. It is somewhat ironic then that a recent survey that I undertook with the IA Centre showed very little leadership from the KM field in championing and adopting SM in a business context. It is still seen very much as a marketing tool and it is for “marketing” purposes that these applications are predominately used.

Mon, May 3, 2010 Mark Frautschi, Ph.D. Rockville, MD

One of the things I admire about KM in the civilian agencies and DoD are the many examples of technological and process innovation in government. However, like the private sector, many KM efforts have failed to meet one or more of their major goals. I was reminded of one possible underlying cause when I read the tag line for this article that GCN e-mailed: "... making it easier to aggregate and share information, which is essentially what knowledge management is ..." The underlying problem I would like to highlight is the difference between the nature of information and knowledge, which the tag line, in my opinion, fails to differentiate sufficiently. (And it's a tag line, not a dissertation, so it may be forgiven.) I think of information as data in a context that renders it sensible to a human being, where I think of knowledge as information in a human context (that is, known by one or more humans) rendered actionable. (Of course, much more complete definitions of both words are possible!) The risk with bringing technology, technology out of balance with other processes, to knowledge management is an overemphasis on systems that capture and "store" knowledge. My belief is that knowledge has to other essential characteristics. First humans use knowledge and second, as anyone who ever raised their hand in a classroom knows, knowledge uses humans. Capturing knowledge in some sort of a retrieval system loses these essential characteristics and reduces knowledge to information. I suppose that one can argue whether "systems that know" in a way that usefully mimics the way humans know will be possible, however, they do not appear to exist now, and many KM systems so not appear to acknowledge this technological limitation in their human components. Perhaps the asymmetry between knowledge "capture" and information retrieval is a good thing, because it forces organizations to retain focus on the humans that these systems are created to serve.

Mon, May 3, 2010 Jim Kovach

Great article! Quick correction, Jive's product is called "Clearspace", not Peer Space. CS was from the 2.x era, and now with our 4.x line the product is Jive SBS, "Social Business Software". Also Jive used to power the DNI/DIA's A-Space program, and the USAF Medical Services KX among others in Federal.

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