Power of the portal

Knowledge management architect Elsa Rhoads says she believes in 'storing once, sharing many times.'

Susan Whitney-Wilkerson

Government pension agency centralizes its know-how

Technology has al-ways been an en-abler for knowledge management, but 'for the first time portal technology is now the driver,' the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.'s Elsa Rhoads says.

As KM architect for PBGC, Rhoads began the knowledge management program for the small agency five years ago.

In 2002, the agency custom-coded a prototype KM platform called Portfolio to preserve lessons learned from its then-largest effort: rescuing the defined-benefit pension plan of a bankrupt steel company with more than 82,000 workers and retirees.

'I realized we didn't have the capability to formally capture and reuse what we learned,' Rhoads said. So she made what she called 'a leap of faith,' requesting funds for a knowledge repository.
Senior managers said yes, and Rhoads and others began encouraging employees to upload their case documents and spreadsheets to Portfolio.

PBGC takes over as trustee when a private pension plan fails or is terminated. Currently, PBGC insures more than 31,000 pension plans covering 44 million workers and retirees. All its funds come from employer premiums, investments and money recovered from the plans it takes over.

When PBGC received an even larger case involving another bankrupt steel company's 95,000 workers and retirees, the Portfolio prototype help- ed by reminding employees of their earlier negotiations with steelworkers and unions.

'During our brainstorming exercises, we made video clips of individual employees discussing their solutions. We showed them through Portfolio'it was an easy way to communicate knowledge,' Rhoads said.

And then knowledge management suddenly went onto the fast track at PBGC, which had been spending about three years on each new case. The insurance operations department set a goal to cut case-handling time to two years, with a speedier process in place by the beginning of fiscal 2006.

'We tackled it in an unusual way,' Rhoads said. 'Rather than taking a typical business process re-engineering approach, we established job- and skill-oriented communities of practice' to identify the critical business activities for each role.

'We conducted a value-chain assessment and came up with action plans for each role-based community' to achieve the one-year reduction in processing time, she said.

Rick Hartt, who became the agency's first chief technology officer in 2002, also set new goals. Besides a collaboration platform, he wanted an enterprise architecture plan and an IT reorganization to improve business services.

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One of the first outcomes of the EA program was common programming for each business application. For example, e-ALG, the agency's electronic automated letter generation capability, standardizes the notification to all concerned parties when PBGC takes over a pension plan.

Hartt's IT reorganization relied on three process-improvement teams: user support, infrastructure planning and solutions delivery.

Each team put in about 200 hours apiece over six months, analyzing business processes in addition to doing their regular jobs.

In October, the central knowledge platform went live. PBGC chose the Microsoft Windows version of Enterprise Web Suite Portal 5.0 from Plumtree Software Inc. of San Francisco. SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va., carried out the installation.

'We treated it like commercial software and installed it out of the box with very little customization,' Rhoads said.

Software wizards helped the IT staff set up templates for the various communities of practice. In so-called sandbox areas of the portal, employees could practice moving over documents from their hard drives to preserve their institutional knowledge centrally.

No extra hardware was required for the portal, which cost about $1.2 million for consulting services through fiscal 2004 plus about $600,000 for software licenses.

'We're now looking at the payback' for a phased implementation across the entire agency, Rhoads said.

Meanwhile, the Portfolio prototype with its video clips, lessons-learned documents and best practices will become a separate portlet on the Plumtree portal. Content from shared drives and PBGC's intranet also will be accessible through the portal. 'It eliminates multiple copies of e-mail attachments and gives all employees the same door into their work,' Rhoads said.

Eventually, she hopes, the portal will improve the speed and quality of de-cision-making across departments. PBGC users have exchanged ideas with other Plumtree users at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, the Energy Department and Arlington County, Va.

PBGC's external Web site, at www.pbgc.gov, has information about the pension insurance program and accepts electronic transactions with companies that have defined-benefit plans as well as with participants in plans managed by PBGC. Beneficiaries in a plan can arrange for direct deposit or change their addresses online.

The external site explains the eight legal steps PBGC takes whenever it becomes trustee for a plan, before it pays out any benefits. The site also posts news about the progress of each case so beneficiaries know what to expect.

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