Growing the tree of knowledge

Growing the tree of knowledge

Information-sharing is the key for the procurement community

By Shereen G. Remez

Special to GCN

If we only knew what we knew, we'd all be better off.

That paradox is keenly evident in the world of procurement, and it defines the goal of a new-frontier effort at the General Services Administration: knowledge management.

Stepping into the chief knowledge officer job at GSA this summer was at once a natural progression and a huge leap for me. After serving as the agency's chief information officer and guiding an annual information technology budget of more than $300 million, becoming the government's first chief knowledge officer opened the door to a whole new world to me and, I hope, to GSA.

And that's just what we are experiencing as we close in on the new millennium'a new, fast-changing world. Today's advanced technology is tomorrow's throwaway, and today's advanced knowledge is tomorrow's ignorance. Information that matters is changing so rapidly that no one, alone, can keep up. Even the Internet is not current, with the best search engines able to scan no more than 16 percent of the more than 800 million pages on the Web, according to a recent study in the scientific journal Nature.

People first

Knowledge management is a new discipline in government that has been percolating in the private sector for the past several years. It simply means having the right information at the right place at the right time so people can make good decisions and act on them.

The emphasis in knowledge management is on people'not technology.

Richard Hunter, a researcher at GartnerGroup Inc. of Stamford, Conn., has said, 'Knowledge management is about swimming, not about swimming pools.' I couldn't agree more. There are too many old tales in government of focusing on the best technology without giving the same attention to the best people and what they need to know to do their work.

As chief knowledge officer, I'm working to ensure that knowledge isn't locked away. Knowledge lives within people, and my mission is to find it, share it and grow it within GSA. It's a natural extension of the changes in computing and the importance of lifelong learning in a rapidly changing world.

Guided by legislation such as the Information Technology Management Reform Act, popularly known as Clinger-Cohen, and by strong leadership in the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and in Congress, the new contracting environment already emphasizes sharing knowledge and exchanging ideas between government and industry.

While the specification-driven, arm's-length negotiations of the past focused on rules, today's environment emphasizes value, creativity, innovation and good judgment'precisely the qualities that knowledge management builds within an organization. By taking advantage of the wealth of information, skills and know-how people have, the procurement community can leap forward into the 21st century.

Specifically, knowledge management offers leverage in three areas:

• Lessons learned. Sharing the lessons learned in defining requirements, developing solicitations, evaluating proposals and managing task orders is to everyone's advantage. When the best contracting officers can discuss and document all they have learned as part of their jobs, the entire government will reap the benefits of their collective expertise, which is especially important in today's rapidly changing environment.

• Past performance. Knowledge can lead to better past performance evaluations that capture the totality of a contractor's performance over the life of a project. Today's snapshot, often one-dimensional past performance reports could be transformed into vastly richer information emphasizing the entire lifecycle of an acquisition.

• Best practices. By sharing what works within and across agency procurements, officials could move to a new level the whole government's ability to acquire products and services from the private sector.

In my experience, having worked with many people in the procurement community, I find that those who are lifelong learners'who take the time to study and keep up with current technology'are by far the most effective in meeting their agencies' needs. The new techniques available in knowledge management help the best of the best share what they know and help all of us become creative thinkers and innovators.

Knowledge management helps spread these very human skills throughout the entire community of practice, and encourages government and business to freely share their ideas.

Brownie points

So, as a chief knowledge officer in the federal government, I'm eager to develop a new type of learning environment in which employees are rewarded not just for what they know and what they accomplish but for the extent to which they share their knowledge with colleagues.

The procurement arena is a fertile field for sharing. All of us need to know what has been done well in the past and how to avoid repeating mistakes, lest we waste millions of dollars reinventing the wheel or the buggy whip.

There are many knowledgeable government employees and private-sector experts out there with a wealth of wisdom, just waiting to share it. With high turnover and a less stable and more complex environment in both government and business, we need to capture the knowledge of our people before it is lost forever.

GSA is proud of its own record of innovation. We were the first to give all of our employees access to the Internet; we established the first CIO office, under Clinger Cohen; and we are the pioneers of seat management.

Now we hope to be the first to launch another valuable strategy with knowledge management'the leverage and expertise that exists within our people.

With today's growing glut of data and information and the increasing freedom and choice that procurement reform has brought, we truly need to know what we know.

Shereen G. Remez, chief knowledge officer for the General Services Administration, joined GSA in 1977 and was its chief information officer from December 1997.


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