FAA: Knowledge sharing shouldn t be forced

Agency's use of online collaboration space has expanded to solve workgroup problems

About 22,000 Federal Aviation Administration employees have found a better way to work on projects rather than struggle to schedule face-to-face meetings and shuttle documents back and forth via e-mail.

'Instead of sending e-mail with an attachment, you send an e-mail with a link to your library,' said Ronald Simmons, a scientific and technical adviser at the Transportation Department agency. FAA employees store many of their documents, spreadsheets and other project data in online libraries.

Some experts say that kind of information sharing is a foundation for managing knowledge, a practice that is gaining proponents at the FAA and elsewhere in the federal government.

Like most employees, the FAA's technicians and managers had to break a long-standing habit of sending e-mail attachments, Simmons said.

But now they realize the advantages of using a collaboration software suite, such as Microsoft's SharePoint.

Speed and simultaneity are two primary advantages that FAA employees have gained from using software tailored for online collaboration, Simmons said. 'If I post a document in a virtual room, it is instantaneously available to everybody,' he said. 'If I had to send something by e-mail to Africa, it might take 24 hours.'

The FAA's collaboration spaces have the look and feel of office suites with their own libraries, he said, adding, 'You can see the titles of the documents and the type of documents.' Users can see whether a document has been checked out, and they can see the version history of each document.

The FAA refers to its new collaboration capabilities as the Knowledge Services Network, or KSN workplace. The FAA modified SharePoint. 'We sort of bent it a little bit,' to support collaboration with university, NASA and DOD researchers, Simmons said.

One of the most ardent users of the KSN workplace is the FAA's Terminal Area Operations Aviation Rulemaking Committee. Commercial pilots, airplane industry officials and FAA employees sit on that committee, which meets periodically to write new flight regulations for pilots approaching airports. But those meetings are infrequent, and members of the airline community typically are unhappy with the regulations that the FAA writes. They express their concerns during 30-day comment periods.

Often a long adjudication period follows in which the FAA tries to incorporate those public comments into a new regulation. That process can last for months.

On one of the first occasions that the committee used online collaboration in rulemaking, the aviation community participated in writing a regulation governing flights into an airport in Anchorage, Alaska, Simmons said. All members of that committee got user names and passwords to the FAA's KSN workplace.

Because of that participation, the members were satisfied and offered no comments during the 30-day comment period, Simmons said. No adjudication was necessary. 'Once you invite the community to participate actively in writing the draft in a virtual office suite, then all of this angst and bickering go away,' he said.

Online collaboration software lends itself to many other uses besides rulemaking. At the FAA it has helped employees in the agency's regional and foreign offices overcome the isolation they typically feel when headquarters employees run a project or program.

'The regions very often feel isolated and disconnected,' Simmons said. 'Now they do this in the KSN environment rather than have everybody meet at the headquarters office. Everybody feels like they are an equal part of the team.'

Many potential applications exist for the KSN workplace.'If I were getting ready to retire, you would look for things on my hard drive in my office, on the [local-area network] drive in my division,' he said. 'But now everything I have done is in KSN.'

Collaborative workspaces need not be virtual, said David Bennet, a former chief knowledge officer for a professional services firm and now co-founder of the Mountain Quest Institute, a research and learning center. Mentoring programs in which an employee with about 30 years of federal service works with a high-potential candidate for two years before the veteran employee retires is another way to manage knowledge, Bennet said.

One reason for KSN's success is that it costs the FAA little to use SharePoint. KSN simply requires users to have a copy of Microsoft Office running on their desktop PCs. The FAA configured SharePoint's role-based security for extranet use. 'There's a firewall in front of it and a firewall behind it,' Simmons said. No virtual private network is necessary to ensure secure access to KSN work spaces, he added.

Simmons said the kind of online collaboration that the FAA conducts via KSN evolves naturally when local working groups find it useful. Forced online collaboration is rarely successful, he added.

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