How knowledge management helps keep the US attack free

The attacks that brought down the World Trade Center 10 years ago also cracked the foundations of traditional information sharing in the government intelligence and law enforcement communities.  

Although the attack and its aftermath affected broad swaths of IT, it also helped transform one area of particular importance to the homeland security community: the collection of tools, technologies and practices, known as knowledge management. 

Originally considered a means of preserving the institutional memory of longtime workers as they moved from one job to another or retired, the 2001 terrorist attacks brought an urgency to the uses of KM as a tool for intelligence collaboration and coordination, according to experts in the government IT community. 

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“Things were hyper-compartmentalized,” said Jeanne Holm, chief knowledge architect at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, chairwoman of NASA’s Knowledge Management Team and former chairwoman of the Federal Knowledge Management Working Group. “Post 9/11, we saw a transition. It was clear that there was a great need to share amongst government organizations.”

Accordingly, knowledge management practices expanded to accommodate more ways to aggregate and share critical information. From an architectural point of view, installations are less monolithic. Single knowledge repositories are giving way to multiple databases. Agencies may wield a number of collaboration tools to curate intelligence insights as opposed to a single, specifically designated knowledge management system.

But 9/11 isn’t the sole factor driving change in the knowledge management space. Widespread use of collaboration software packages such as Microsoft’s SharePoint, broader adoption of unified communications and the explosion of social media in the last decade have pulled knowledge management in new directions. 

“The principal change [in knowledge management] that has come about as a result of 9/11 has been this really significant push for collaboration,” said Ramon Barquin, president of Barquin International, a consulting firm that specializes in IT strategies.

“Collaboration has become easy because of the huge explosion of social media," Barquin said. “And you can do this now without necessarily giving someone all of your files. As a result, we have a quantum jump in collaboration across federal agencies and federal agencies with state and local. That has been positive.”

A new direction at DOD

Barry Leffew, vice president of the public sector at Adobe Systems, said knowledge management programs since the 2001 terrorist attacks cater to a more matrixed set of individuals and their information needs. In the past, hierarchical organizations made information exchange among groups more difficult. 

The drive now is to enable the Defense Department to share with the Homeland Security and State departments, and, in many cases, allied partners, he said. “One of the key differences is the requirement to have instant, real-time collaboration and knowledge management capabilities instead of going from one stovepiped system to another,” Leffew said. 

DOD, for one, is setting course in this direction. Defense Knowledge Online, which had been a critical DOD knowledge management system, is giving way to file sharing among the rank and file using Microsoft SharePoint. 

In place of DKO, DOD will pursue the Enterprise Services Portal Branch, a program led by the Defense Information Systems Agency, which will spearhead an enterprise SharePoint deployment.  

Those tools will be bolstered by DISA’s Defense Connect Online, a 380,000-user network that lets personnel exchange unclassified and secret information with authorized mission partners. DCO consists of Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro for Web conferencing and Cisco Systems' Jabber chat technology. Carahsoft Technology partnered with Adobe on the DCO contract, which DISA extended in August. The deal is estimated at more than $93 million.

John Nelson, project manager at Dynamics Research Corp., said the Army was keen to share ideas among service members before the 2001 terrorist attacks but was spurred to speed the process in the years after. “The Army already recognized the need to share information,” Nelson said. “When 9/11 rolled around, there was an imperative to do it a lot more quickly.” 

In addition to tapping collaborative IT services, the Army is emphasizing the concept of communities of practice, in which professionals with longtime professional interests in common share information. The service refers to its COPs as Army Professional Forums, which include more than 200,000 members.

DRC helped develop software for Army and other DOD COPs, Nelson added. COPs had perhaps been the premier knowledge management application, but other tools now in the mix include wikis, cloud applications such as Google Docs, and collaboration software such as Adobe Connect, Cisco Systems' WebEx, and Citrix Online’s GoToMeeting, he said.

In the defense, law enforcement and intelligence sphere, COPs provide an important professional and social impetus for high-level information sharing, experts say.

“A critical part of a knowledge management framework is the need to work with communities of practice,” said Barquin, who used the example of explosives experts who might have met earlier in their careers and maintained a professional association.

“These communities were formed because, for instance, somebody who is now with the New York Police Department used to be with the FBI and went to the same classes with others in this area, so they have already established a community of trust," Barquin said. "Now 10 years into their careers, they are still a part of communities of practices or interests."

"They in turn mentor new kids on the block,” he said, “and they become a part of these communities of interest.”

Toward decentralized systems

Changing expectations and emerging technologies since 9/11 also revealed limitations in existing systems. In particular, the big-system approach of the late 1990s was found wanting. “The idea of putting everything into a huge data warehouse and [thinking] it will all work out — that has ended up being a weakness,” Holm said. 

One issue was a reluctance to move data from local databases into a single system. “In intelligence and DOD, workers feel they want to control their data,” Holm said. 

But even the science sector, in which openness is part of the culture, shies away from the centralized approach, she said. Groups “want to put data into a system that is close and local to them to make it useful for the specific science community,” she added. 

“We are also seeing a movement away from monolithic central repositories,” said Patrick McGrath, associate director of content management services at the University of California at Berkeley.

Instead, UC Berkeley taps best-of-breed repositories and collaboration environments that excel at certain functions, such as learning management, managing metadata specific to research domains, collaboration and visualization styles, or digital archiving. In this way, a single piece of curated content can be channeled to the school’s central library to support dissemination of published materials, to the UC California Digital Library for digital preservation, and to ARTstor to contribute to image collections for the arts and sciences.

“Rather than us try to build a digital preservation function into all repositories, we leverage the experience and services of experts in those fields and channel the right kind of content to them,” McGrath said. “This approach reduces duplication and costs, increases the depth of our offering to the campus, and reduces the complexity of this process to the end-user,” he added. 

The new shape of KM

The departure from monolithic installations is also evident in the system-of-systems nature of post-9/11 knowledge management. A deployment now might include portals, collaboration products, unified communications systems and social media tools. Because many agencies have some or all of those elements already in place, the focus of knowledge management shifts from acquiring a purpose-built system to harnessing existing resources.

“Everyone has a big ‘aha!’ moment when they realize they have all the pieces but just need to put them together in a different way,” said Holm, who listed portals, collaboration capabilities and search among the key elements of knowledge management. 

Agencies are now working to join together such systems. For example, a link between DCO and DISA's enterprise SharePoint implementation — under the Enterprise Services Portal Branch — could be in the offing. Adobe’s Leffew said the company is encountering demand from DOD commands for such a capability. 

Adobe is also actively looking at ways to develop an integration with SharePoint, he said. That link would let authorized personnel use Adobe Connect to review information housed in SharePoint, which typically serves as a repository for relatively static content, such as documents, diagrams and geospatial data.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, meanwhile, is building knowledge management around multiple systems, said Jim Phillips, senior manager for application development support at TVA. “I think there will be three key areas for us,” said Phillips, who listed an enterprise data warehouse, enterprise content management solution and collaboration system as the core elements of a KM system.

The data warehouse, already in place, provides business intelligence and stores more structured data. TVA is now deploying a content management solution and mulling a move to SharePoint. The content management system will contain data that requires long-term storage, while SharePoint would provide collaboration and information sharing, perhaps more on the departmental level, Phillips said. 

Socialized KM

Some organizations are extending knowledge management systems to tap human experts in addition to data. Susie Adams, chief technology officer at Microsoft Federal, said knowledge workers hold a high percentage of an enterprise’s information. Unified communications systems can help organizations find the right expert.

“It’s much more human-oriented now,” Adams said of knowledge management. TVA, which uses elements of the Microsoft unified communications platform, is looking at the technology’s knowledge management potential, Phillips said. 

Social media offers another avenue for tapping human expertise. Todd Barr, chief marketing officer at Alfresco, which provides an enterprise content management system, cited Jive as an example of a social business system that can help people locate and connect with colleagues. 

Barr said Alfresco can integrate with Jive and IBM social software including IBM Connections, formerly Lotus Connections. The multiple components and integrations underscore the key lesson of modern knowledge management: Agencies have many ways to get the job done. “Folks are using an absolute plethora of products and solutions,” DRC’s Nelson said. “At this point in time, there’s no one size that fits all.”


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