In the Know

By Shane Harris

July 1, 2001

Chief knowledge officers are the latest addition to agency management ranks. Now they're trying to prove they belong there. A still-controversial practice called knowledge management is winning converts throughout federal agencies. Leading the movement is a group of jump-up-out-of-your-seat evangelists known as chief knowledge officers. Already, 13 agencies have added these CKOs or some other knowledge management official to their hierarchies, usually reporting to the chief information officer.

The first commandment of knowledge management, or KM, is "honor thy worker's brain." According to the new creed, employees' skills and experiences are an organization's most valuable assets and, if they are made available to everyone, the entire organization grows stronger. KM takes the information that people keep locked in their skulls and puts it down on paper, or on the Internet or into conversation. CKOs work to put people within organizations-very often people who didn't even know they faced common challenges-together to solve business problems.

Some CKOs believe federal employees have been doing KM unbeknownst to themselves for quite some time. "Each agency has a certain level of knowledge-sharing in it," says Giora Hadar, the chief knowledge architect at the Federal Aviation Administration. Hadar became his agency's point person on knowledge management after first learning of it in a federal executive training program. FAA still is in the early stages of developing a knowledge-sharing program-Hadar doesn't believe you can actually "manage" knowledge. Already, Hadar has been able to use KM practices to address problems for agency employees. For instance, in FAA's southeastern and Caribbean region, repair contracts for assets lost or damaged during natural disasters took two to four weeks to issue because just one person was responsible for regional recovery efforts. To speed up the process, Hadar's office created an online community made up of the recovery employee and the contractors he hires, allowing them to share repositories of information and e-mail. Contracts now take a couple of days to complete, Hadar reports. The time saved through efficient communication is a tangible result of knowledge management, says Hadar.

Slippery Semantics

Before any agency can embark on a KM program, someone has to understand what knowledge management means. Unfortunately, for clarity-seeking souls, even KM practitioners don't agree unanimously on the meaning of knowledge management, or even of "knowledge," for that matter. "People have been trying to [define knowledge] for thousands of years and not succeeding very well," notes Nat Heiner, CKO at the Coast Guard. Alex Bennett, the deputy CIO for enterprisewide integration for the Navy-its de facto CKO-says unanimity is not so important. While there should be "alignment" across agencies about what knowledge management is, she says, individual interpretations by different organizations are fine.

Heiner, a Coast Guard outsider who came to the agency after a career in information technology in the private sector, tries to cut through the semantic mess. Knowledge management, he says, means understanding how people learn, understanding the means by which they learn about their area of expertise, knowing how they then forget that knowledge and, ultimately, trying to understand why an organization lets people leave without capturing what's in their brains. If an agency fails to do any of those things, he says, it fails to manage what its employees know and to best use their skills. When that occurs, the call to battle sounds for knowledge officers.

CKOs agree that if a knowledge management plan isn't tied directly to achieving an agency's business goals, it will fail. Bob Nielsen, CKO at the National Defense University and a full-time professor there, offers Business 101 advice for agencies flirting with KM: "[It] cannot be an add-on; it must be part of the business process."

To tie knowledge management directly to the university's nervous system, Nielsen created a Web site for its employees that acts as a brain traffic controller. It connects professors and staffers throughout the university's various schools to each other so they can swap ideas, share work practices, devise innovative curricula for their courses-just about anything that aids the ultimate educational mission. Nielsen would like to develop a CKO certificate program, since CKOs, he notes, are often said to be CEOs in waiting.

More Than Technology

CKOs are a committed and educated bunch and are in a position to have their voices heard in most agencies. Nevertheless, they face significant challenges in spreading their gospel: The core theology is hard to understand, skeptics abound and money-changers have launched an assault on the temple. The very technology that allows KM evangelists to spread the word has become a threat to knowledge management's survival.

Agencies have grown so accustomed to relying on technology to solve a whole host of problems-with personnel, financial management and employee recruitment-that organizations often buy products that they don't understand to fix problems that are not technical in nature at all, says Susan Wiener, a senior analyst at Giga Information Group of Cambridge, Mass., who studies knowledge management and its applications. She says organizations "expel the healthy heart" when they use technology to fix something that isn't broken. Compounding agencies' knee-jerk applications of technology are aggressive vendors intent on hyping their products, she adds.

Unfortunately, "it's [much easier] to buy a system than do the hard cultural changes that are really necessary," says FAA's executive assistant to the administrator for internal communications, Jerry Leavy, who leads the agency's KM effort with Hadar. Technology isn't knowledge management, say the CKOs, it merely allows knowledge management to be brought to a larger number of people. "It's an enabler, nothing else," says Hadar.

"Computers are to KM what exercise machines are to your exercise program," says June Huber, General Services Administration CKO. You can't assume a treadmill will make you want to exercise, nor will it produce any results unless it gets used. Likewise, agencies can't assume that buying a major technology device will inspire their employees to do knowledge management, she explains. "It's a tool that's only useful if you have the desire and if you have the will in the organization . . . to use it," she says. Knowledge management systems created in a vacuum and sprung upon unwary employees "get just as much use as the treadmill in your basement that sits there gathering dust."

Eric Lesser, an executive consultant in knowledge and content management at the IBM Institute for Knowledge Management in Cambridge, Mass., echoes this sentiment. When agencies fail to find a reason for doing KM and just use technology with the expectation of some kind of behavioral change in their employees, they create nothing but "a rusting hook on a company intranet," he says. Lesser says organizations commonly misuse the technology by starting an online information repository-say a best practices database-in the name of knowledge management and then failing to keep it up to date.

Keep It Simple

Luckily for CKOs, knowledge management initiatives don't require large investments. Huber leads a three-person KM operation at GSA with a slim $400,000 budget, yet it has managed to launch or develop 16 projects, one of which, a knowledge portal that would provide an online meeting house for more than 100,000 federal acquisition professionals, is preparing to launch right now. Huber says agency employees achieve good results in their own projects and organizations, but they don't immediately think about communicating their experience with one another. "GSA has wonderful ideas and solutions out there," she says, "but no particularly effective mechanism of sharing [them]."

GSA has kept its knowledge management efforts small, so they have remained fairly unthreatening. Hadar warns that imposing a technology upon people rouses opposition, and that is a direct path to disaster. "If [you] build it, they will run away," he says. Hadar says he can do a knowledge management or knowledge-sharing program without introducing any technology as long as the group is small enough and located in one place.

"If the technology isn't overlaid on the way that people work, [organizations] try to force people to work the way it's easy for the technology. That's deadly," says Mike Burk, CKO at the Federal Highway Administration Burk took that admonition to heart when he helped create a network of highway engineers. FHWA noticed that some states were reporting success in decreasing the number of traffic fatalities by constructing "rumble strips," raised bumps on the road's surface that shake a passing car to keep drivers alert. The agency collected papers, anecdotes, studies-all the material on rumble strips it could find-in a central repository that state engineers could access on an agency Web site. In addition to the database, the agency set up discussion threads-virtual dialogues between experts and those seeking their advice. The groups exchanged stories about the best places to build rumble strips and why they thought some states experienced better results than others. Burk says the members of the community benefit from the site because they decide what information to add and how to frame their discussions. Members report better results with rumble strips after collecting ideas from their colleagues, says Burk, who notes that the group is still vibrant today.

Bust the Buzz

CKOs are keenly aware of the need to mold technology to people's needs. Col. Bob Coxe, who manages Army Knowledge Online, the service's main portal (a central Web site that provides access to all the Army's online content and services), says the technology component of knowledge management is only about 20 percent of the picture. But that 20 percent is key, he warns. "You fail on that piece and nobody will listen to you."

The buzz surrounding the use of so-called knowledge management technology makes KM programs difficult to execute, CKOs confess. Software vendors have been on the offensive, eager to sell myriad products to federal agencies with the claim that they are true "knowledge management solutions," say many CKOs. Knowledge management is the new thing for software developers, notes Huber.

A great deal of the confusion stems from the ambiguous notion of technology solutions, says Giga Group's Wiener. "Who has any idea where one of these things ends and one begins?" she asks. She believes that software companies purposely fragment the market by muddling the technology vocabulary. The purchase of collaborative tools manufacturers by document management companies and vice versa further obscures the meaning of knowledge management, she says.

Wiener says she asks organizations eager to try knowledge management a simple question: What are you trying to do? Leverage what has already been used, she advises. Look at the assets already in place before rushing out to buy every new bell and whistle. "The problem," she says, is that "technology . . . became the purview of the technologists." Despite the confusion it causes, CKOs concede that KM technology is here to stay. Some CKOs use the prevalence of KM technologies to their advantage. "The Army is pushing the bleeding edge on some of these technologies," says Miriam Browning, the Army's CKO. In many ways, the service is ahead of other branches of the military in Web- and e-mail-based collaborative tools; it's even ahead of some companies in Silicon Valley, she boasts. It's all part of the Army knowledge management plan, which would institutionalize the management of technology and infrastructure at an enterprise level. In other words, one Army, one network, one plan-and Browning needs the tools to do it.

In addition to a reliance on technology products, the federal knowledge management effort has become intertwined with technology policy. Many CKOs are housed within the office of their agency CIOs, and in many cases they themselves are deputy CIOs. Asked why her office took on the KM task, Browning responds, "Because no one else wanted it." Technology officials are the real leaders of change in federal agencies, she says, and a "KM is a change agent."

Conquer Culture

CKOs know they're fighting entrenched agency culture armed with some fairly touchy-feely sounding weapons. Says the FAA's Leavey, "The traditional bureaucracy [practice] is that you don't share [information], you keep it to yourself." That, of course, is antithetical to the nature of knowledge management and can very quickly kill it. To some extent, CKOs are marginalized within their own organizations by their belief in KM. "I was completely out of the box," says Hadar of his early efforts. "Nobody wanted to pay attention to me."

CKOs believe they have to change the way people think about knowledge and power. They preach that when knowledge resides in a group, as opposed to an individual, the whole organization is made stronger. Browning speaks of "going from hoarding information to sharing information," and creating a new openness that has required support from top leadership to develop. The conflict also may have a generational component, she says. Browning finds that employees not of the baby boom generation have an easier time sharing what they know than their elders do. "Some of our biggest supporters at the ground roots level are some of the youngest folks in the Army," she adds.

The Nintendo generation's support for knowledge-sharing aside, CKOs still are on the lookout for resistance from the higher-ups, trying to spot the redoubts from snipers who may launch attacks on KM leaders as "Kumbaya-style" management gurus. The Coast Guard's Heiner takes on such challengers with enthusiasm, believing naysayers are the hearts and minds he must change. There's a culture in the Coast Guard of not waiting around for a bureaucracy to solve problems, he says, a "can-do" attitude that serves the agency very well. Heiner thinks he can turn gung-ho Coasties into true believers in knowledge management by showing them how useful it can be.

The IBM Institute's Lesser cautions that culture clash is not the only barrier to successful KM programs. He says the hardest task is finding the time to give people the opportunity to talk to one another and share information. In many organizations, participation in KM communities is an extracurricular activity.

Show Results

KM boosters also realize that in a results-driven federal culture, they must show people that the method actually works. Morgan Bantley, the knowledge management coordinator for the Veterans Affairs Department, believes he has found a way to measure his program's success. Bantley helped create a small online water cooler visited by about 300 VA patient advocates who are located at every agency medical center throughout the country. In most cases, each location has no more than two advocates. The VA sought a way to strengthen professional ties between advocates who rarely, if ever, interact with one another, Bantley says. Adding to the problem, the workforce is an aging one, rapidly approaching retirement.

VA's knowledge management program is fairly typical. It includes an online database of information and best practices for community members. The patient advocate users of the database form discussion groups, engage in teleconferences with experts on issues relevant to their work and give each other moral support-vital in an occupation with high turnover due to stress.

But the agency also is capturing the advocates' tacit knowledge-the information they know but keep to themselves and then take with them when they leave the agency, Bantley says. Patient advocates complete forms online detailing experiences they think are valuable to share with other members, and those forms go into a central repository where advocates can retrieve them. The hope is that once those people retire, VA will have built up a hefty online cache of institutional brainpower and know-how to help train the next generation of advocates.

Bantley says he can measure the effectiveness of the patient advocate program by listening to advocates' stories of how useful they find the Web site and by tracking how often they log on and contribute forms to the database. Bantley works on the assumption that because the advocates are otherwise swamped with work, they wouldn't be part of the online gathering if it weren't worthwhile to them.

Federal CKOs are coming to the knowledge management game later than their private sector counterparts, says Dan Rasmus, vice president of strategic knowledge initiatives and research leader at Giga Information Group. He says one of the biggest challenges they face is getting control over scarce agency resources. Rasmus suggests that the CKOs tie knowledge management programs to agency objectives. Asking tough questions, he says, will help focus the effort. "Where are [the agency's] pain points? What are the places in the organization where they need to make investments?"

Despite all the hype and fanfare over knowledge management, the problem for CKOs comes down to being taken seriously. Elsa Rhoads, the KM architect at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, one of the smallest agencies experimenting with KM, decided to go back to school to show her bosses she wasn't kidding around. Rhoads enrolled in The George Washington University's knowledge management program. "I figured that this would make it legitimate," she says. CKOs are nothing if not earnest. Most of them jumped at the chance to take on the new title. "You don't do KM for the sake of KM," says Burk. "You do it for the sake of being a better organization." Like Burk, these new-age managers now are hoping desperately that the rest of their agencies see things the same way.

By Shane Harris

July 1, 2001