A Concept, a Fad, a Process...

Moves Slowly Through Government

By John Makulowich


There is a lot less happening in the government with knowledge management than in the private sector if you use a June 22-24 conference in Boston as your main measuring stick. Jump ahead to the future and a program announcement from the American Productivity & Quality Center in Houston, and you get a similar impression. Its "Knowledge Symposium III: Lessons from the Leading Edge," set for Oct. 22-23 in Williamsburg, Va., includes only one session mentioning the government.

Even that impression of interest is a bit tainted by the session description and its list of planned speakers, all three of whom are either from the National Security Agency or were associated with it.

While the NSA does not jump to mind when you think about the agency most likely to share its best practices and other knowledge management processes, the session promises to examine "how government partners with private industry to gain knowledge management insight."

If you needed a bit more ammunition, you could use the Internet to search the archives of the National Technical Information Service, Springfield, Va., which claims to be "the official source for government-sponsored U.S. and worldwide scientific, technical, engineering and business-related information."

A search of its Web site - containing references to more than 370,000 records over the last 10 years - using the phrase "knowledge management" yields only 11 hits. Disregarding the NTIS qualifier that "descriptive summaries and subject keyword tags are not provided for the majority of the publications listed on the NTIS Web site," the term is admittedly new, popularized only in the mid-1990s.

If doubts still remain about the level of interest by the government in knowledge management, they are partially justified. In fact, knowledge management is happening in the government, but it appears now as either isolated programs or early-stage efforts.

NSF Forges Ahead
However, turn your attention to the National Science Foundation and its Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence initiative, clearly with a knowledge management thrust, and you get the feeling that level of interest will rise dramatically in the coming years.

Just look at the number of proposals submitted for grants in mid-May by U.S. colleges, universities and nonprofit research institutions, some partnering with industry, and you start to question not government interest in knowledge management but conference organizer awareness of the playing field.

National Science Foundation spokeswoman Elizabeth Gaston said the research organization received 697 "unique KDI" proposals for its three programs. These include 309 for Knowledge Networking, 130 for Learning & Intelligent Systems and 258 for New Challenges for Computation.

The NSF program announcement June 2 offers a clear statement of the forces driving KDI and by inference, knowledge management:

"The recent growth in computer power and connectivity has changed the face of science and engineering. The future promises continued acceleration of these changes. The challenge today is to build upon the fruits of this revolution.

"This rise in power, connectivity, content and flexibility is so fundamental that it is dramatically reshaping relationships among people and organizations, and quickly transforming our processes of discovery, learning, exploration, cooperation and communication. It permits us to study vastly more complex systems than was hitherto possible and provides a foundation for rapid advances in understanding of learning and intelligent behavior in living and engineered systems.

"Today's challenge is to realize the full potential of these new resources and institutional transformations. Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence (KDI) is a Foundation-wide effort designed to catalyze this next step."

Highway Administration Another Player
Aside from the broad-based initiatives from the federal government's research and development arms, there is activity on the individual agency level. For example, the Federal Highway Administration, an agency of the Department of Transportation, is starting to seriously explore the role that knowledge management could play in the administration of the highway system.

In an e-mail exchange about his program, Transportation Knowledge Sharing, Michael Burk, safety technology team leader in the Office of Technology Applications of the highway administration, wrote: "KM is something we are very interested in and are really just getting started. When you think of the number or agencies across the country (states, cities, counties) that have the need to know the latest options or good practices related to highways (e.g., planning, design, construction, maintenance, bridges, materials, safety), the need for knowledge from the wealth of information is enormous."

Among other things, he said, highway administration officials look at KM as a way to accelerate the use of new technologies by sharing technical information and success stories across the highway community.

"We also think that by creating communities of practice, we can accelerate the rate of innovation within the highway community. Collaboration among experts and practitioners can occur 'virtually' across great distances, no longer having primary dependence upon traditional meetings that may occur sporadically as funding allows," he said.

In its vision statement, FHWA Transportation Knowledge Sharing, the agency outlines its main KM output: "The most tangible product of the [Transportation Knowledge Sharing] will be a knowledge network that facilitates the electronic exchange of ideas and provides a knowledge repository of documentation of best practices, procedures, product evaluations and research reports."

Help for the highway administration's project is coming through American Management Systems, a Fairfax, Va., systems integration company that innovated and popularized the concept of Knowledge Centers and Communities of Practice. These are bedrocks of the approach the administration is taking to set up its program.

Internally, the Knowledge Centers are communities of selected AMS experts who share knowledge. Linked by AMS' Knowledge Express intranet, the Knowledge Centers allow access to innovative thinking and solutions worldwide, at the same time nurturing a growing "knowledge bank" of strategies.

The Knowledge Centers are structured by AMS' core disciplines: business process renewal, organization development and change management, system development and information technology management, advanced technologies, engagement and project management and decision analytics.

The company describes itself as partnering with clients to achieve breakthrough performance through the intelligent use of information technology.

For many attendees at the recent conference, knowledge management is a way of formally making meaning out of information to allow one to take action. In that sense, knowledge management derives directly from information overload, of the need to stem the tide of data flowing across the desktop and laptop.

When asked, many attendees felt knowledge management's application in the government would not be much different from that used in the commercial sector. Overall, knowledge management needs to address specific business problems. And the most pressing business problem is the need to become more customer-focused. Thus, the potential exists for KM to deliver services to customers faster and better.

Building an Identity
In the last six months, American Management Systems has received calls from every major government agency interested in the notion of communities of practice, according to Susan Hanley, director of KM initiatives for AMS.


Susan Hanley
Hanley sees several general KM issues that cross the boundaries of government and commerce. For example, many workers don't know how to collaborate.

"You need creative approaches. From my vantage point, there are two parts to the solution: a technology component, which is about 20 percent, and a people part, which is about 80 percent," says Hanley.

She feels the company is at the point where they have some answers in developing communities of practice and furthering KM. One answer is the need to build an identity for the community.

"In addition to building the group, you need to have recognition, a need to reward, to motivate, to celebrate the successes. And the knowledge of the group needs to be current, real and relevant. It must always be evaluated for currency," says Hanley.

AMS has 200 corporatewide databases for sharing knowledge and 1,800 databases within the business units. Even with all this content, it is important for people to meet.

In fact, Hanley notes that database use goes up after people have met. AMS encourages meetings among its business units with an annual sharing conference.

A Concept, a Fad, a Process...

So what's this knowledge management thing all about, anyway? Reading a potpourri of handouts and listening to a coterie of gurus during the June 22-24 conference in Boston can leave you shaking your head, if not nodding off.

Nearly every speaker offered a different definition of knowledge. No wonder some attendees were confused. The presumed experts have yet to define the data set.


Carla O'Dell
A speaker from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management put on a slide, "What is Knowledge Management?" and listed below it: a concept? a product? a process? a strategy? a management approach? a fad?

KMPG Consulting, Annapolis, Md., in a widely distributed 12-page document, "The Power of Knowledge: A Business Guide to Knowledge Management," states: "By knowledge, we mean experience, facts, rules, assertions and concepts about those subject areas that are crucial to the business (e.g., customers, markets, processes, regulations)."

Another reason for the perplexity surrounding knowledge management is the range of issues, concepts and processes it supposedly covers. Then there is the real difficulty of defining exactly what counts as knowledge in a business setting, much less any other setting.

Last, yet most important: just when you feel you are getting a sense of knowledge management, a speaker wipes away all that's gone before and introduces the idea of social capital.

A lot of this smacks of alchemy. Some of it can be summed up in the words of several presenters pointing to the same phenomenon: old wine in new bottles.

One speaker commented about a few magazines that have recast their names to include the knowledge management moniker but have kept the same editorial angle. Another speaker noted that a client, after being introduced to knowledge management, referred to his scanner as a "knowledge input device."

Tom Stewart, a columnist for Fortune magazine who kicked off the conference, said that most knowledge management really deals with intellectual working capital, the information age equivalent of inventory.

Asked about the relevance of this concept to the government, Stewart said among the problems government agencies face are identifying the customer and determining the right measurements.

"There are other issues," said Stewart. "Fund accounting is a poor way to measure, only designed to apportion blame. The compartments the government is divided into make sharing difficult. There are structural problems. However, if the business model can be applied to consultants, it can be applied to the government."

Stewart, who started popularizing the term "intellectual capital" in 1991, noted that an Internet search he conducted in 1995 on the phrase intellectual capital yielded 20 hits. A more recent effort resulted in 8,373 hits, including Rome as an intellectual capital. The term was first used in 1958.

Intellectual capital's role in knowledge management reflects the change in the sources of differentiation in business, according to Stewart. With the digital revolution and the information age, intangible capital takes on a new importance. Assets such as knowledge, people, systems and customers gain new valuation.

Carla O'Dell, president and chief operating officer of the American Productivity & Quality Center, the organization that created the criteria for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, spoke on the subject, "The Ten Enduring Truths in Knowledge Management."

After her talk, she said the question government must address is, "Who is the customer?" "Is it the public at large, or Congress, or the executives in the agency? This goes to the heart of the value proposition. Most agencies have different customers," she said in an interview.

"The question that must be asked is, what knowledge, if managed more efficiently, would make a difference in the organization? For example, what would lead to more government at less cost, that is, more customer service at less cost? Of course, it depends on the agency, whether it be IRS or the Commerce Department," said O'Dell.

She admits that for government to alter its way of doing business, there must be a driving force and a reason to change. Those might be customer satisfaction and retention, related to citizens or congressional representatives.

Asked about the bottom line, notoriously invisible in the government, O'Dell said everyone has one, they just may not know it.

"Agencies need to re-educate Congress on the measures that matter. They need to control the agenda. They need to guide Congress in how to measure the specific agency," she said.

One area to focus is education, where there are success stories and numerous best practices. Agencies, O'Dell suggested, could support those best practices and offer grants on what has worked.

It was left to Larry Prusak, best-selling co-author of "Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know" (HBS Press, 1998) and a managing principal of the IBM Consulting Group in Boston, to set the conference on its collective head by questioning all that went before him.

His talk, "Enablers and Enemies of Knowledge Management," introduced the notion of social capital, which to Prusak is the critical element in knowledge management and the subject of a book he is writing.

Among the five enablers of knowledge management that he recited - that is, those elements of the 60 successful knowledge management projects (out of 120) he has observed or worked on - the first was an emphasis on social capital. He defined this as factors that lower transaction costs and enable communication. The three elements of social capital are space, trust and perceived equity.

For example, Prusak talked about cognitive space, cyberspace and physical space, noting that people need a physical space like a library in which to meditate, share knowledge and get away from the clang and clutter of the office.

The second enabler? Cheap wide-bandwidth technologies, like multimedia. The reason for this is people don't learn from numbers and documents, but from those devices that bring them as near as possible to the face-to-face relationship, he said.

The third was a comfort with ambiguity and fuzziness. He told the audience the executive viewpoint that all problems have clear, crisp quantitative answers is wrongheaded, a result of nearly 75 percent of Global 1000 executives having engineering or accounting degrees.

The fourth enabler of successful knowledge management projects was an implicit business strategy that acknowledges knowledge as a key factor of production. And the last enabler was the aligning of knowledge with individual rewards and recognition.

What is the shelf life of knowledge management? Stewart said knowledge management had become a fad, and there would be no more conferences on the subject within five years.


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