Stemming the Brain Drain

Innovative Portals Help Federal Highway Administration Save Knowledge<@VM>Stops Along the Highway Administration's Cyber-Road

The Federal Highway Administration seized upon knowledge management in order to do its business better, said Mike Burk, the agency's first chief knowledge officer.

In Rudy Umbs' office at the Federal Highway Administration, nine of the 12 staff members ? national and international experts in highway traffic and safety ? could retire today if they chose.

Umbs, acting director of the Office of Safety Design, isn't alone as he tries to plan for an impending loss of valuable employees. About one-third of federal workers will be eligible to retire by 2006.

"We saw the brain drain in other agencies and companies and said it's going to happen here. We're not going to live forever, and we're not going to work forever," Umbs said.

To ensure that Umbs' office could retain the knowledge and expertise of employees even after they retired, the Federal Highway Administration about 20 months ago initiated a knowledge management effort that has streamlined information sharing, improved communications and made jobs easier.

The highway administration turned to American Management Systems Inc. of Fairfax, Va., to design Web-based portals for information sharing. The portals ? virtual spaces that allow people to get and give advice, find experts, share resources and collaborate on projects ? are a lasting, evolving information source. Some portals are open to the public; others are restricted to employees.

The first portal is about rumble strips, the grooves in roads that help prevent crashes. It cost $75,000 to develop and implement. Participants in the electronic forum can discuss the merits of rumble strips, publish study results, resolve technical issues and locate vendors.

Subsequent portals have used the same format, thus saving money while allowing for the addition of custom features. The cost to build a new portal is about $25,000, and should get down to about $15,000, according to AMS.

The executives at the highway administration "want to leave a legacy that will enable the agency to move forward," said Mark Youman, a principal at AMS and project manager for knowledge management and e-government projects.

The highway administration seized upon knowledge management in order to do its business better, said Mike Burk, who became the agency's first chief knowledge officer last year. Previously, staff experts would respond to each request for information separately, a time-consuming process that dispensed reams of paper annually. But now agency staff can answer queries online for all to see and post documents that serve many, not one, at a time.

Fourteen portals exist today, and the agency will have about six more by the end of the year, Burk said.

The highway administration, part of the Transportation Department, employs about 2,800 people, one-third of whom work in the Washington area. The others work in 52 field offices around the country, where they operate closely with state highway administrations.

To a large extent, the success of the federal highway administration depends on the success of the state highway administrations, Burk said. For example, the agency is working with the states to meet a goal set in 1998 to reduce traffic fatalities by 20 percent within 10 years.

"Passing on our best practices is important to us in meeting our goals. We're not successful until [the states] are," he said.

The success of the knowledge sharing initiative was recognized in June by the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils, a nonprofit organization based in Fairfax, Va., that represents information technology professionals and seeks to enhance communication between government, industry and academia. The highway administration was given an Intergovernmental Solutions Award, which recognizes outstanding collaboration between two or more levels of government to improve customer service.

The agency's National Environmental Policy Act site gets about 1,000 hits a month, with participants engaging in conversation and providing thoughtful advice based upon their experiences, said Lamar Smith, who works in the Office of NEPA Facilitation. Participants in the portal, which is just over a year old, share ideas and knowledge about the act, a law dedicated in part to balancing transportation needs with the social, economic and natural environment.

Smith spends a few hours a week adding material and reviewing postings to ensure accuracy and compatibility with federal policy. It's part of his job as a team leader directing specialists who assist the agency and its 52 field offices in accomplishing NEPA goals. The site helps to streamline the NEPA process, an agency priority, Smith said.

"It is a very complex, comprehensive process. There are so many opportunities for mistakes, to do things a little bit better or a little bit differently," he said. "That is a primary focus of this site: helping people do their jobs better."

About one-third of the highway administration's staff is subscribed to one of the communities. Some portals receive up to 4,500 hits per month, Burk said. But getting staff to buy in wasn't immediate.

While the Office of Safety Design jumped at the chance to create its Safety Exchange, a group of portals, and got input from the 52 field offices, Umbs heard grumbling when the project was first under way. Then he made portal maintenance a part of some experts' performance objectives.

"I said, 'You have to make time for what is part of your job,' " he recalled. He also has made sure to improve upon the original knowledge management process.

In the beginning, it took about a day for individuals' messages to be conveyed to the community, so people weren't using the portals. But feedback from staff resulted in a fix, and now messages are conveyed instantly.

Burk likes agency offices to show their commitment by sharing the cost of portal development, and he pushes managers to allow employees time to use the portals. Umbs held contests that required employees to use them.

"We had to make it fun and rewarding. Otherwise it's just another project. We had to instill this into the habits of our staff, and it's still going on," Umbs said.

Eventually, Burk said, using the portals will be necessary for professional success.

"People who do have knowledge and want to maintain it will have to come to these communities because that's where it's exchanged," he said. "If you don't, you're not going to move as fast as the rest of the community."The Federal Highway Administration's Knowledge-Sharing Initiative has created 14 Web-based portals to connect agency employees, state governments, academia, industry and citizens. The portals include:

The prototype rumble strip Web site is an electronic forum in which community members share information, resolve technical issues and publish results. Participants maintain an online discussion chain focused on the merits of rumble strips, which help prevent run-off-road crashes.

Modeled after the rumble strip site, the National Environmental Policy Act community of practice site is dedicated to the exchange of ideas and knowledge about the National Environmental Policy Act, a law dedicated in part to balancing transportation needs with concern for the social, economic and natural environment.

The highway administration's Expertise Locator is the agency's primary entry point for partners to tap into the highway administration's technical and program expertise. The application allows partners to access agency specialists by their areas of expertise, experience and specializations.

The roadside hardware safety Web site, also modeled after the rumble strip site, identifies roadside hardware such as traffic barriers, that meet the highway administration's performance criteria and provides links to vendors.

The site for the Manual on Uniform Traffic Devices is also modeled after the rumble strip prototype. Up to 80 discussions cover everything from bike lanes and work zones to left-turn signals.

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