Turn on the know how

During the past few years, many federal agencies have hopped on the knowledge management bandwagon, enthusiastically fielding innovative and often complex systems that can connect workers to information and one another.

In the end, though, many come to a disappointing realization: Just because you build a system, it doesn't mean your staff will come.

"The biggest issue when you're starting knowledge management is getting people to use it," said Susan Nappi, project leader of knowledge management for the U.S. Army Communications and Electronics Command (Cecom).

If agencies don't have a careful plan, workers won't use the systems. "There are a lot of wonderful knowledge management systems that have been built out there that are now underutilized," said James Townsend, president of Information Strategies Inc., a knowledge management consulting group. "It's really the last mile of a knowledge management implementation — getting people to actually use it. Unfortunately, that's where a lot of people run out of energy."

Of course, all information technology initiatives require a change management program that addresses cultural hurdles, but for knowledge management, that requirement is more of an imperative.

Knowledge management requires people to engage in behavior that they're not always used to doing, such as collaborating across departmental boundaries and sharing information, said Douglas Weidner, chief knowledge officer for the Knowledge Management Professional Society.

"Most knowledge is in people's heads, so the moment you start messing with people's heads, you're going to meet cultural resistance," he said.

But that doesn't mean users won't warm to a new knowledge management system. Many agencies have seen usage grow quickly and steadily by using the kinds of tactics detailed below.

1 Walk the talk

As with other IT projects, the implementation of a new knowledge management system needs a high-level sponsor. But if agencies want employees to use the system, executive champions can't just stand on the sidelines. They must demonstrate the behavior they want to see.

"If the head of an organization is doing what he expects his employees to do, that behavior will ripple down through the organization very quickly," said Ron Simmons, a knowledge management consultant for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Maj. Gen. William Russ, Cecom commander makes it a point to use his agency's Knowledge Center as frequently as possible.

"If it comes down to a choice between using the system or not, an employee is much more likely to log on if they think the boss might be on there checking things out," Nappi said.

Officials can also encourage cultural change with a more subtle approach. Every time a subject or document is mentioned during biweekly staff meetings, Nappi said, Russ makes it a point to ask: "Is that on the Knowledge Center?"

"Without being forceful about it, he lends that credibility to the program and makes it clear what he expects people to do," Nappi said.

2 Take their hand

FAA officials created the Knowledge Service Network in March 2002 with only 50 users but are now adding 1,000 new users a month. Simmons credits much of the success to a hand-holding approach that relies on local facilitators and system-based mentoring nodes.

The facilitators are people who work with local functional groups and are trained in knowledge management principles. Mentoring nodes link new or intimidated users with more experienced users.

"Human nature generally dictates that if you run up against something you don't know, you'll avoid it at all costs," Simmons said. "But we've found that if [employees are] willing to take intervention or some form of support, they generally won't fail. So we make sure that help is always available to them."

3 Jump the mark

The move toward getting users on board can't wait until the system is implemented or until training starts. The Army Audit Agency, for example, brought users in at the earliest stages of system development to address any issues they might have, determine their unique requirements and incorporate any suggestions they want to contribute.

"Our users felt more valued, like they were a part of the system, rather than us just forcing it on them," said Tammy Kiriluk, chief of the agency's Knowledge Management Branch. "And that certainly goes a long way in getting them to accept and use the system."

4 Keep it simple

The less complicated the system, the better the chances are that employees will use it.

At the Labor Department, for example, the knowledge management search engine looks and acts like Google's search engine. "There isn't a lot of training that we need to give these people because it's such a familiar-looking thing," said Townsend, who helped implement the system. "But it sort of secretly sneaks in a lot of other power into it."

Randy Adkins, program manager for Air Force Knowledge Now, agreed. "You have to have low-barrier involvement," he said. "Agencies sometimes tend to overengineer, and it turns people off."

When the Air Force built its knowledge management system, officials decided to initially include four functions: communities of practice, searching, e-learning and validated practices documents.

"That made it very simple and presented just a very few roles so people can adapt to it very quickly," Adkins said, noting that this approach also eases the training requirement. "Then once they're up to speed, they can come to you and say, 'I'd really like to have instant messaging or video white-boarding or whatever.'"

5 Keep those carrots coming

A little bribery, in the form of recognition or even monetary awards, can go a long way to knock down cultural barriers. Agencies that use some type of fun or beneficial incentive program have found it is a good way to gently prod users in the right direction.

The Safety Community within the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recently conducted an online scavenger hunt — the goal was to find the answers to 10 safety-related questions by using the agency's knowledge management system. The winner earned a prize.

Army Cecom officials recognize individual employees and teams who come up with innovative uses for their Knowledge Center. Winners are recognized at a quarterly awards dinner with an Army Certificate of Achievement, a small amount of money and a pat on the back from Russ.

One team winner, Nappi said, was honored for designing a way for the knowledge management system to track which employees had completed various required courses in their annual security training.

"It's a big deal," she said. "People are up in front of their peers, and we put their picture on the Knowledge Center. We think all of this helps legitimize the program that much more in people's minds."

6 And maybe a soft stick

Forcing an employee to use a knowledge management system is typically frowned upon, but one particularly successful functional group within the FAA has decided to include knowledge management use as an element in the annual appraisal of employee job performance.

"It's not really a true stick," Simmons said, "because it's not wedged into their appraisal in such a way that failure to use the system would constitute a major failure in their job review. It's more like they would get bonus points if they made frequent use of it."

But, he added, mentioning the system within the performance review had an impact on system usage. "It got their attention and raised awareness," he said.

7 Be hard to forget

The romantic admonition "out of sight, out of mind" can also hold true for the relationship between knowledge management systems and their users. As a result, agencies can use a number of creative efforts to simultaneously keep awareness high and show users the benefits of knowledge management.

At the FAA, some groups use the agency's Knowledge Service Network to run their weekly management meetings, for example. And FHWA integrated its knowledge management system and its e-mail system, so employees could automatically be notified of new or important additions.

"It keeps it useful to them," said Mike Burk, FHWA's chief knowledge officer. "They don't have to consciously say, 'Gosh, I haven't been to the Safety Exchange in three days.' If you bring it to them, it simply becomes part of their daily workflow, something that helps them do their job better."

Nappi noted that as system usage has grown, her team is going after stragglers by making certain documents, such as command-specific policies and a general-interest bulletin board, exclusive to the Knowledge Center. "If they want to see it, they have to log on," she said.

8 Give them the pickle

Nappi and her team rely on this restaurant worker-inspired saying as a way to remember that doing little things can help keep a customer happy. "Customer service is critical," she said. "And to give good customer service, you've got to give that little extra," like a pickle on a sandwich platter.

If somebody calls or e-mails a request for help, her office gets right back to them. If employees can't find something on the Knowledge Center, the office helps them find it.

"They need to know that we're responsive and that we're here to help," Nappi said. "That way nobody gets stuck and quits."

FHWA officials are especially sensitive to user needs. Although Burk and his team began by providing users with overnight e-mail notifications of new additions or items of interest, they decided to modify the system by adding an immediate feedback node for information of high importance.

"Sometimes the overnight notification was too slow, and as a result, people were gravitating back to their e-mail systems," Burk said. "Now, if they do a posting, they can click on a 'Now' link and the system will automatically send that out to all the people who are registered."

9 Measure twice

Tracking the system and utilizing surveys are critical for determining how knowledge management is used, why users might not be making the most of it and how to fix any issues.

Observers say the right metrics are crucial to effective tracking. The number of hits per month is not as important, for example, as the number of unique visitors per month. You should also take a closer look at searches. What was the most downloaded information or, by contrast, the least downloaded information? How many times did a user find something and click through to the search results? How many times did they search and get zero hits? The results could mean that more training is necessary or that the system doesn't include something users need.

Simmons and his team closely watch the usage statistics of each functional community. If a particular group's activity seems to be waning, knowledge management officials will summon the local facilitator to give him or her a progress report.

"A lot of times they don't realize that their group is in a slump," he said. "This gives them a chance to gear back up and rejuvenate and get the rest of their people back on track."

Surveys should be performed at least annually and, if possible, more often to obtain user feedback. Experts suggest short surveys with maybe five to 10 questions, such as: What capabilities do you use? What do you find most helpful? What do you find least helpful?

Burk said that during a recent survey of two of his communities, he asked: What if we took the system away?

"Boy, the phone really started ringing," he said. "People were aghast, thinking that we actually were going to take it away. That let us know that the system had really become ingrained as a tool that helps them do their job more effectively."

10 Don't stop

Finally, observers say, it's important to realize that the effort to get users to optimize a knowledge management system is never finished. If help is suddenly not available, needs are not met or new functions are not there, users may abandon the system.

The good news, though, is that with constant encouragement and hand-holding, early adopters will take to the system and, through word of mouth and proven benefits, more skeptical users will join the movement. And that can have positive ramifications for the entire agency.

The more users adopt knowledge management systems and tools, the more they'll look for opportunities to share and collaborate in other ways, Simmons said. "Simply walking this journey of using the system helps shift the culture," he said. n

Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached at hbhayes@cfw.com.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above