Plug-and-play expertise

When Army officials needed some custom flat-panel displays that supported a particular high-definition TV standard used only in Asia, they were looking for a pixel in a haystack. Because the monitors weren't available from the usual domestic sources, procurement officers had to find some way to track down the screens.

Fortunately, a Fort Monmouth, N.J., department within the Army operates an outfit and Web site called the Knowledge Center, an elaborate information- sharing service with a four-person help desk and a sophisticated network of technology and people to quickly solve problems such as this one.

Run by the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications Systems Tactical (PEO C3T), the Knowledge Center serves more than 20,000 users, including combat soldiers and operational support staff, by linking them to experts and capturing best practices to make military and business operations more efficient.

The request for the displays came into the Knowledge Center's internal support center, which used its network to quickly locate an LCD expert who knew the devices were sold in South Korea and located a liaison officer there.

"The liaison officer had blanket authority to purchase the screens," said Emerson Keslar, chief information officer for PEO C3T. The officer went to local electronics outlets, bought the screens and sent them to the purchasing agents. Eventually, Army officials shipped the monitors to aid operations in Iraq.

"It was just a matter of connecting the right people," Keslar said.

Connecting people with needed expertise in real time lies at the core of a growing practice known as knowledge management (KM). Nowhere in the federal sector is KM more entrenched than in the military, thanks in part to the Army's pioneering efforts, such as after-action battlefield reports.

But as the PEO C3T shows, KM is becoming an important tool to support many government operations, a status that some experts say will increase later this decade.

"In the government, there are people who have been working in the same department for decades who soon will be ready for retirement," said John Crager, senior adviser with the American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC). "There's a lot of stuff in peoples' heads that is quite important, but it's residing in the wrong place."

Growth potential

Despite its appeal, KM remains difficult to define, partly because its information focus overlaps with other enterprise technologies. Nevertheless, large organizations are showing a growing realization of KM's promise and sales potential. According to market research firm Input, the U.S. government could increase its KM spending for products and services during the next five years to approximately $1.3 billion, compared to the $820 million spent in 2003.

Recently, vendors with KM offerings, such as Autonomy Corp., Open Text Corp., IBM Corp. and Tacit Knowledge Systems Inc., have introduced tools to simplify wide-scale collaboration.

Other vendors, such as Verity Inc., have focused on newer and easier user interfaces. Earlier this year, Verity acquired NativeMinds Inc. and its technology to let users query help desks and portals with a question-and-answer interface instead of the common Boolean search boxes.

"There's a group of users that is more comfortable asking the questions rather than doing its own research," said Andrew Feit, senior vice president of Verity.

Despite all of the KM activity, however, KM's return on investment can be murky. A study completed last year by APQC showed a wide range in implementation costs, with some figures as low as $1 million and others as high as $200 million or more, depending on the size and complexity of the project.

"The $1 million example only scratched the surface and was really just a set of collaboration tools," Crager said. KM projects can become cash siphons if they're controlled by the IT department and focus too heavily on technology instead of personnel and processes, he added. But, he warned, if a federal agency doesn't choose the right enabling technology, "KM won't go very far," because few people will use it.

The cost of the PEO C3T's Knowledge Center is tough to pinpoint because most of the labor and material to support it also serves other IT projects, Keslar said. However, with about 1.8 million hits and about 2,000 user-support calls per month received by the center, the return on investment has been substantial, he said.

Because KM requires the careful integration of people, business processes and technology, success can be elusive, said Kent Greenes, chief knowledge officer and senior vice president with systems integrator Science Applications International Corp.

He estimates that only about half of the KM implementations in commercial and military organizations yielded tangible benefits, "and only half again have seen major performance improvements as a result," he said. "KM still takes a lot of hard work, but those organizations that put in the hard work get great rewards."

Two-phase approach

The PEO C3T's success is a testament to this type of dedication. In 1998, the organization launched its KM effort by dividing the project into two distinct phases.

The first focused on capturing and organizing explicit knowledge, such as requirements definition documents and briefing papers that exist as word processing and similar types of files. The second phase concentrated on tacit knowledge, such as lessons learned and efficiency tricks that reside in the heads of experienced soldiers and support staff. "This was the tough stuff to capture," Keslar said.

With the help of systems integrator Data Systems Analysts Inc., the group devoted its energies in the first couple of years to the easier but more voluminous explicit knowledge management by creating data repositories and simple taxonomies to make it easier to locate information in the repositories.

Working behind the scenes to organize all of this content is IBM's Lotus Domino for document management, an Intelliseek Inc. search engine and an Oracle Corp. database for data management. "We couldn't get to the tacit knowledge in peoples' heads until we conquered the explicit side," Keslar said.

That task included creating a community Web portal with regularly refreshed news stories, job openings, personal calendars and other compelling content intended to attract staff to the site several times a day. "If you can't get people to come there throughout the day, you're not going to have a community that's doing tacit knowledge sharing," he said.

Once a majority of PEO C3T's members began actively using the portal, the group initiated phase two. It set up communities of best practices with self-defined subject-matter experts who registered with the help desk.

Here's how it works: A question flows into the portal via a simple HTML form. The request goes to the help desk, which locates possible experts by searching a database and then contacts candidates using Lotus Sametime instant messaging. Once a connection is established, the parties typically communicate through e-mail or phone calls. PEO C3T is expanding its KM activities by creating knowledge assets, which are Web-based documents that capture the tacit knowledge of individuals or groups.

For example, the vendor selection process defined by the Defense Department and Army can be long and complex. To help, the Knowledge Center interviewed people who have successfully navigated the process, and then it created a series of text and video modules that discuss procurement best practices.

"If another group is doing a selection, it can go in and see how the process should be run," Keslar said. "If it wants to go beyond that information, we provide information so it can contact the [veteran] team. The real knowledge transfer happens on a personal level. It's great to get information via Web and a knowledge center, but high-impact information transfers happen when people can talk directly with each other."

As KM technologies evolve, they will more easily facilitate collaboration and the creation of knowledge communities, much like what PEO C3T has done.

"Communities form when people share common practices or challenges," SAIC's Greenes said. "Professional forums are great enablers of knowledge sharing." All of which makes the haystack a little less daunting.

Joch is a business and technology writer based in New England. He can be reached at ajoch@monad.net.

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