Ignorance is deadly. That's the stark message Carl Frappaolo, executive vice president and co-founder of the Delphi Group, offers when discussing terrorism. The agencies responsible for responding to or preventing terrorist attacks are playing for high stakes and need immediate, complete information to do their jobs well.
"Quite simply, ignorance will kill us," Frappaolo said.
The problem is not that law enforcement and homeland security agencies aren't effective at capturing and storing valuable intelligence and information, a point brought home during the recent 9-11 Commission hearings. Rather, "the information is so highly segmented and compartmentalized that it's sitting somewhere untouched and unknown, rather than being available when and where it's needed," he said.
Many of the agencies involved are increasingly looking to knowledge management systems as a way to track their intellectual resources. Such systems control how information is stored, categorized and shared. Officials from agencies ranging from the Homeland Security Department to the smallest local law enforcement organization are hoping the technology can optimize their abilities to get the right information to the right people at the right time.
But implementing a knowledge management system — which involves a range of supporting technologies such as instant messaging, Web portals, content management, data warehousing, data mining and advanced search capabilities — is no simple endeavor. For homeland security agencies, the task is even more challenging.
"With knowledge management, you
really need to take the time to sit back and stroke your chin and think about the best ways to organize content and recognize communities of interest and how best to bridge them," said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer of Federal Sources Inc. "I'm not sure that people in homeland security, as overworked and under pressure as they are, have had the time to really do that yet."
Additionally, knowledge management is a discipline that is not easily defined, and it needs to incorporate technology, data, people and processes to truly be effective. Cultural challenges abound, including ingrained resistance to sharing information, distrust of other agencies and security
For homeland security organizations to make the most of information sharing and collaboration, the knowledge seeking and learning effort must cut across departmental and agency lines and jurisdictional levels.
Many agency officials, in fact, mistakenly believe that they're enjoying knowledge management success because they have a knowledge management system in one department or a data warehousing project that aggregates data from several departments, said Ramon Barquin, president and chief executive officer of Barquin International, a data management consulting firm.
Such measures are not enough, he said. "For knowledge management to work in a homeland security environment, it must be launched, designed and implemented at the enterprise level," he said.
There are other smaller steps agency officials must take if they are to benefit from knowledge management technologies.
Form the foundation
Rather than jumping into the technological fray, agency leaders should step back and figure out what they want to achieve with knowledge management and then prioritize those goals, Frappaolo said.
Managers should ask and answer some pertinent questions: What knowledge is available? Are there unknowns that could be answered? Is it better to fill that gap or to rely on information already available? What are agency officials doing right with regard to knowledge management, and what are they doing wrong? Does the agency have cultural obstacles to sharing information?
A well-devised strategy is particularly important in homeland security, because cultural and legislative issues are likely
to be even more pronounced, Frappaolo said.
"The academic school of knowledge management would say that the best way to share knowledge is to make it wide open," he said. "Well, homeland security [agencies] can't do that. So any strategy should dictate just how far they want knowledge sharing to go and figure out how they will determine who has a right to see what and who doesn't."
Agency leaders should construct an enterprise architecture, said Tom Polivka, director of federal government operations at Documentum, a division of EMC Corp. that sells content management software.
Some effective knowledge management systems have grown out of grass-roots efforts, but larger homeland security agencies are taking a more holistic view. For example, officials from the Transportation Security Administration have created an information technology blueprint for an e-government platform that would promote easier collaboration across the organization, Polivka said.
Achieving knowledge management in the homeland security arena requires developing an enterprise architecture based on a common platform that considers people, processes, technology and tools. It also should enable information to flow effortlessly among organizations despite all
of the necessary security constraints and filters.
Managers should also implement a change management program, said Mike Burk, chief knowledge officer for the Federal Highway Administration. Getting people to share what they know and actually use the system is by far the most difficult hurdle that homeland security agencies must overcome in their knowledge management endeavors, he said.
Burk believes that agency officials must be careful to take small steps. They should design the system to be an easy, everyday part of the business process.
It's also important to let people slowly gain trust in the system, he said. "It can't be something that people go to when they're stumped," he said. "It's got to be something that people work in, that they are part of each day, so it really becomes the meeting place, in a way, for doing their job."
As with any new project that requires a change of habit and work style, leadership is essential for a knowledge management implementation to succeed.
"The executive staff has got to walk the talk," said Campbell Robertson, director of government solutions for Open Text Corp., which sells collaboration and content management software. One effective solution is to tie knowledge management and collaboration projects to specific strategic initiatives occurring at the executive level, he said.
The technologies that support a more robust learning environment are those that help employees collaborate and provide access to data that is structured, such as information in databases, and unstructured, such as selected e-mail messages and word processing documents.
The combination allows people to make more qualified, relevant decisions more quickly.
"People in the homeland security arena simply can't afford to make decisions in isolation," said Bill Cull, vice president of government operations for FileNet Corp., a content management software provider.
Homeland security organizations should look beyond traditional knowledge management tools such as data mining and Web portals, according to experts. They should seek features such as those found in content retrieval tools that allow users to ask questions in multiple ways and receive relevant answers.
Also useful are Web crawlers, a type of search engine that constantly seeks new content instead of waiting for notification of posted content. Tools for trends analysis and content analysis that can look at structured and unstructured content and automatically classify it also are helpful, some experts say.
The potential benefits of using knowledge management to become a consistently educated organization are numerous,
Frappaolo said. "Just by taking what is known and then being able to learn
from the efforts of personnel within
the same departments and across departments, you get increased collaboration and early spotting of suspicious activity
or trends or patterns that might otherwise take days, weeks or even months to see," he said.
Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What's ahead in KM
Knowledge management may be a relatively mature discipline, but the technologies that support it are continuing to evolve.
Expect the next knowledge management products to have the following features:
Tighter integration — Many knowledge management tools typically come as separate solutions, and integrating them is not always easy. Newer products are trying to offer more integrated capabilities. For example, users of some new systems can receive automatic e-mail notification when something of interest has been added to the knowledge management system. Some systems also automatically save newly created content from office applications to a specialized knowledge repository for easier identification and retrieval.
Graceful escalation — Future products will take advantage of the trend toward closer integration of knowledge management tools and collaboration technologies. For example, employees can take simple interactions, such as an instant message, to a richer and more complex experience, such as a Web conference that features application and document sharing with audio and video capabilities.
Standards support — Knowledge management tools that use Extensible Markup Language and other Web standards will not only enable an easier exchange of information but also allow a larger variety of systems to work with one another with fewer interoperability issues.