Kelman: Knowledge management 2.0

How do you get a handle on your procurement operations when they are spread among dispersed field offices that frequently hire new employees who don’t have much contracting experience?

In addition, what if you want to create a common identity and culture and make it easier for people to collaborate?

In other words, what do you do if you are like the Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection agency, which has a major field center in Indianapolis and dispersed operations, especially those associated with the Border Patrol?

What you do is set up a Web site like the one CBP launched in October 2007 — the Acquisition Resource Management System. The system has the blessing of John Ely, CBP’s well-respected contracting chief.

The system is a way to disseminate documents and announcements from headquarters to the field. It is more convenient than other forms of communication but, by itself, is not revolutionary. However, the system has launched 13 communities of practice that focus on topics ranging from IT procurement to performance-based service acquisition and purchase cards. They allow people to ask questions, share ideas and work together.

If yesterday’s catchphrase was knowledge management, today’s is collaboration. To some extent, knowledge management and collaboration have common features. However, knowledge management has a more vertical, hierarchical sound, implying wisdom gathered by headquarters employees who then pass it to the field. In contrast, collaboration has a more horizontal, peer-to-peer sound, more of a wisdom-of-crowds feel than one of central direction. Of course, a central office, at least in CBP’s case, has established the infrastructure for peer-to-peer collaboration, and it might be sensible to codify ideas that emerge from collaboration.

After less than a year, about half the contracting workers — and a growing number of customers — at CBP use the system each month, and about a third access one or more community of practice.

The communities are a practical collaboration tool. But successful collaboration is easier if people feel psychologically comfortable with one another. This is one reason collaboration is difficult among people from dispersed locations who don’t know one another. The CBP system has taken the first step toward promoting the psychology of collaboration by using it for social videos, such as a holiday greeting Ely sent last year. But it is still hierarchical.

The best thing about the site is a feature called MySite, which, taking a cue from Facebook, allows participants in the communities of practice to post pictures of themselves that then appear whenever the person participates on the site. It helps colleagues put a face with a name. In my view, this feature, again following Facebook, should allow biographical information, favorite movies and favorite books. In my experience, learning such information about Facebook friends makes me feel closer to them and facilitates future collaboration.

It’s a great Web 2.0 innovation in government.

Kelman (steve_kelman@harvard.edu) is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

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