DOD's antagonism toward info sharing inhibits warfighters

The Defense Department's culture is still resistant to the open disclosure required of knowledge management, but experts say that needs to change

Military operations increasingly rely on instant communications, collaboration and information sharing. For a warfighter, timely access to information can mean the difference between life and death.

For example, an entry in a wiki-enabled database for shared patrol information in Afghanistan can warn a warfighter that an insurgent was seen running into a particular house, indicated on an interactive map. With that knowledge, the next patrol team will be prepared. Without it, the troops could be killed by surprise fire.

“This is the knowledge-enabled warrior,” said Tom Light, chief information officer and delivery division chief at the Training and Doctrine Command. “Through distributed, collaborative, institutional, functional training, we are growing the joint warfighter.”

Such activities are all functions of knowledge management, a term that “comprises a range of strategies and practices used in an organization to identify, create, represent, distribute and enable adoption of insights and experiences,” according to — what else? — Wikipedia.

Those practices are bolstered by the Web 2.0 movement that pushes for open information exchanges and data sharing, and they are modernizing the way Defense Department organizations carry out their missions.

But DOD isn’t always receptive to the open disclosure required of knowledge management. “The Defense Department is not known as an agile or flexible organization,” said the Joint Staff’s Roger Corneretto. “It’s an enormous, hierarchical, solidly built organization that doesn’t follow every haphazard whim.”

However, the department must strike a balance, industry officials and experts said at the recent Knowledge Management 2010 conference in Washington, sponsored by Federal Computer Week's parent company, 1105 Government Information Group. And DOD must do that because the warfighters in combat need to remain the top priority, said Bill Robinson, chief knowledge officer at the Joint Forces Command.

“We need to get away from our parochialism,” Robinson said. “When it comes to best practices, the world is joint. We can’t let the institution of DOD get in the way.”

However, the tight-lipped nature of DOD isn’t the only impediment to collaboration. For one, there’s the money problem. “Funding is always an issue,” said Len Blasiol, director of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force Integration Division at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

There are also cultural issues, such as DOD’s notorious bureaucracy that doesn’t understand sharing because of its hierarchical construction, Robinson said. And there is what he calls the overemphasis on new, high-tech systems. “DOD is [a] driver of high technology, but [this is] about people and learning.”

So how does DOD successfully implement knowledge management and the best of modern technology while overcoming such deeply rooted obstacles?

Some say it can do so by shifting the focus from the means to the end. Proponents of knowledge management insist that new expensive infrastructure isn’t necessary to get communities talking and information flowing. “We can’t get too focused on the tools and lose sight of the true objective,” said Dave Hoopengardner, chief knowledge officer for the secretary of the Air Force for financial management.

Knowledge management platforms are already in place, including Web-based technologies such as the patrol database, wikis and Twitter-like microblogs that enable quick, to-the-point information sharing.

“Knowledge management tools need to connect people, be transparent and be intuitive,” said Joe Boutte, strategic adviser at TASC. He touted the advantages of integrating social media tools into DOD's culture by highlighting their pertinence to the mission. For example, “microblogging is fast and portable, it’s searchable, and it can be written and received on a variety of devices,” he said.

Most of all, using internal brain power is the key to making progress quickly and without a big budget. “Everyone has something to bring to the table,” said Jack Holt, DOD's senior strategist for emerging media. “If you harness internal wisdom on one platform, in one space, you find questions to answers you didn’t even know you asked.”

Sharing success stories and demonstrating best practices is also important for enterprisewide success, said Sumit Agarwal, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for outreach and social media. “Open the door and tell these stories so other people can take on the charge,” he said.

The 2014 Federal 100

FCW is very pleased to profile the women and men who make up this year's Fed 100. 

Reader comments

Tue, May 25, 2010 John

Not just DoD, but industry has the same problem. Knowledge is power and if you give it out you lose the power. I saw that working in industry and I see the same thing in the government.

But unlike another poster stated, just posting the information can be worse than not sharing it. If you post it on a wiki, facebook, utube, etc, how do you know that someone you do not want to know that information will not get it and use your new found sense of security to entrap you with a countermove?

As long as the politicians foster a sense of competition among the various organizations in terms of funding, manning, taskings, and other things that good empire builders require, you will have the problem of information flow. Granted, you would think patrol to patrol information would get passed, but again, different services and organizations, different information flow patterns to meet their needs.

And yes, we have a lot of new technology, but some of the folks who think it is easy to have it all out in the field ought to try it in 110+ F weather (or 34 F and raining), wearing personal protective gear, food, water, weapons, tools, radios, computers, etc, with the possibility of someone shooting you or setting a trap, and see how well you handle information exchanges, much less carry the gear. Try it someday - it is not like hiking for a day in the hills on a nice spring day. It is being worked and we are getting to smaller sized entities, but with politicians, "the people for..." front groups, and the state of technology, it is not fully there yet for the people in the field.

Thu, May 20, 2010 Susan

Great article. It is so frustrating though, that 9 years after 9/11, and the failure to 'connect the dots' due to stovepiping of information that we are STILL discussing the need to share information across the Federal Departments and Agencies...and especially in the war zones. Senior Leadership better watch out...the younger generation is going to continue to 'make things happen' with or without policy changes and prove by doing that information sharing and openness is the key to success.

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