Truth or fiction?
- By Steve Kelman
- Mar 26, 2000
What's the buzz in the post-Year 2000 information technology world? Security,
to judge from all the conference presentations and articles in the trade
press, is clearly hot.
But there's another concept I'm starting to hear people mention a lot.
It's called "knowledge management." The General Services Administration
first stirred the pot last summer when they appointed the federal government's
first chief knowledge officer. Then at the end of last year, Jim Edgar,
a senior acquisition staffer in the Army, as part of a visit to Boston on
other business, showed me briefing materials on a planned Army Contracting
Knowledge Management initiative. And in January, George Cho and Hans Jerrell
of the Air Force, and William Landay of the Navy, published a document called
"How Knowledge Management Can Improve DOD Acquisition."
This shouldn't be surprising. Much of the government's work is knowledge-
intensive. As Edgar's briefing put it, "Knowledge is our core competency."
Getting better at knowledge work is crucial to improving agency performance.
Although there is a growing buzz about knowledge management, I'm also hearing
some government folks express a healthy skepticism. "I keep on hearing presentations
on knowledge management," one senior government IT official said recently,
"and I keep on not understanding what this is all about."
To be sure, knowledge management shares elements with other longstanding
practices, ranging from informal chats among employees about what works
and doesn't, to formal reports about lessons learned from past activities.
What's new about knowledge management is systematic attention to creating,
synthesizing and sharing information and insights relevant to the organization's
ability to perform. Key to knowledge management is the simple idea that
many heads are better than one.
There is, not surprisingly, a technology side to this. The Internet
makes it easier to share knowledge among a wider group. The Internet also
allows chat rooms among practitioners and e-mail communication with experts,
an approach that is starting to be called "e-learning."
But as is so often the case, it's not just about the technology, stupid.
Both Edgar and the Cho, et al paper agree that the biggest challenges for
successful knowledge management are cultural, not technological. In organizational
environments, where knowledge often is power, people may have few incentives
to disperse knowledge among their colleagues. To use the jargon of knowledge
management, many are "knowledge hoarders" rather than "knowledge sharers."
By contrast, at some consulting firms — organizations for which a source
of competitive advantage is the ability to share lessons learned from earlier
client engagements — a factor in employee performance evaluations is how
well the employee shares knowledge with colleagues.
We're still in the early stages of this in government. My bet is we'll
be hearing lots more.
— Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy
from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management
at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.