KM advocates seek policy boost

Proponents of knowledge management hope to elevate the practice to be a specific priority item on the next president’s policy agenda, and they are renewing efforts to promote its spread. However, the discipline also faces challenges in gaining managers’ attention at a time when new Web 2.0 applications are generating most of the buzz.

Since it was established in the previous decade, knowledge management has become ingrained within major corporations and has taken root at a number of federal agencies, including the Navy, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Its core principles are to manage information as an asset and develop and continually improve channels to collect, store and share data to further the organization’s mission.

“The trick is not whether you can do something well once, but whether you can sustain it as an organization,” said Jeanne Holm, chief knowledge architect at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. She is co-chairwoman of the Federal Knowledge Management Working Group. The group chose its name to promote federal adoption of the practice but has no federal sponsorship.

Supporters hope to expand the reach of knowledge management in the next presidential administration. In July, they began distributing a Federal Knowledge Management Initiative Roadmap that outlines why they believe the practice should be applied more widely.

The General Services Administration was the first agency to name a chief knowledge officer in 1999, and similar posts were created at about 30 federal agencies in the ensuing three years. However, momentum slowed as other priorities took hold after the terrorist attacks of 2001 and Hurricane Katrina.
“The U.S. government is falling behind the rest of the world in knowledge management,” said Neil Olonoff, author of the road map and a knowledge management consultant to the Army.

The core ideas of knowledge management continue to gain converts. In August, senior Army officials ordered the adoption of 12 knowledge management principles to help improve information sharing. Under the directive, the Army’s chief information officer will issue a policy to direct knowledge management efforts, and Army commands and organizations will develop practices to carry it out.

Meanwhile, there is some resistance to the group’s efforts. One of the continuing hurdles knowledge management advocates face is the debate over whether knowledge management should always primarily concern information technology or whether its scope should also include organizational processes, work cultures and human interaction in equal measure with IT. There have been turf battles and difficulties in measuring return on investment.

The latest challenge comes from the excitement over Web 2.0 applications, including Web-based cooperative groups, wikis, social networks and communities of practice, which apply some of the key concepts of knowledge management. Many managers see Web 2.0 as the frontier, and that perception might be eclipsing knowledge management, according to some observers.

“Knowledge management is more of a legacy term,” said John Slye, principal analyst at Input, a research firm in Reston, Va. 

According to Input’s forecast, the market for knowledge management could grow to $1.3 billion by 2010, up from $965 million in 2005.

Meanwhile, spending on Web 2.0 applications is expected to reach $4.6 billion by 2013 in both corporate and public-sector settings, according to an April report from analyst G. Oliver Young of Forrester Research.

Although there has been a surge of interest at federal agencies in managing and sharing information — key concepts of knowledge management — once adopted, they often are absorbed into the fabric of organizations and not always recognized as part of a larger discipline, Slye added.

Knowledge management, in the diffuse sense, has become a de facto expectation at federal agencies, Slye said.

However, practitioners of knowledge management insist their discipline is more valuable than ever when coping with scarce resources for carrying out federal agencies’ missions.

Knowledge management is most effective when it is applied comprehensively in an organization, said Washington D.C.-based consultant Ramon Barquin. Some federal agencies have deployed its concepts in a piecemeal fashion by emphasizing Web portals, e-learning, communities of practice or data warehousing/data mining.

But knowledge management is not always labeled as such and as a result is not always recognized. For example, the Homeland Security Department has initiated many programs for information sharing and data storage and analysis but it has not called the process knowledge management, he said.

Measuring the return on investment of knowledge management is another sticking point. Even its advocates agree that pinning down a quantitative value can be difficult.

“We have never been able to come up with a really convincing return on investment for knowledge management,” said Michael Novak, director of strategic acquisition initiatives for the Internal Revenue Service’s Performance Improvement Branch, and former co-chairman of the working group.

Even so, Novak, Holm and other federal executives are persevering in promoting knowledge management because they have seen its benefits firsthand.

Knowledge management efforts led to the launch of a NASA Web portal in 2003 that has won several awards for innovation and customer satisfaction. The portal, which has access to more than
4 million Web pages, receives as many as 75 million hits a day.

The portal “has led to a completely different interaction with the public than we had before,” Holm said.

The working group is building on those types of successes. Its history reflects its commitment to collaboration, one of the principles of knowledge management. Chartered eight years ago by the CIO Council, it became independent in 2007 so that it could continue its collaborations with practitioners outside government, Holm and other members said.

Knowledge management has always faced challenges, Holm said. Those challenges include turf battles caused by senior managers who are seldom eager to cede authority to new disciplines. At the same time, she is hopeful that the next president will see fit to make it a higher priority.

“Knowledge management needs a high level of understanding and emphasis,” Holm said. “We get hampered without high-level governance.” 

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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