Feds tap chief knowledge officers for key info management role

The General Services Administration last week created its first chief knowledge officer position, which many federal information technology experts believe will become more prevalent as agencies try to sort out and use the vast amount of information stored in their systems and posted on the World Wide Web.

GSA Administrator David Barram named Shereen Remez to the new position, which she is taking over after serving two years as the agency's chief information officer. As CKO, Remez will be responsible for leading the agency's use of knowledge-management practices, which aim to gather, sort and present information distributed throughout an agency in a way that makes it easier for people to access and apply that information to make decisions.

The CKO concept has taken hold in the federal government after its fast adoption in the private sector. In a time of downsizing, shrinking budgets and growing retirement, agencies need to do everything they can to get the most out of the information stored in disparate systems, officials said.

"[Federal] organizations are ripe for it," said Bob Turner, director of the Federal Aviation Administration's Team Technology Center and co-chairman of the Federal Knowledge Management Learning Consulting Network. "We've got significant investment in information infrastructure.... Agencies are not hiring a CKO to start knowledge management, they're hiring a CKO to bring it to the next level."

Turner's network, nearly six months old, is intended to provide a focal point for learning and sharing experience about knowledge management across government, and its frequent meetings are well-attended by people from government and industry, he said.

At GSA, Remez plans to create pilot projects to show GSA employees how effective knowledge management can be. During her first few months, Remez said she will learn more about the concept and what can be done with it.

"When CIOs were created by the Clinger-Cohen Act, one of the reasons was to put a focal point for all of the IT efforts.... I think it's the same thing for knowledge management," Remez said. "By having a CKO, we are drawing a line, saying that knowledge is power."

The Army is among other federal agencies considering creating CKO positions. "The value of a CKO is that this individual can focus on the content, collection, evaluation, distribution and sharing of knowledge - a critical organizational resource in today's Information Age [that] often gets lost in the electronic-toys world of the CIO," said Miriam Browning, director of information management in the Army's CIO office.

Last year, the Army created Army Knowledge Online, a program to "leverage its intellectual capital in a dynamic and collaborative way using the principles of knowledge management and Internet/intranet technologies," she said. "Our goal with AKO is to enable the Army to achieve a strategic advantage in the networked, knowledge-based global community of the 21st century."

The Coast Guard also is looking for a CKO to oversee the Office of Knowledge Management and Integration, a new unit created under the CIO position. "The function of the CKO is crucial to the success of the nation's transportation system in an age of growth, increasing complexity and decentralization," according to the position announcement.

The addition of the CKO and the other organizational changes within the CIO's office "will improve planning and oversight of enterprisewide information technology investments and better serve the field units that increasingly depend on that technology," said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. James Loy when announcing the changes in December.

The National Security Agency and other Defense Department organizations also have long been interested in knowledge management, Turner said. And the CIO Council is getting into the mix after holding a program on the concept at its meeting last month, said Alan Balutis, deputy CIO at the Commerce Department.

Don Kettl, director of the Center for Public Management at the Brookings Institution and director of the La Follette Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the CKO could help marshal information that ends up creating better policy.

"While 'chief knowledge officer' might sound a little too New Age to some observers, it's a recognition of the potential power that information might have for cracking some of government's toughest problems," he said. "Lots of governments around the world are trying to find the combination [between sharing information and respecting organizational boundaries]. So GSA's announcement is an intriguing experiment that potentially has quite sweeping applications."

But the addition of yet another position to government's bureaucratic layer may tie agencies up in more red tape if the CKO does not obtain a budget, said Paul Light, director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution.

"[Agencies] can claim that they are doing something about knowledge because they have created a position, but what does their training budget look like?" he said. "What are they doing to create an environment where their people have the opportunity to develop their knowledge and experience naturally? It's really the fad of the moment in the private sector, the learning organization, but what are the real resources this person has?"

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