Minding her business
- By William Matthews
- Mar 12, 2000
Six months of experience as a chief knowledge officer makes Shereen Remez
the federal government's most senior official in that position. And she
seems to relish her role as knowledge management's elder spokeswoman.
"Part of my job is to be a teacher or an evangelist — at least someone
who can articulate the vision of what is knowledge management," she said.
Remez started her lesson on knowledge management by describing what
it is not: It isn't a laptop loaded with data. It isn't a project, an initiative
or a fad.
"It's a new concept," said Remez, who is chief knowledge officer at
the General Services Administration. There are only three other chief knowledge
officers in the federal government: one in the Navy, one in the Coast Guard
and one at the State Department. At age 52, Remez is the dean.
It may not be surprising that GSA was the first federal agency to embrace
knowledge management. The agency has been trying hard to reinvent itself
as more of a business and less of a bureaucracy, and knowledge management
is the latest business tactic for mastering the Internet Age.
"We have moved into a knowledge economy," Remez said. "The companies
that are driving the economy today are companies like America Online, eBay
and Amazon.com. They're companies that are repackaging information and knowledge
and selling it to people."
She cites Bill Gates — "the richest knowledge worker in the world" — as an example. "He doesn't own oil; he doesn't own a factory; he doesn't
own an industrial process. What he owns is intellectual capital. The American
economy is being driven by intellectual capital."
The United States will never abandon manufacturing and providing goods
and services, she said, but increasingly, those jobs will move to countries
where labor is cheaper. "So what the United States is left with is the higher-level,
more intellectual work — the knowledge work."
Knowledge work, in turn, is driven by the Internet, Remez said. "What
the Internet has done is destroy time and geography, so you can pass information
very quickly from one place in the world to another or from one mind to
another." The Internet enables an ordinary worker to become "a knowledge
worker. It makes us all so much more capable."
In essence, the Internet has turned the flow of information into a flood.
Knowledge management is an effort control that flood. It aims to deliver
relevant information to those who need it when they need it.
Xerox Corp. offers an example worth copying.
Complicated equipment repair jobs on Xerox equipment were taking too
long to complete, Remez recounted, and the company couldn't figure out how
to speed the process. Xerox hired an anthropologist to follow repair crews.
The anthropologist discovered that they gathered at a coffee shop to socialize
and exchange repair tips. Xerox then encouraged repair technicians to exchange
tips via radio and eventually to post them on a World Wide Web site.
It was knowledge management. The happy result, Remez said, was that
repair times dropped from two days to four hours. She sees similar potential
The agency supplies government agencies with goods and services. GSA
hires contractors to build and renovate government buildings and to provide
security and maintenance. GSA also supplies computers, furniture and automobiles.
It provides travel services, phone services and technology consulting assistance.
For years, GSA enjoyed a monopoly in the business of selling to federal
agencies. No more. "Now, customers can vote with feet. They can buy from
us or they can buy from Wal-Mart. We have to act as much as possible like
a Fortune 500 company," Remez said.
To be more businesslike, GSA two years ago began measuring performance
against things such as the amount of space occupied in its buildings and
how well its customers were satisfied.
"We found that some regions are doing better than others," Remez said.
So like Xerox and its repairmen, the agency decided to establish "best practices"
that could be shared among regional managers to try to improve service everywhere.
That cultural change has been difficult for some agency employees, Remez
said. Workers have been reluctant to accept practices developed elsewhere.
"People felt if it wasn't invented here, it wouldn't work here," she
said. There was similar reluctance to share good ideas. "We have learned
that knowledge is power. If we hoard knowledge, we will be considered an
expert; if we tell someone, we will lose prestige."
Nevertheless, there have been signs of success. "There was some fear
that we would lose our customers, but people by and large have not abandoned
us." And technology sales are thriving, growing at 24 percent per year,
But can knowledge management transform a ponderous bureaucracy into
an efficient enterprise?
That's the vision. "I cannot say we're there yet," she said.