Minding her business

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

at GSA.

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,

she said.

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.


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