Truth or fiction?

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.


Kelman writes that "in organizationalenvironments, where knowledge often is power, people may have few incentivesto disperse knowledge among their colleagues."

Do you agree with Kelman? Do you know more "knowledge hoarders" than "knowledge sharers"?

Send your comments on this story to [email protected]

BY Steve Kelman
Mar. 27, 2000

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