On the Web, in the know

Rumble strips. So cool they have a World Wide Web site of their own.

Besides jolting dozing drivers awake with a noise akin to disintegrating auto parts, rumble strips now are shaking up knowledge managers.

The Federal Highway Administration has elevated these lowly bumps in the road to the pinnacle of high-tech management. Rumble strips — the Web site — fairly pulsates with the potential of knowledge management.

It's not the rumble strips themselves — whether milled, rolled, formed or raised — that are so important, it's that anyone who wants to know something about them now can tap a veritable library of information with a mouse click.

From Apple Computer Inc. QuickTime movies to expert testimonials and safety statistics, you can probably find everything you ever wanted to know about rumble strips and more.

"Knowledge sharing is important," said Mike Burk, senior knowledge officer at the Federal Highway Administration, speaking at a knowledge management conference in Alexandria, Va., last week.

And for agencies such as the Highway Administration's Office of Highway Safety, where knowledge is the main product, getting knowledge out to those who can use it is the goal.

The new rumble strip Web site is a prototype for how highway designers, builders and managers can share information, resolve technical problems and publish results, the safety office says.

Soon, Web sites will be created to cover roadside safety, guardrails and signs, Burk said.

Sharing knowledge is one of the central tenets of knowledge management, but in many organizations, sharing does not come easy.

"Knowledge is power," said conference participant Lt. Col. Michael Dorohovich, and people who hold power — or think they hold power — often want to keep it to themselves.

"It's hard to convince people to share knowledge," he said, even if it's for the good of the organization, which in Dorohovich's case was the U.S. Atlantic Command in Norfolk, Va.

Dorohovich's former boss, Marine Corps Gen. John Sheehan, wanted knowledge to be much more widely dispersed. He saw how closely guarded knowledge was hurting the military, Dorohovich said. During the years of rapid downsizing, "a lot of good people left, and they took their knowledge with them."

Sheehan, who has since retired as chief of the Atlantic Command, announced that he wanted knowledge to be so liberally shared that even a lance corporal would know enough to make an intelligent decision, Dorohovich said.

Key among the steps Dorohovich took was putting more information on Web sites. Senior commanders soon discovered that they could eliminate the two-hour briefings they held at dawn each day if the briefing information, maps and slides were posted on a Web site.

Managers then began to realize that if they created Web sites — and kept them updated — the number of phone calls from people all asking the same questions would drop dramatically, giving staff members more time to handle other tasks.

Progress encountered some roadblocks, however. The "target audience was 40- to 50-year-olds who did not grow up with computers. We had to keep it simple for the users," Dorohovich said.

At the Internal Revenue Service, knowledge management efforts for the past several years have often simply meant better computer management.

With more than 100,000 employees in several hundred locations, the IRS was operating 700,000 pieces of desktop hardware, 4,000 commercial applications and at least 11 different e-mail systems, said Tim Schmidt, IRS' director of end-user support.

During a 17-month upgrade program that ended last December, the tax agency installed 60,000 new Intel Corp. Pentium computers, retired 124,000 old computers, reduced the number of applications to 250 (and vowed to cut the number to 65) and went to a common e-mail system, Schmidt said.

Getting employees to use the same software and hardware is critical to improving productivity and providing taxpayers with better service, he said. Ultimately, the IRS wants to tie desktop computers to applications that reside on central servers. That way, the agency will have greater assurance that all employees have access to the same information, he said.

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