Middle managers are key

From the Federal Highway Administration to the Illinois Comptroller's Office, government agencies are reinventing themselves by embracing new processes and technologies to collect, manage and share information across their vertical stovepipes. The mechanism that enables this is knowledge management (KM), which allows agencies to redesign business processes and streamline information sharing to maximize intellectual capital.

The research firm GartnerGroup Inc. expects the government to spend $6.2 billion on information technology and e-commerce in the next five years. Without well thought-out KM implementations, that money will not be well spent.

KM projects require that top-level executives support the concept of the project, and the employees on the front lines have to believe that the change will empower them to work more effectively.

But KM initiatives will never prove successful unless middle managers are involved in every part of the implementation. They are charged with making things work, but they also have the most to lose when an organizationwide KM solution blurs lines between geographic and functional departments.

Middle managers are rewarded for what happens within their particular boxes and can feel threatened not just by the challenges of sharing knowledge and expertise, but by the staff time that the new KM structure will require.

Middle managers can, however, embrace this new information-sharing culture and ensure a successful KM implementation. First, they need to be involved in the program design. A pilot program allows agencies to evaluate the impact on operations and make informed changes in the way performance is measured for middle management and staff.

Despite the cultural challenges, KM has made a difference at agencies that have embraced e-government.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) delivers program and technical knowledge to customers as a core component in fulfilling its mission. FHWA recognizes, however, that critical knowledge resides not only inside FHWA but outside in the state departments of transportation that actually build the roads.

The FHWA is implementing a KM solution that allows the agency to serve both as a knowledge provider and a knowledge broker to the road-building community. Their environmental-issues Web application(nepa.fhwa.dot.gov) is an excellent example of how FHWA is building information-sharing communities.

The Illinois Comptroller's Office faced different challenges. It was receiving 60,000 requests per year for information about state finances and expenditures and responding to each one manually. Now, users can browse and explore extensive data on revenues, expenditures, contracts, grants and cash balances via one portal (comptroller.state.il.us).

Those two examples provide only a taste of what KM solutions can do when information becomes more important than who "owns" it. For KM like this to work, government has to adjust its performance measurement systems to reward middle managers who are willing to embrace this new way of working.

—Hirsh is vice president of the IT Consulting Practice at American Management Systems Inc.

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