Building a brain trust
- By Brian Robinson
- Apr 30, 2001
Knowledge management means different things to different people, but its use is always the result of a definite need. It's that need that shapes the way knowledge management is applied.
For the Social Security Administration, the need for a knowledge management program was driven by a stark fact: It was losing people who had vast amounts of expertise that simply could not be replaced. If the agency couldn't find some way of retaining that knowledge, it would quickly find itself in a hole from which it couldn't escape.
"We were losing software developers with 25 years-plus of experience, for example," said Ron Raborg, software process improvement director at SSA. The agency's complex system of data collection and payments depends on developers with a deep understanding of the way SSA works, but as people retired or left for other jobs, "we realized the knowledge base of our developers was simply walking out the door."
The first step was to apply the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) to the whole of SSA's software-development organization. CMM, created by the federally funded Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, is a methodology for evaluating the processes organizations use to develop software. While not strictly a part of knowledge management in itself, it was used to organize the development process and define best practices that could be applied across the enterprise.
At the same time, said Raborg, there was a growing pressure from people "clamoring for information on how to develop software" for the agency. That created a need for a way to pass along the knowledge gleaned from the CMM process, as well as that of individual developers, to those who wanted it.
The result was the PRIDE (Project Resource Guide) Web site, which serves as the central channel for sharing software-development expertise at SSA, and through which developers can access all the intellectual capital of the agency's community.
Since the site was delivered in final form in July 2000, it's grown into "an incredibly complex and complete knowledge portal," Raborg said.
But getting there wasn't easy. The toughest part by far was persuading software developers to share their experience and expertise, Raborg said, something that presented them with a completely different paradigm from how they had traditionally operated.
The realization that changing the culture of an agency will be the hardest task is probably the first and most important lesson people need to learn about knowledge management, according to Shereen Remez, former chief knowledge officer at the General Services Administration, the first federal agency to wholeheartedly embrace knowledge management, and now chief of knowledge management at AARP.
"It's a common misperception that knowledge management is about technology," she said. "Technology certainly enables us to do things faster and simpler, but technology only works when it's operated properly by people. Knowledge management is first and foremost a people issue."
It's often easy for agencies to think of knowledge management as an information technology issue, she said, but it can't do anything for those that are not ready to become knowledge-based organizations.
Raborg tackled his people problem with a judicious mix of peer pressure and reward. He made a point of going to senior people in the community to try to persuade them to give up their habit of closely guarding their knowledge. It was that "knowledge is power" ethos that told them that the only way to get ahead in the organization was to increase their value by hoarding information. Once people began to see things on the Web site from respected peers, others began to offer contributions, Raborg said.
It was also important to make sure that individuals who provided information received recognition for it, he said, so specific items of knowledge were posted on the site along with the pictures and bylines of the people who provided them.
"It was a fairly long process to get this started," Raborg said, which was why it took a relatively long time — from January to June 2000 — to get the PRIDE site up and running. "People questioned the value [of the site] to them personally at first, but when they got a taste of what it could produce for them, they became more eager to contribute."
That process is not complete, but as some of the more important people within the community sign on to the process, Raborg believes it will be easier to pull others in.
Raborg is now thinking about the next stages of the program, such as building a second-generation Web site geared more toward the way people in the organization actually think, collaborate and learn.
Ideally, that would have been the way the site worked from the beginning, Raborg said, but he said it was important to have a "strawman model" of the site available so that people could see how it operated. That allowed time to get the kind of buy-in crucial to building that first acceptance of the knowledge management process.
Now comes the chance to build more sophisticated products, such as a platform for collaboration and an artifacts depository of work products that developers will use for their own projects — a "library of best practices components," as Raborg put it. That becomes increasingly valuable as people begin cranking out one Internet project after another. The ability to embed the life-cycle experience of such projects in the Web site could be one of the best things to come out of this whole knowledge management process, Raborg said.
Those next-stage developments are also where more sophisticated knowledge management tools could be used, he said. Until now, the agency has built the system using basic database tools, but it's starting to look at tools designed specifically for use as knowledge management systems.
"I've seen too many times that, when you bring the tools in first, the process becomes modified to conform to the tools," he said. "This time around, we were adamant about getting the basic process established first, and to make the whole thing people-oriented. Get the buy-in from the people, and get their trust. Then the tools will follow."
Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore.
Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.