Cultural change trumps technology

Changing an agency's business culture, not the technology involved, is the key to making knowledge management programs work, according to a panel of government experts.

"Everyone has their own definition, but whatever the definition, it's really a business process and not about the technology," said John Cabral, director of the office of knowledge management and deputy chief knowledge officer at the State Department.

Cabral said State is in the middle of a nine-week evaluation of an enterprise portal that would link agencies involved in U.S. embassies around the world and create a virtual "desktop for the diplomat." He said a decision on the portal would be made by Feb. 1, followed by a five-month pilot and evaluation, then worldwide deployment.

Representatives from the Army, the Air Force and the Navy joined Cabral on a Dec. 20 panel sponsored by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association's, Bethesda, Md., chapter.

All of the panelists agreed that culture change was the key to success and is closely related to two other factors, said Bao Nguyen, chief of the Air Force's information and knowledge management division:

* Establishing communities of practice within an organization dedicated to knowledge management.

* Having support from senior-level officials.

Nguyen said the Air Force's knowledge management policy is in draft form, but that communities of practice are being established to build enthusiasm for the launch of the service's enterprise portal early next year. The portal, being developed by BroadVision Inc., will play a key role in the Air Force's enterprise transformation, he said.

The Air Force does not have a chief knowledge officer yet, but would welcome a "senior-level champion" for the effort, Nguyen said, adding that knowledge management is really about "process, people and contents; technology is only an enabler."

The Navy has been working on knowledge management for more than three years and is seeking to become a "learning organization" that includes a "knowledge-centric culture where trust and respect facilitate decision-making," said Alex Bennet, deputy chief information officer for enterprise integration and chief knowledge officer for the Navy.

"Knowledge is not inherently good or bad, but we realized how important it was to the Navy and the government and, after [Sept. 11], to the entire United States," Bennet said. "You can't do anything in isolation today."

The Navy has knowledge management communities of practice with about 300 members representing all of its major divisions, Bennet said, adding that her office will be releasing an "organizational learning toolkit" by the third week of January. It will be available online and in CD form.

The Army's strategic plan for knowledge management was approved earlier this year, and officials have begun implementing programs, said Craig Sincock, Army task force leader for enterprise network, a position in the newly created office of the chief integration officer (CXO).

Maj. Gen. John Scott was appointed Army CXO last week and is charged with integrating the work of the CIO, the chief knowledge officer, the chief technology officer and the chief financial officer to create an enterprise network for the Army, Sincock said.

The Army is moving forward with its cultural changes, new business practices, managing "infostructure" and improving the Army Knowledge Online portal, but needs to do a better job of harnessing its workforce for a knowledge-based Army, he said.

"We don't do a good job of mentoring and training future leaders," Sincock said. "Bureaucracies don't do that well," but the Army is working on it.

The Navy's Bennet also announced that she would be retiring next month. Or will she? She said Jan. 24 would be her last day at her current post so she could "work on my dissertation on knowledge management...unless I get an opportunity to work in homeland defense."

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