Cultural change trumps technology

Technology is important, but the key to making knowledge management programs work is changing an agency's business culture, according to 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 program 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.

Culture change is the key to success, the panelists agreed, 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 and 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 this 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 CKO 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" with a "knowledge- centric culture where trust and respect facilitate decision-making," said Alex Bennet, Navy deputy chief information officer for enterprise integration and CKO.

"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.

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

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

Still, there is work to be done. The Army is moving forward with its cultural changes, new business practices, "infostructure" management and Army Knowledge Online portal upgrades, but needs to do a better job of "mentoring and training future leaders," Sincock said. "Bureaucracies don't do that well," but the Army is working on it.

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Capturing retirees' knowledge

To improve job training and ensure that all current employees can reap the benefits of knowledge management programs, agencies are taking steps to capture the knowledge of retirees.

The State Department is piloting a knowledge-gathering project where "interrogators" interview ambassadors and other retiring employees with questions related to specifics of their jobs and then enter that information into a knowledge database. That "tacit knowledge" will eventually be made available through the department's enterprise system, said John Cabral, director of State's office of knowledge management and deputy chief knowledge officer.

The Air Force is also using exit interviews to capture the knowledge of departing personnel in order to train their replacements, said Bao Nguyen, chief of the Air Force's information and knowledge management division.

The information gathered is put into a model that details the basics of their position, including what they do, how and why, and how all of that relates to the mission of their office.

The Air Force will also eventually make that data available on its enterprise portal, Nguyen said.

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