Lessons in change

An industry analyst recently asserted that government was "the worst group by far" at knowledge management. Putting aside questions about the value of making such a distinction, it's worth considering why agencies fare so poorly at something that could serve them so well and how it might be changed.

French Caldwell, a research director at Gartner Inc., said government scored only 2 percent on a Gartner survey, compared to 78 percent by top organizations. One problem, Caldwell said, is that government employees do not understand that knowledge management is a discipline supported by technology, not a technology itself.

True, employees at all levels of an agency must be taught to think about what information they have in their organization and how to make it visible inside and outside the agency.

More training, though a popular remedy, is not the solution. Knowledge management represents a dramatic enough change in thinking that anything short of a clear mandate will fail to bring it about.

Policies are needed that define knowledge management processes and how they fit into an agency's daily operations. This will give employees a better understanding of why knowledge management is important, and it will give federal managers a framework for enforcing its practice.

The same thinking underlies the current spate of legislation that would restructure agencies involved in homeland security, combining organizations guarding the borders, for example, or creating a Department of Homeland Security.

Those proposals implicitly recognize that a change in thinking often requires a change in governance. Nothing else, some congressional leaders believe, will overcome the turf wars and tunnel vision that make information sharing and collaboration so difficult.

Knowledge management, on a smaller scale, is no different. Agencies will not change their culture simply by investing in knowledge management tools and training. They need to develop policies that both define the processes and create the mandate needed to engender change.

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