Decision support for the warfighter

When U.S. troops first began to mobilize this winter for war in the Middle East, the Army saw a huge spike in the number of messages sent via Army Knowledge Online (AKO) — a sprawling military Web portal that is quickly evolving from a mere messaging system to a decision-support hub for today's warfighters.

Deployed soldiers and their families use the system to communicate via e-mail or instant messaging. In February, the number of AKO-hosted messages jumped to 4 million, more than double the 1.7 million messages sent in April 2002. The system, which is being used to boost the troops' morale, is considered just the "pointed end of the spear" when it comes to the Army's information plans for individual servicemen and women.

In fact, AKO now serves as the core of a servicewide knowledge management initiative — Army Knowledge Management or AKM — designed to meet the information needs of Army soldiers on and off the battlefield. "We have to give [warfighters] information they need to fight in battle," said Catherine Michaliga, AKM director. "Army's knowledge management strategy is intended to support our objective of meeting the decision support needs of our force."

To spur knowledge management, Michaliga's staff operates around a series of major objectives. By far the most challenging is promoting the cultural changes necessary to make the Army a knowledge-based organization. "Before we started this venture, all systems development was done in a decentralized fashion," Michaliga said. "A cultural change has got to occur in order to get scattered offices to stop building knowledge management or other systems that are not being developed on an enterprise level."

In addition to the turf conflicts that impede knowledge management, the counterproductive human tendency to cluster gets in the way. "If people are left to their own devices, they will only work with the two to three people who are closest to them," said French Caldwell, vice president and research director for Gartner Inc. " 'I see Sally every day; she sits within three cubicles of me.' These personal networks are the way people get things done."

Indeed, strong leadership and agency cohesiveness are essential to successful knowledge management system development. "Effective and successful knowledge management depends on people being willing and able to work outside normal boundaries," Caldwell added.

Army officials tried to short-circuit organizational resistance to a single knowledge management effort by assembling a chief information officer board of governors within the service. "By having all parties in the Army represented, we are trying to get the visibility and the money we need," Michaliga said. Also, the "governance mechanism" helps the service fund only enterprise-level knowledge management efforts, she said.

Next Steps

Transforming AKO into a more comprehensive knowledge management initiative will center on expanding the use of the AKO portal, which soldiers use to search for everything from agency documents to dental and health records. Now, under a recent partnering agreement with the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, users can view the status of their expense vouchers as they go through the pipeline.

A next step will be to bolster AKO's content management. "Right now, we don't have any workflow built in," Michaliga said. "We are looking to define the life cycle of a piece of content — when it is put on the portal, how long it is to stay there and when it is to come down."

Enhancing content management will build on the Army's work on AKO's search and indexing features. So far, these efforts have paid off. Michaliga claims that the Army's success at building a solid information taxonomy for AKO has reduced the number of hits a user gets when conducting an Armywide search. "With three clicks, they have gone from getting an average of 767 irrelevant hits to four relevant hits," she said.

Expanding the portal to serve as a collaboration tool is another goal. For example, AKO is currently outfitted with Lightweight Directory Access Protocol for user authentication and other applications. "We are hoping to integrate with this directory capability subject-matter expert types," Michaliga said.

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