DOD's antagonism toward info sharing inhibits warfighters

The Defense Department's culture is still resistant to the open disclosure required of knowledge management, but experts say that needs to change

Military operations increasingly rely on instant communications, collaboration and information sharing. For a warfighter, timely access to information can mean the difference between life and death.

For example, an entry in a wiki-enabled database for shared patrol information in Afghanistan can warn a warfighter that an insurgent was seen running into a particular house, indicated on an interactive map. With that knowledge, the next patrol team will be prepared. Without it, the troops could be killed by surprise fire.

“This is the knowledge-enabled warrior,” said Tom Light, chief information officer and delivery division chief at the Training and Doctrine Command. “Through distributed, collaborative, institutional, functional training, we are growing the joint warfighter.”

Such activities are all functions of knowledge management, a term that “comprises a range of strategies and practices used in an organization to identify, create, represent, distribute and enable adoption of insights and experiences,” according to — what else? — Wikipedia.

Those practices are bolstered by the Web 2.0 movement that pushes for open information exchanges and data sharing, and they are modernizing the way Defense Department organizations carry out their missions.

But DOD isn’t always receptive to the open disclosure required of knowledge management. “The Defense Department is not known as an agile or flexible organization,” said the Joint Staff’s Roger Corneretto. “It’s an enormous, hierarchical, solidly built organization that doesn’t follow every haphazard whim.”

However, the department must strike a balance, industry officials and experts said at the recent Knowledge Management 2010 conference in Washington, sponsored by Federal Computer Week's parent company, 1105 Government Information Group. And DOD must do that because the warfighters in combat need to remain the top priority, said Bill Robinson, chief knowledge officer at the Joint Forces Command.

“We need to get away from our parochialism,” Robinson said. “When it comes to best practices, the world is joint. We can’t let the institution of DOD get in the way.”

However, the tight-lipped nature of DOD isn’t the only impediment to collaboration. For one, there’s the money problem. “Funding is always an issue,” said Len Blasiol, director of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force Integration Division at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

There are also cultural issues, such as DOD’s notorious bureaucracy that doesn’t understand sharing because of its hierarchical construction, Robinson said. And there is what he calls the overemphasis on new, high-tech systems. “DOD is [a] driver of high technology, but [this is] about people and learning.”

So how does DOD successfully implement knowledge management and the best of modern technology while overcoming such deeply rooted obstacles?

Some say it can do so by shifting the focus from the means to the end. Proponents of knowledge management insist that new expensive infrastructure isn’t necessary to get communities talking and information flowing. “We can’t get too focused on the tools and lose sight of the true objective,” said Dave Hoopengardner, chief knowledge officer for the secretary of the Air Force for financial management.

Knowledge management platforms are already in place, including Web-based technologies such as the patrol database, wikis and Twitter-like microblogs that enable quick, to-the-point information sharing.

“Knowledge management tools need to connect people, be transparent and be intuitive,” said Joe Boutte, strategic adviser at TASC. He touted the advantages of integrating social media tools into DOD's culture by highlighting their pertinence to the mission. For example, “microblogging is fast and portable, it’s searchable, and it can be written and received on a variety of devices,” he said.

Most of all, using internal brain power is the key to making progress quickly and without a big budget. “Everyone has something to bring to the table,” said Jack Holt, DOD's senior strategist for emerging media. “If you harness internal wisdom on one platform, in one space, you find questions to answers you didn’t even know you asked.”

Sharing success stories and demonstrating best practices is also important for enterprisewide success, said Sumit Agarwal, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for outreach and social media. “Open the door and tell these stories so other people can take on the charge,” he said.

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.


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