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Knowledge sharing supports the military's mission

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The military services have recognized the value of knowledge management and have committed significant resources to initiatives that range from online knowledge portals to dashboards. Many of the efforts relate to knowledge sharing in a training context or communities of practice. The Navy Knowledge Online portal, for example, is focused on professional development and provides access to online courses. The services and the Department of Defense (DoD) also have developed digital repositories and have automated numerous business processes. Many of those, however, are not explicitly identified as knowledge management activities.

KM-a "key enabler"

The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) is tasked with developing leadership skills and providing training and education for the Army's employees, who include active duty, reservists and civilians, and who number more than 1 million. About five years ago, Gen. William S. Wallace, commanding general of TRADOC at the time, commissioned a study on information and knowledge management. The report recommended TRADOC establish a chief knowledge officer (CKO) position to provide overall guidance and direction to TRADOC organizations. One of the specific objectives of the position was to help war fighters gain better access to information developed by the organization's eight centers of excellence (COEs).

Knowledge management in the Army received additional support from Gen. Wallace's successor, Gen. Martin Dempsey (recently appointed as the 37th Army chief of staff), who labeled knowledge management as a "key enabler" to support the major goals he laid out in his TRADOC campaign plan. That proposal called for the COEs to develop and deliver the operational and technical expertise for war fighting functions, requirements, future capabilities and training delivery, as well as to offer recommendations to TRADOC leadership and the Army on shaping and developing the force.

"One of our primary goals in developing a knowledge management program was to break down the stovepipes that inhibited the free-flowing exchange of information," says Joseph Oebbecke, who serves as CKO of TRADOC. "We wanted to be able to disseminate knowledge, not necessarily solely through formal doctrine, but in a way that would be more rapidly accessible to the war fighter."

Senior leaders are involved in ensuring that knowledge is exchanged between units that are fighting and those that are about to be deployed. "We are using discussion forums to share information," continues Oebbecke. "The learning curve is shorter for new units when we have effective knowledge sharing to counter an enemy that is very agile, and changes operating tactics frequently. This saves lives."

Social media and forums

The methods for that knowledge exchange include the use of social media, Internet video and collaborative forums that are open to war fighters who have access to the Army's networks. For example, engineers have been given responsibility to provide their expertise to the war fighter through the discussion forums and war fighter forums led by the Army's operational commanders. That form of feedback is timelier than in the past, when the information was only published in manuals. The Army continues to produce publications for more enduring knowledge such as doctrine.

TRADOC has also developed ways of capturing knowledge more efficiently. "We used to have a manual process in which the reporting individual would send an e-mail or call in with a report," Oebbecke says, "but we have now developed a template that allows reports to be entered directly. The reports go directly into our knowledge tool suite (technology enablers) and become part of our knowledgebase." In some cases, existing processes were automated, and in others, a cumbersome process was first streamlined and then automated. "The goal is to provide the right knowledge to the right person at the right time and place," he adds.

Knowledge management is not just about the management of information. "We have important cultural adjustments to make in order to achieve our goal of Army modernization and becoming a learning organization," Oebbecke says. One issue is that the Army's long-established organizational structure does not lend itself to agility. The Army, like other government organizations, must also contend with a procurement cycle that makes it difficult to keep up with technological innovations, as well as with certification processes for software that can be even lengthier.

Developing a new culture

At the Army Training Support Command, one of the subcommands within TRADOC, CKO Ronald Simmons also points to cultural change as the heart of successful knowledge management programs. Simmons has developed an effective grassroots program to build virtual work environments (VWEs), which provide a new method of carrying out daily operational activities for the command and its individual divisions.

The VWE is a collaborative workspace built on Microsoft SharePoint, with content in a wiki format. "The workspace allows knowledge to be shaped, shared and integrated into daily operations," says Simmons. "We demonstrate how to set up a VWE and then encourage people to build their own solutions." Once the workers are involved and realize that as non-technical staff they can develop collaborative environments, the number of ‘developers' increases dramatically." The outcome is a new way of using the organization's intellectual capital on a daily basis.

In 2008, Simmons went to Iraq to share his knowledge of how to create new KM solutions. For example, he demonstrated how soldiers could use data from an Excel spreadsheet to provide actionable information to a general's dashboard, also on the SharePoint platform. That application became a model for others to move to VWE solutions, in which tasks, discussion boards, contact information and documents are presented when a user visits the virtual office. Moving operational activities into VWEs has made the organization more agile, effective and successful.

Part of the cultural change is having the willingness to try such new approaches, but Simmons also believes that technology is now making it easier to create a broad base of non-technical developers. "In the mid-90s, it was a challenge to find any technology that would do what we wanted for a KM project," he says. "Now, the capability is there. Software producers are building much better tools, and they can be used effectively by non-programmers."

KM by other names

In military initiatives labeled as KM, the focus is on learning and the sharing of tacit knowledge, particularly in the online portals that the services have developed. However, various other projects have been launched. Some of them are explicitly identified as KM projects, such as a proposed repository for studies related to the Department of Defense. The Defense Business Board formed a task group to evaluate the collection, storage and retrieval of DoD-sponsored and DoD-related studies and to develop a better method for sharing that information. The report recommended a "comprehensive knowledge management system" for those documents.

Other projects, such as a business process management (BPM) system for project management at the Air Force, are not labeled as KM activities. "We were looking for ways to maximize the use of the skill sets we had following a Lean Six Sigma project," says Brian Chaney, now director of enterprise services at Copper River, a support contractor for the Air Force. At the time, Chaney was an Air Force employee working as a program manager.

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