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Roundtable discussion: Army Knowledge Online portal

This article appears in the issue June 2004 [Volume 13, Issue 6]


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About the Army Knowledge Online (AKO) portal

The AKO serves about 1.6 million users, including soldiers, civilians and support contractors for the U.S. Army. It is the focal point for knowledge communities, collaboration and e-mail. Important policy statements and news items are posted on the AKO, and many activities relating to personnel, logistics and training are accomplished through it. The AKO was deployed using Appian Portal from Appian.

KMWorld recently hosted a roundtable discussion that focused on the Army Knowledge Online (AKO) portal. Led by KMWorld senior writer Judith Lamont, the roundtable included Col. Timothy A. Fong, director, U. S. Army Chief of Technology Office, Network Enterprise Technology Command/9th Army Signal Command; Jim Murphy, senior analyst, AMR Research; and Michael Beckley, co-founder and VP of product development, Appian.

Lamont: How has the concept of the portal evolved in recent years?

Murphy: Initially, portals were used within an organization to provide a single point of access where employees could find or receive information. Employee self-service applications were frequently part of this type of portal. The next innovation was from commercial search engines such as Yahoo, which began to let users customize what they were seeing through the interface. As Web technology matured, other options became feasible, such as using portals for relationship management applications involving partners, suppliers and external customers. These involved a much greater level of integration among applications. Then, operations such as R&D and manufacturing processes became accessible through portals. Now the trend is toward standardizing on a single portal architecture so that organizations can leverage valuable applications across the enterprise. So, there has been quite a bit of change in just a few years.

Lamont: Col. Fong, how do Jim’s comments compare with your experience with AKO?

Fong: I can see a lot of what Jim just discussed as portal functionality, because AKO is a single point of entry for various Army applications and content that is particularly valuable to the entire enterprise. The Army Knowledge Online portal can be traced back to the Army's strategy to transform itself into a network-centric, knowledge-based force and is a critical enabler of Army knowledge management. The broad Army Knowledge Management strategy was really intended to improve decision dominance by war fighters in the battle spaces, not only in the tactical world but also in the business stewards and the strategic world as well. So it had to pull together a number of different applications.

Lamont: What were the Army’s initial requirements for its AKO portal?

Fong: A primary goal was to provide a universal secure access point for Army personnel to get to all their applications and provide a common e-mail structure for the entire Army. The AKO offers lifetime e-mail for the soldiers, both active and retired, so everyone has access to our enterprise directory that allows them to view the entire 1.6 million users in our population. The basic requirement was for a portal with e-mail and the place to start collaborating and storing documents in a central location so that folks worldwide could access it. This version of the portal was developed during the summer of 2001, when Army Knowledge Management strategic goals were established and implemented. AKO replaced an earlier and much more limited portal.

Lamont: What process are you using to define requirements for AKO as it evolves?

Fong: After the initial requirements were met, we started using the Configuration Control Board or CCB, which consists of members of the CIO organizations throughout the Army to help us define customer requirements. These were capabilities that they wanted to see on the portal that were not unique to a single organization but were valuable for the entire enterprise--things like instant messaging, collaboration and white boarding. We began to identify types of capabilities that Army personnel want to be able to find on AKO no matter where they are at in the world.

Lamont: Has the portal affected the Army’s efficiency with respect to its IT infrastructure?

Beckley: AKO is a part of the overall Army effort to consolidate a lot of applications. For example, if everyone uses the centralized e-mail, the Army does not have to maintain thousands of different e-mail systems. And that is just one example. Through the AKO, the Army has the opportunity to look across all of their investments in enterprise applications and choose the best ones and standardize on them where appropriate. The goal is to dramatically reduce the number of applications soldiers have to contend with, while improving the service they receive and using an open architecture to make available those applications that are broadly applicable.

Lamont: How does having an open architecture help deliver applications?

Beckley: The simple answer is it still allows the different combatant commands the freedom to develop and innovate with the skills they have. As long as they publish their applications in an open Web services environment, the portal can consolidate them. The most dramatic example of that is the medical command. Personalized medical health and dental readiness information for each soldier is presented to them when they log into the portal. That's been developed in a separate application on the Microsoft .Net architecture by medical command and we incorporate that into the open Web portal.

Lamont: What has the impact been of this newly available medical information on the Army’s mission?

Fong: The commander has to worry about indicators of deployability for each and every individual. Medical information can be rolled up for an organization and made available to a commander. At the individual level, everyone who logs in can see information about his or her last medical exam, dental exam, test results and vaccinations that are required. You can see right away whether or not you are deployable. If there are problems, you can see what you need to do to correct them. Some of the other commands are now considering using the same technique for their functional applications. JAG, for example, is looking at it because they have some requirements that they would like to show the soldier right away whether they are up to date or not.

Lamont: Jim, how would you say the Army AKO portal stacks up against those in the commercial sector?

Murphy: I am impressed by the sheer volume of individuals that the AKO supports. Also, many companies are invested in e-mail technology and have very disparate systems, as the Army did, but not too many of them are thinking, "We will drive all of our e-mail through a portal." Many of them should be thinking about it though, for a number of reasons, particularly compliance issues. Companies today must be more careful about their communications, but they are faced with highly distributed systems. Their information is scattered all over the place. Portals are starting to be used as a means to centralize and to consolidate systems.

The Army’s use of a portal for decision support also really impresses me. Delivering the information is one thing, but the ability to make some sense out of the information and then be able to do something about it in terms of collaborating, being able to make a connection, is a more advanced concept. There is still a lot of confusion out there about what a portal is and how to use it. One user thinks of it as a dashboard, and wants analytical capability. Others just want access to their applications or document


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