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The high cost of not sharing

The annual budget season is here. Whether you’re in the public, for-profit or non-profit sector, the scene is pretty much the same: fighting over where to make those dreaded “cuts.”

Budget planners needn’t look very far. As our institutions have expanded, so have the redundancies and inefficiencies that continue to drain our resources. Much of the unnecessary waste can be traced directly to the lack of information sharing.

Information sharing not only involves crossing organizational boundaries, but cultural, legal, procedural, political and technological ones as well. Yet despite all the wrangling, tight budgets and ballooning deficits alone have not provided enough incentive to break down those barriers. When lives are lost, however, that’s when people begin to take notice.

In healthcare, for example, the chronic lack of information sharing has been a major factor in the 100,000 deaths that occur in the United States every year due to medical errors. Similarly, during 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, many lives were lost because critical systems were unable to communicate with each other.

Information sharing is nothing new. Central banks and financial institutions have long had standards and protocols in place allowing them to do business efficiently and effectively in a global economy. Standardization and just-in-time information sharing among stores and suppliers have formed the backbone of the retail supply chain as well. The time had come for government agencies to do the same.

A government success story

In 2005, the U.S. Congress created PM-ISE, a special program office to implement an information sharing environment (ISE) involving all levels of government. The name itself emphasizes the importance of viewing information sharing as a complete environment, not just a system or process.

The ISE mission was further bolstered in 2008, when the U.S. Director of National Intelligence published an Information Sharing Strategy (fas.org/irp/dni/iss.pdf), declaring that it was the job of intelligence agencies to make their data discoverable rather than to suppress it. This was a major departure from that community’s traditional practice of information hoarding.

In the decade that followed, more than 70 success stories have been documented. But here’s the important thing to remember: PM-ISE has no real authority. And very little money. Only enough to support a small staff.

That means they couldn’t go around telling thousands of agencies what to do. Instead, they encouraged and facilitated the formation of working groups to develop and agree upon standards and best practices.

The number of participants in the ISE community is staggering. More than one million users in the Law Enforcement Community of Interest. Eighteen thousand agencies at the federal, state, local and tribal level. A Standards Coordinating Council (SCC) made up of various public, non-profit and industry associations. And many others.

Be careful what you wish for

The resulting successes in information sharing created a new problem. Whether first responders, doctors or budget planners, the various user communities now faced what they call “having to drink from a fire hose.” They realized it’s not just information they seek, but knowledge.

Given the recent advances in AI, cognitive computing, machine learning and other so-called “intelligent” technologies, they’re patiently awaiting the arrival of a magic system that can answer all their questions at the touch of a button. In the meantime, they simply pick up the phone and talk with someone they think has the answers. After they hang up, the knowledge resides in two heads instead of one. That’s not nearly enough to make a dent at any budgetary level.

Situational knowledge

Just as in information sharing, we need a set of standards, principles and protocols for the representation, transmission and exchange of knowledge within and across boundaries of widely diverse communities. For example, strong collaboration between schools, law enforcement and social workers plays an essential role in addressing a wide range of problems, from dealing proactively with the behavior of troubled children to preventing active shooter incidents at schools. But assembling and exchanging the necessary situational knowledge in a way that protects civil rights and privacy remains an enormous challenge.

Knowledge sharing within and among communities of practice is a more familiar example. Such sharing is complicated by variations in the language of each individual community. For example, reconciling different meanings of the word “case” across health, human services, public safety and justice agencies actually turns out to be rather difficult.

The need to resolve such differences has led to harmonization efforts where constituents from the various communities gather and find common ground. That is what motivated the development of the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM). It’s an XML-based information exchange framework aimed at getting the many different public safety and homeland security systems and databases to talk to each other. As good a framework as it is, NIEM doesn’t even come close to meeting the requirements for a knowledge exchange standard. But it’s a start.

It should be obvious that if we are to determine how knowledge can and should be shared, then we must be willing to come up with radically new ideas, concepts, methodologies and standards. The opportunities for research, design, innovation and new technology applications are endless.

Making the leap from information sharing to knowledge sharing

First and foremost, if you aren’t sharing data and information, you’re already behind. But you can quickly hop on board by tapping into the wealth of information sharing resources available. Most, including the sites we’ve mentioned, are free and open to the public.

An excellent place to start is the SCC’s Information Sharing and Safeguarding Playbook. It takes you step by step through a proven 16-step process for establishing an ISE. More importantly, it helps you achieve that delicate balance between sharing information and protecting it. Adapt and repeat the same 16 steps to create a knowledge sharing environment (KSE) for your organization or community.

Build a collection of success stories backed by relevant performance metrics. You’ll need them to address the fierce cultural resistance you’re likely to face.

In working with organizations of all types and sizes, we’ve found that the greatest motivator is often a clear understanding of why something must be done, where the why is linked directly to mission success. Conversely, not sharing knowledge can ultimately result in total mission failure. Like 9/11 or Katrina, what catastrophic events does your organization potentially face from not sharing knowledge in a well thought out, systematic way?

Finally, you can’t make policy changes and agree to standards suitable over the long term without a firm theoretical and architectural foundation upon which to build. With several decades of academic research and proven practice under our belts, that may very well be the greatest contribution we in the KM community can make. But we need to pick up the pace.

One way is to follow the U.S. government’s example and create our own PM-KSE. There are many loose confederations of KM associations and communities all across the globe that we can bring together to address this challenge. Who knows, the ensuing cost savings might just ease the tempers that keep flaring up whenever those dreaded budget cuts are mentioned.

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