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Connecting the dot.govs

On the most basic level, we need to take a step back and focus on the fundamental question: Why was the Department of Homeland Security created? It was not created merely to bring together different agencies under a single tent. It was created to enable these agencies to secure the homeland through joint, coordinated action. Our challenge is to realize that goal to the greatest extent possible.

—Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to the Senate Subcommittee on Homeland Security, April 20, 2005.

It was perhaps the most ambitious reorganization in the history of government. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, 22 agencies were wrested from their traditional places in the U.S. government hierarchy and reassembled block by block into a massive new pyramid with over 200,000 personnel and more than $50 billion in resources.

Created by the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and officially inaugurated March 1, 2003, to great fanfare and greater controversy, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) incorporated federal functions as disparate as border patrols, customs, immigration, disaster relief, emergency response, anti-counterfeiting, presidential protection, transportation safety, health inspection, cybercrime, nuclear detection and maritime rescue.

All of those components, moreover, are still tasked with their original missions, but prioritized on one goal more than any other: anticipating and preventing terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. The logic of DHS was that government responses could not be delayed or diluted by failures of communication or coordination between federal agencies or between federal efforts and state and local governments. In other words, share knowledge and information.

A new administration is a good time to look at what DHS has learned in its first six years by pursuing both the social and technical aspects of knowledge management.

Culture shock

Sharing of such massive scope and scale brings tremendous opportunities and challenges in equal measure—complicated by the disparate organizational cultures in DHS and further by the sensitive and secure nature of information in many of the agencies’ jurisdictions.

"It doesn’t take an expert in management culture or business processes to see how well-intentioned attempts to combine functions could just founder. From organizational structures, cultural gaps or just from the sheer size of new functioning units," says Julie Fischer, principal author of a 2008 Stimson Center report, New Information and Intelligence Needs in the 21st Century Threat Environment.

"There was an understanding that all the rules were changing about who would need information and that entirely new processes would be needed to distribute that information. But at the beginning, I don’t think it was understood how many institutional barriers there would be and how difficult it would be to put those systems into place," Fischer explains. "Communication within the department is challenging enough, but between other federal agencies and down to the state and local level? That’s another issue all together … Some of those cultures have such distinctive vocabularies and world views that they don’t recognize the gaps, because they are so steeped in their own very specific sets of assumptions."

That is further complicated by the very different traditions of the communities that coexist inside and around DHS. National security and law enforcement cultures focus on prevention and can be reflexively closed—sharing information only when there is a compelling reason to share. Research, health and disaster relief cultures focus on risk reduction and resilience and are reflexively open—sharing unless there is a compelling reason not to.

The power of the whisper

Ann Majchrzak at the University of Southern California and Sirkka Jarvenpaa at the University of Texas at Austin have looked at how an ethic of stewardship for sensitive information can simultaneously promote both responsible sharing and reasonable security.

"We’ve learned that in these contexts, you are constantly trying to determine which knowledge to share or not to share," Majchrzak explains. Sharing doesn’t just determine effective outcomes; it also builds trust between individuals and eventually between the groups that those individuals represent. As she says, trust itself is not just a behavior but also a learned skill.

But those individuals may have mixed—if equally valid—motives based on different drivers and constraints, especially between government employees and outsourced private contractors.

"How do you create equilibrium between sharing and protection?" warns Majchrzak. "Otherwise, sharing will suffer." (For example, they found such mixed motive barriers between the Red Cross and banks after Hurricane Katrina).

However, the security risk of knowledge or information isn’t always the determinant. Old-fashioned fear of retribution keeps people from speaking up even on non-security topics. So when managers encourage—or even require—contributions, discussion forums stay empty, complain some DHS knowledge management officers (who preferred to speak anonymously for this article).

Modern architecture

Even in DHS’ Directorate for Science and Technology, where new technologies are being pioneered for interagency communication and knowledge management, there is recognition that the department must resolve the cultural barriers to communication and collaboration before new processes and technologies can facilitate a higher bandwidth of knowledge and information sharing.

"We can buy technology that meets most of our needs now, while we continue to work on making the better stuff available," writes David Boyd, director of the directorate’s Command, Control and Interoperability Division (CID) in a March 2009 article for Emergency Management Magazine. "However, before we can begin implementing the technology, we must face a bigger issue: cultural differences."

CID focuses on R&D to strengthen communications interoperability and improve Internet security and integrity. It includes a Knowledge Management Tools Program that is pushing the envelope for data mining, analysis and visualization. However, much of the knowledge that needs managing at DHS is of a more mundane know-how nature, and its KM architecture happens not only at the department level but also at the agency level and, within that, in offices and directorates inside the agencies.

Because many of the agencies are huge organizations in and of themselves, KM efforts often start within one directorate of an agency and spread. For example, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in 2007 implemented a SharePoint-based Web portal to host best practices, document management and communities of practice in procurement operations. As previewed to the National Contract Management Association World Congress last year, the Acquisition Resource Management System (ARMS) is a portal for its dispersed contracting workers. It’s a way to disseminate news and information through both hierarchies and networks, attract and facilitate communities of practice, and promote continuous business process innovation. Best practices and document templates get new employees up to speed faster. But ARMS also includes social media-type features where community participants can create profiles visible to their peers to stimulate collaboration.

Users report some speed bumps. For example, the MS Office 2003 suites used by the agency aren’t completely compatible with portal’s SharePoint 2007 components. Nevertheless, use and adoption is growing in response to training and marketing efforts, and now the system is being replicated, with much less effort, in other CBP directorates.

Building boom

Needless to say, the DHS mandate has been a bonanza for many information and communications technology vendors, from content/collaboration portals such as Vignette to telecom networks from AT&T and Nortel. Verity (now part of Autonomy), Groove Networks (now part of Microsoft), and Convera (later part FAST, which is now part of Microsoft) won early contracts. Many more KM products are inside custom solutions kluged by systems integrators. Many collaboration and document management portals within DHS offices are built on Microsoft’s SharePoint platform. (Industry executives are being tapped too. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano recently recruited Microsoft’s "trustworthy infrastructure strategist" Phil Reitinger to be deputy undersecretary of DHS’ National Protections Program division.

On the operational side, with a premium on interoperability, DHS in 2006 created the Enterprise Acquisition Gateway for Leading Edge Solutions (EAGLE) program, pre-approving vendors for a multiple-award, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract vehicle, and encouraging them to team with each other and work in cross-functional areas—in an analog of the relationships DHS intended for its agencies themselves. Among the EAGLE vendors listing knowledge management in their offerings were federal specialists such as Booz Allen Hamilton, now part of the Carlyle Group) and CACI International.

"All federal agencies are challenged by the exploding amount of available data and information resources from internal and external systems. The need for sharing information was an impetus for putting these agencies together," notes Carl Muller, VP of CACI’s Knowledge and Information Management Group. "The knowledge management activities [at DHS] range from the overall architecture of what needs to be shared and how to do that and multiple spot challenges at every level down where data is created, disseminated, secured and accessed to create knowledge. You’ll probably start with the thought leaders in the knowledge management area and eventually build the capability with architects and eventually coding or integrating products."

While CACI solutions for DHS incorporate both their own coding and products from dozens of other vendors, Muller notes that service-oriented architectures (SOA) and Web 2.0 collaboration pieces are proving invaluable to "getting more people involved in creating and validating new data and knowledge, and the ability to access it online in a secure environment." He adds, "SOA says I can build a capability, say a watch-list lookup, and if I do it right, someone in another agency can actually bring that capability into their application without having to rewrite the architecture. That type of development lowers the cost and gets new capabilities online quickly. So vendors should be putting their capabilities out there in a way that could be easily incorporated into something else."

CACI’s DHS work has grown in scope and approach, tripling in dollar terms. KM-related work has been about 17 percent, and is expected to grow to as much as 30 percent.

Learning process

Knowledge management is applied to DHS efforts in another way. As more and more contracting and consulting firms apply KM internally to deliver their own products and services to the government, they include clients in the learning and innovation process.

Bill Kaplan is chief knowledge officer with Acquisition Solutions, which advises and implements procurement systems in DHS agencies. Kaplan’s job is to make sure his firm’s knowledge is applied regardless of the service they are providing to DHS agencies. He uses familiar "fast learning" practices before, during and after projects, such as peer assist and action reviews. Often when Acquisition Solutions completes a consulting engagement, it will include the client in learning-after exercises. "We do that so that we would better be able to collectively work with and help that organization again," Kaplan says.


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