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Transportation: Communities of practice leverage knowledge

The U.S. highway system is a part of the nation's critical infrastructure, one on which our economy and security are highly dependent. A complex mix of legislative, technical and environmental information goes into sustaining that infrastructure. Keeping the highway system running smoothly is an ongoing challenge, best accomplished when information is shared quickly and efficiently.

At the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), online communities of practice (CoPs) are facilitating the exchange of information, experience and ideas. The topical areas covered by the CoPs range from highway safety to environmental concerns that affect the construction and repair of highways.

The CoPs are built on the IBM/Lotus Domino platform, in partnership with ICF International. Each of the CoPs developed by FHWA has a standard interface, with tabbed headings that include discussion, reference and directory of contact people. Icons indicate categories such as What's New, an events calendar and an option to sign up for e-mail notifications.

Cross-boundary reach

"We used templates to create a similar look and feel across all the communities," says Mike Burk, chief knowledge officer at FHWA, "and we keep costs down by replicating the templates as needed." Some of the CoPs are internal to FHWA, and others are public (see http://knowledge.fhwa.dot.gov).

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) establishes that the continuing policy of the federal government is to support the maintenance of environmental quality, as well as the preservation of the country's natural and historic heritage. The FHWA established a CoP to promote the exchange of ideas and questions related to that act, which applies to highway construction and other FHWA projects.

In a recent exchange, a question was put forth on the discussion site as to what software could be used for managing public comments for proposed projects. Comments were received from a state agency, software producers and other respondents. That exchange of information took place across both geographic and organizational boundaries, a reach that would be difficult to accomplish outside the scope of a virtual community.

Participants have the option of answering anonymously or posting their contact information. "The list of contacts then can be used as a form of informal expertise location," explains Mark Youman, principal at ICF. "It allows people to find others who may have common interests or expertise in a topic. At the same time, individuals who just want to post information can retain their privacy."

FHWA plans to extend the community of practice by adding on-demand multimedia presentations. "Many of FHWA's expert staff will be retiring over the next five years, and it's important to capture their knowledge before they go," says Youman. The presentations are based on Microsoft PowerPoint with Macromedia Breeze capturing voiceovers for each slide. "The result is an efficient way to capture tacit knowledge and expertise in a compelling format." He adds.

Concrete Savings

The benefits of the ongoing CoPs are not yet fully documented, but if previous efforts are any indication, the future is promising. According to the FY 2005 Balanced Scorecard Report for the FHWA Knowledge Application, a CoP that was established to promote the use of rumble strips on highways was effective in achieving near-universal adoption of that safety feature, and savings of $5.9 million were reported. Savings accrued to date from the NEPA CoP initiative are estimated at $6 million, based on reduced costs for staff time. An internal safety CoP was estimated to have recouped one year's full-time equivalent (FTE) through savings in time spent seeking out information, valuable to the organization because staff slots are in short supply.

"In addition to providing a collaborative work environment as used by the FHWA," says Arthur Fontaine, IBM/Lotus senior offering manager, "Domino also is known for its workflow capabilities, which let people easily move documents along a routing path." Its default document format is accessible as XML, so Domino can store rich text objects that can be used to create compound documents, mixing graphics and tables that are stored separately. With the content and metadata expressed as XML, searching and data manipulation by external programs is also possible.

Knowledge-friendly environment

At the state level, many of the issues are the same. "We knew in 2003 that 30 percent of our work force was eligible for retirement," says Maureen Hammer, director of the Knowledge Management Office at the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). "We wanted to capture critical institutional knowledge, share it and create an environment for generating new knowledge." The Knowledge Management Office, Virginia Technology Transfer Center and the VDOT research library are resources designed to support the development of a safe and efficient transportation system in the state.

Online Networks

The Knowledge Management Office, which is responsible for establishing CoPs, selected the SharePoint Team Room from Microsoft for its collaborative environment. Online threaded discussions, stored documents and links to other sites are among the resources provided in the Team Room sites. Users can also search for documents from the SharePoint home page on the intranet.

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