The Day DoD KM Died

Yesterday, I was most privileged to sit in on a session with some of the senior folk in DoD Knowledge Management (KM). The setup encouraged an intimate conversation among these government leaders, with twice more their number sitting and observing (a well-placed gag rule limited conversation to the table people only). Each Service was represented, as well as select Commands and activities. Disclaimer 1: While the meeting was invitation only, the findings/preliminary decisions were discussed in open panel sessions later in the day.200904291229.jpg It was here I was privileged and sobered to witness the death of Knowledge Management in DoD.

The gathered expressed an interest in coordinating their efforts for greater effect. These are honest, hard working professionals who, unfortunately, ended up embracing approaches and models that have failed repeatedly, and have helped sound the death knell for large-scale KM programs across industry.

In the audience, at least one of us was eager to hear of the most pressing challenges for KM in DoD. I imagined the issues would include improving the work of the warfighter, increasingly faced with knowledge-intensive tasks in rapidly changing environments. Or perhaps they are frustrated by the lack of coordination with security and information officers.

Of course, they are. But addressing these directly would require a more passive role for KM. Perhaps solutions would include quietly raising the information transfer dial tone, to enable the warfighter to discern signals in a noisy environment; applying KM principles to colleagues and workflows within and among HR, IT, strategy, and operations; or embracing social media strategies, pilots, and deployments to enable ambient feedback and unanticipated participation across the DoD workforce, etc.

These notional ideas involve embedding KM ideas into existing organizational frameworks and work lives. None of these would focus first on the establishment of a central KM function; with standards, vetted processes, certifications, and a KM workforce with specific competencies. Indeed, Stephen Bounds recently crafted a white paper that describes the futility of "un-targeted" KM programs in reducing knowledge failures. More troubling, these programs fail to identify the knowledge failures that carry the largest risk.

After all, KM successes are targeted initiatives: such as Air Force Knowledge Now, where 15,000 communities of practice self-organize across the USAF, providing the ability to discover expertise in the field or even revolutionize approaches to work among teams such as the ones currently training the Iraqi Air Force. Or like CompanyCommand, where army platoon leaders self-organized so they could share online issues of immediate interest in the war zone. Or like the adaptive processes that are currently being worked in Afghanistan. Or Intellipedia, initially a guerrilla deployment of a collaborative authoring capability that is questioning, and may one day transform, the notion of "finished intelligence" for the U.S. Intelligence Community.

What do these successes have in common? They were grassroots efforts, emerging from the workforce. Each came under fierce attack from the established information and knowledge leaders. Perhaps these KM leaders would find new and imaginative ways to get out of the way of the noble warfighters, to allow for more frequent successes, and clear the path for more of these targeted successes.

Instead, the gentlemen in this room converged on the need to convene as an enduring working group, with an initial agenda as follows:

- Establish a higher reporting relationship for Chief Knowledge Officers (CKO). The fear is that unless the CKO is located high enough in the food chain, KM programs will not receive funding. There was also some discussion about peer interactions among the leadership - sadly, the focus was on organizational charts and reporting chains of command, rather than process or methods of value exchange among CIO, CKO, Personnel, Training, Operations, etc.

- Establish a certificate program for KM at an accredited school affiliated with DoD. Participants were careful not to cast this as a certification program, which would imply a certifying body and other rigor - a fool's errand in KM. Rather, this is envisioned as a graduate-level certificate for KM in the DoD. Where I would hope to see the teaching and mentoring of KM "competencies," however defined, across all of DoD; these gentlemen instead focused on developing a KM workforce unto itself.

- Develop common KM metrics across programs. There is some frustration with answering the "value question," and agreement on the need for predictive and quantitative metrics that will finally justify and codify the work of KM. They agree on the notional value of narrative, but there was precious little discussion regarding the assessment of individual narratives against KM value proposition - what makes a "good" story?

- Embrace a KM organizational maturity model. The analog discussed was the CMM program for software development (reference: Software Engineering Institute). Pursuing this analogy, I was struck by the fact that the most promising software methods of the day (XP/Agile, etc.) emerged not from any SEI effort, but rather outside the hallowed halls of CMM-certified organizations. This is natural: maturity models are not designed to foster innovation or creativity - relatively messy endeavors when one is seeking standards and efficiency. Instead, these maturity models presume stages, indicators, and a relatively static representation of what an "mature" organization looks like in terms of software development, project management, and perhaps soon for DoD: Knowledge Management.

Thanks to this central focus on an "un-targeted program," DoD KM is dead. And federal KM, coalition KM, indeed whole-of-government coordination is today much harder. Or at least it was not made any easier following these deliberations.

The first and last conversation involved a plea to define knowlege management. As Confucius taught; "first, define your terms." The fundamental first step for any discipline or even conversation might involve a clear agreement to terms, and this, apparently, has yet to occur within DoD KM. Disclaimer 2: One participant referred to the 31-page section on KM in the recently released (full) report from the Project on National Security Reform as a reasonable starting point to get them past the question of KM definitions. On behalf of my hard-working team from the PNSR KM Working Group, I am delighted our work is proving useful to the field.

With a focus on KM structures that will fall eventually of their own weight, the grassroots are left to their own devices, as they have been all along. KM is not the job of these gentlemen. It is incumbent upon all of DoD to find ways to solve their problems locally, as they always have been, with a leadership across IM/IT whose job is to balance the security of the information space with the need to get out of the warfighter's way. It is everyone's responsibility to share information, to grow their combined knowledge and competence, and to help the Department advance, thrive and prevail. 200904291102.jpg

The focus should not be on the KM troops or the CKO. DoD has arrived at the notion that KM is essential, and has moved therefore to secure the position of KM across the Department. This, sadly, removes the focus from what works, and from the warfighter. A focus on a large KM program, careers, etc, is to focus on a structural fix to a behavioral and technology problem. Worse than not fixing it, these structures work against the very types of initiatives that succeed on the ground.

There are others working quietly to raise the dial tone, others working outside this room. There will always be "heroes of the revolution" who will seed social media and open up access to knowledge despite the barriers. There remain ways to get around rigid processes that do not add value to the mission. And, while not betraying confidences, not everyone at this table agreed to the monolithic approach for KM. So there may be hope yet.

One final thought. Every single person given a voice, and a seat at this august table, was a middle-aged or older, white, man. [Update, I am not trying to imply that race matters in this conversation, I'm trying to focus on the need for diverse voices in a field that relies so heavily on behaviors and persuasion.  Apologies for any who were distracted.]

This matters.

In theory, diverse voices help sustain the health of a complex organizational system. In practice, it was jarring to hear not a single young voice from the Generation these men are trying to assist. I couldn't help but wonder how these deliberations would have sounded on the ear of someone serving today in a Joint Operations Cell, or on a high mountain somewhere far from Washington, DC.