KM History

Social Media & Knowledge Management - An Intergenerational Tantrum

Second in a series, trying to provide another perspective to the overwhelming and all-encompassing goodness that is social media. Exhibit 2. A gentleman writes a blog, which quickly goes viral, regarding what he sees as a ‘generational war’ between Knowledge Management (KM) and Social Media.

Conclusion. Knowledge Management is now (thankfully) obsolete.

I will not seek here to disprove or discredit completely the referenced blog post; rather I would like to provide some background regarding the actual discipline of KM, apart from the cartoon presented in many places.  (The comments to his blog posting do a very nice job pointing up the flaws in his assumptions.)  In doing a little research, I find many blogs and comments that do a great job attacking what I was going to take on.  Therefore, I will narrow my scope a bit to the question - what is obsolesced as a result of social media?


Besides being contrary with Mr. Paylow, I have a point here. Information Management is useful for enabling Knowledge Management. Social software are information management tools, but as Mr. Paylow points out - they are more useful than previous tools for sharing and learning information fragments across a broad network. The more we move beyond taxonomy, classification, aggregation - all of which presuppose relevance at the point of decision - and get to shared fragments that help us discern patterns; the closer we are to what Mr. Walker talks about above: an understanding of KM that is still relevant. 

This is what "web 2.0" is making obsolete - the approach of data capture, organization, binning, etc. that was never useful for anything more than an industrial age understanding of information management. Social software is allowing us to use methods of KM that align with our understanding of cognitive science; how our minds actually work.

Friends with Agendas (FWA)

Why don't companies "get" social? Why do consultants have such a hard time helping clients to leverage social networks and tools for business value? Perhaps it is because in 'doing social,' (rather than being social), you become the FWA. The "friends with benefits" is a well-understood concept, which I will not describe further; but I'd like to introduce its antithesis - the FWA. Your Friends With Agendas.

Early in my first marriage, my hermeneutics professor invited us to his home for dinner. We attended a staid Christian college, where the sense of hierarchy and authority was significant. It was quite the honor for this sophomore to be invited over, and I assumed he was taken by his bright young student and desired an evening of philosophical musing. Networking was not yet a verb, at least not to me, but I understood the importance of the occasion, and my wife and I dressed accordingly. Arriving precisely on time, we were greeted by his unassuming wife and escorted to the living room. There was no pre-dinner alcohol, of course, although no dinner ever needed it more. Perched on the edge of his couch, the good professor addressed me while gesturing for his wife to fetch 'the stuff' from the kitchen. "John, I invited you here because I wanted to talk with you about something important. Something very important to your future." His wife returned, carrying a saucepan and a stack of pennies. My wife wore the same blank expression I hoped I had on at that moment. He began to drop the pennies into the saucepan, one at a time, each landing with a clack as he began his sales patter.

Yes. I had been invited into the learned man's home so he could pitch us to "invest" in waterless cookware. I don't remember the dinner, but we managed to hold in our laughter until well down the road.

Did I understand this man? Perhaps. The salary of a professor at a Christian college in 1981 was likely something short of handsome. Would I ever trust this man again, did I respect him as I had the day before? Not a chance. He had violated the power relationship, and misused his influence to try and earn a few shekels. His agenda trumped his common sense, and he ruined any idea I may have had about furthering that relationship. (Not that he cared, that was never his aim.)

"Monetizing social requires betraying trust." - Stephen Bates. (@batess)

The vendor, the marketer, the employer - each approach "social" with an asymmetrical agenda. There are no true 'win-wins,' for any of these relationships. Mutual value can be established, but this is a nuanced negotiation, not a dictated Terms of Service. Predictive analytics will not tell you how to approach or maintain individuals within your target network. Even considering a network as something to target begins to fray the trust needed for a true network of value.

And speaking of targets, this one is moving. The nodes you want in your network are on the move, literally. They expect to have their network available everywhere, and for their technology to sense and respond based on location, time of day, available data about their plans, and more. You know that friend who just "gets" you? That is what people are beginning to expect from their mobile and social technologies, and the relationships they represent. No latency, and no friction. Count the number of times you hear someone scold their device for a lack of responsiveness. Note how quickly they abandon a task if the device will not cooperate.

The secret to understanding social may lie in rethinking some classic marketing and management 'truths.' This is related to the shift in how work is done, how buying decisions are made, and how disintermedation is preferred in each. Some questions to ponder:

  • What is your budget for relationship building? Is it reconciled against this quarter's earnings, or do you allow for the messiness of human relationships and uncertain timelines to fit within your allocation for network growth and maintenance?
  • By now, you have likely established business value statements for the investment in 'social.' Now, how are you measured by your network? What is their internal value statements for engaging with you? Have you allowed for these to shift, based on their moods and emotions? Are you engaged in a conversation to understand continuously how you're viewed, or are you busy segmenting and predicting based on Big Data?
  • Are you trusting your gut? You know instinctively which Twitter accounts are hitting the mark, and which are just broadcasting. (Hint: Rep Dingell (@John_Dingell) of Michigan is doing it right.) You know the famous gaffes on social media, you know the tune to "United Breaks Guitars." Have you embedded this gut understanding of relative authenticity into your plan for 'social?'

In the past weeks, several offline conversations have raised this - all with the same conclusion. "No one really 'gets' social right yet." Perhaps this is because we have not considered what needs to change in order to become "social," or, to reclaim a term: network-centric. Or, more likely and more sadly, we refuse to do so.

Social Media Centers of Excellence? Really?



My morning Twitter feed led to me to an article released in July of this year, an intriguing if baffling idea from Dion Hinchcliffe here

I put my tea down. Hard.

Here's my issue with the thoughtful piece linked above: it treats 'social media' as just another enterprise skill that needs to be accommodated with the same management approaches: stakeholders, goals & requirements, processes, knowledge base, etc. Set up a Center of Excellence to ensure the organization's social media efforts are coherent, managed, and answerable to business - noble goals, I quibble with the approach.

Nothing new here. Doubt me? Change the topic to Records Management and tell me how the graphic would be any different. Underlying technology infrastructure, core set of experts to ensure the 'knowledge base' information is disseminated, heroes out in the business (notice the business is always external to these types of presentations) who 'get it,' etc. (The burning platform for Records Management is arguably an easier case to make than standing up a center of excellence for Social Media.)

If you accept that social media is just something that companies are now doing haphazardly and need to 'get more strategic' about - then by all means, set aside 5-10 FTE to help your firm 'do social.' If you believe that the integration of social methods and tools is something that can advance your business or agency objectives, however, perhaps changing how you think about existing functions is in order. I shudder to think about organizations who have a Knowledge Management function, deciding to stand up a separate 'social media' Center of Excellence. What then? Regular cadence meetings to "ensure alignment" between these two tribes, each 'supporting the business' according to their specific play-books?

For my part, social methods and tools (please think of this as an inviolate couplet, it is never about the tools alone) should transform how an organization approaches Knowledge Management. At the very least. It should also change how we think about communications, innovation, customer service, citizen outreach, dispersed operations, and the list goes on. To mummify the promise of social methods and tools inside a 20th century management construct that emphasizes existing processes and stakeholders is to ensure the marginalization of this promise - if not its demise.

Frankly, I am surprised at this piece by the esteemed Dachis Group - what did I get wrong? What am I missing?

People, Organization, Technology?

I see my friend Dave Snowden is extending/rethinking/refining his Cynefin framework, which emboldens me to follow through on an idea that won’t leave me.  More completely, an idea that challenges some basic axioms and cliches that have haunted my PowerPoint/Keynote presentations for years. Headed for my personal trash bin:  ‘People, Process, Technology.’  There are 298,000 hits on the Google machine for that phrase (in quotes) - so some will no doubt disagree.

From a theoretical point of view, the Cynefin framework was a giant first clue that this triplet was endangered, and yet I found myself using it years after knowing better.  From a practical perspective, the more we learn about successful open government examples and social business experiments - the evidence became clearer.

The enemy:  Process.  In retrospect, this is obvious, and it is possible I am the last one to realize this.  For complex systems, for innovation efforts, for creativity - process engineering is not only the wrong approach, it is a mistake.  These epiphany is still in its embryonic phase, but it may be that any work that is amenable to a ‘process‘ should be automated as much as possible. For the rest, technology should enable serendipity rather than predictive process.

It may be that simple.  It may be People, Organization, Technology; although we should not be in a rush to replace a failed triplet with another.  In discussions about ‘social business,’ we describe some fairly radical organizational structures.  In fact, my definition for Social Business is as follows:

Social Business refers to an organization whose structures and processes defer to the natural systems of human interaction. This transformation from the 19th century industrial age organizational model is enabled by conversation-centered technologies that allow for low-latency, low-effort flow of information across the workforce - laterally as well as vertically.  It is characterized by flattened decision cycles, real-time situational awareness, creativity, and a capacity for agility realized through adaptive responses to changes in its environment.  

This definition needs to be shorter and may be missing some elements.  Nevertheless, this is where I am right now.  How did I get here?  From a casual conversation that went like this:

“Why can’t our internal collaboration platforms be more like Facebook or LinkedIn?”

Immediately, it struck me.  This isn’t the right question.  The right question is:  “Why do we work in organizations where natural interactions and instincts are discouraged?”  The reason that consumer social media technologies experience a high adoption rate - without the ‘benefit’ of corporate training - is because they align with human aspiration.  We want to share with friends.  We want to strengthen our tribal affiliations.  We want to help where help is needed.  We solve business problems over lunch.  We sketch out innovative ideas on bar napkins.  This is how we live - but not how most of us work.

Others have written about new organizational structures, such as heterarchy, wirearchy, et al.  We cannot fall into the trap of the last decade, where “flat organizations” were supposed to destroy hierarchy.  Sociology is not extinct.  But radical new organizations are possible and are in fact happening.  A dear friend now works for a consulting firm where people come together into ad hoc teams to tackle projects.  The firm itself is just the backplane, providing health care, office space, etc - in exchange for a percentage of revenue.  The consultants/engineers/developers/project managers self-organize around opportunities.  The morale is high, the reputation is strong, and the life balance is exquisite.  This model does not suit junior employees, and would not work for many areas outside professional services - but it represents a triumph of natural systems over machine processes.  It maximizes crew methodologies for client value.

Let’s consider that the unit of analysis is not the process, but the organization.  People, Organization, Technology.  Let’s run this up the flagpole and count the salutes.

Defibrillating Knowledge Management

This is not the original title for this blog, the change is a bow towards the good folks on the ACT-KM listserv, some of whom are checking for a pulse on the teenaged wrist of Knowledge Management. The social graph used to be analog, fleeting and personal - which extended to our metaphors:  “Whom do you call?”  “When you spin your office chair around, who are you looking to?” “Whom do you trust to not steer you wrong?”    Unless phone calls were recorded and transcribed, the conversations were fleeting.  Water cooler chatter died away as people returned to their desks. Each participant taking with them their own knowledge of the interaction; based on their past experience, their cognitive biases evidenced through learning filters, and the random noise that affects the metaphorical learning that helps us navigate our day.  While the sociology of trust relationships has not changed, and human cognition is still very much an analog function; the digitization of our interactions has increased dramatically over the past decade.  The implications are profound for organizations and should be reflected and exploited in any competent KM strategy.

When these interactions are instead in a discussion forum, a wiki, or as a result of blogged comments, or using an instant messenger tool, or email, etc., the exchange of information is - at least theoretically - available for trend analysis; for addition to the corpus of organizational understanding; or for use by people who were not party to the original conversation, perhaps separated by time and distance.

With this new digitization of organizational conversations, the opportunity for an organization to understand, leverage, and enhance the social graphs represented by its members interactions is very real.  The organization considered mature at KM, therefore, is one that learns from the conversations among its members - scaling the water cooler experience and aware of trends across the knowledge exchanges that fill our day. has a business model that focuses on the ‘interest graph,’ the potential connections among people who share interests but who are not connected otherwise.  By analyzing buying habits and interests over time, Amazon developed a “recommendation engine” the suggest purchases it has observed trending among “people like you.”

This concept of an interest graph can be brought into the enterprise as well - extending to expertise across organizational members who are unaware of people working on projects and problems similar to themselves.  The idea that an organizational knowledge system can provide a level of work recommendation follows naturally - connecting otherwise disconnected workers based on common interests and need.

We often speak of KM in terms of generations - although few agree on the precise phases that have been experienced since the mid-1990s.  One construct looks back and considers the phases as 1) document-centric, 2) person-centric, and 3) network-centric.

We used to base interventions (1st generation) under the KM umbrella believing that ‘organizational knowledge’ was contained primarily in our work artifacts; documents, spreadsheets, project plans, etc.  Efforts to improve an organization’s KM were thus focused on repositories, with entreaties to “share your knowledge.”  The tools were crude at first, evolved to become web-based and now are extended to ubiquitous mobile platforms.  Early on, however, it became clear that the “provide and pray” approach failed to address the sociological challenges - there is a long human journey for most organizations to advance to becoming a truly collaborative enterprise.  Core aspects of the organization, from process to management incentives and beyond, must adjust to realize this transformative vision.  Technology alone never addresses the individual behaviors that have to adapt such that the organizational change can occur.

This led to a 2nd generation of KM, which recognized that not only did technology not change behaviors, but that knowledge is actually biologically determined.  The knowledge structures in the mind of the receiver will never match those held in the mind of the sender.  Expertise is personal, exchanged only as a result of a volunteer effort by the person, and transferred over trusted social networks.  This led to a move away from (but not an abandonment of) document-centric architectures.  We remain habituated to linearly constructed formal documents, standard procedures and checklists that guide our work and transfer best principles from previous workers and generations.  This is the intellectual capital for most organizations, and resonates with the learning styles that begin with primary and secondary education.  (This too, is subject to flux, as revolutions in education will reverberate in the workplace - challenging this presumption for some countries - beginning around the year 2025.)  Nevertheless, the focus for 2nd generation KM was to connect these experts to knowledge seekers, and facilitate the exchange of trusted information across space and time within an (often distributed) enterprise.

The 3rd generation of KM, building on the first two, began to recognize that these networks represent the core organizational value.  The valuable intellectual capital - that which truly distinguishes a firm in the market - exists in conversations between members of the organization.  The 2nd generation is true enough for individual knowledge - we learn from others who volunteer their experiences, knowledge is not ‘transferred’ or ‘shared,’ it is learned.  However, for organizational knowledge, the focus is on these conversations.  This leads to the need to balance document repositories (databases and electronic document systems); ecosystems where expertise can be located quickly and questions are answered with accuracy and timeliness (email); and (3rd generation) advancing the health of the social graphs within organizational subcultures (social network analysis, emerging social business tools).

This generational path - representing almost two decades of the KM discipline - has been influenced by research in cognitive science and neuroscience, advances in information technologies, and the broad consumerization of social tools - often referred to as social media.  Globally, most people are not active on these consumer tools; however in certain countries and for certain cohorts, the expectation that one will ‘live out loud’ is beginning to transform the workplace.

“Working out loud” refers to the fact that workers are embracing the behaviors that drive them in their leisure time to Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Foursquare, etc., within the workplace itself.  This transformation of the workforce, combined with enterprise-class social tools, represents the operationalization for this 3rd generation of KM.  While references to this 3rd generation date back a decade, it is only in the past few years that people have altered their social behaviors to embraced the digitization of their social networks. The realization of this 3rd generation means that the informal networks and the interactions there that have always been critical to decision-making can now be leveraged, analyzed, extended, and advanced for dramatic increases in organizational value.


* I am in revolt against expensive royalty-free photos, and will just use pictures from my own collection until I calm down.

How a Memory Palace Fuels the Elevator Speech

My apologies for the mixed metaphor in the title, but I'm pressed for time these days.  I certainly need to improve my blogging frequency, monthly just does not cut it with me. My 'Other' Memory Palace

We recently began to settle on a strategy story line at our little shop, to capture our approach to improving life options for children of color and poverty through education transformation.  Even that is a mouthful, but it gets harder.  Ready?  We aim to:

Accelerate achievement for these children through system redesign in order to realize a personalized learning experience for each child.  We will pursue this by working in a network of selected districts established under umbrella 'innovation zones,' connected by a common information services platform.  We will deliver frameworks for innovation in education and specific tools that have proven effective - recognizing a spirit of both experimentation and measurement.  We will work to establish lasting networks for sustained innovation across the educational system, improving the probabilities that innovation will lead to systemic transformation.  We don't want to lock in our 21st century understanding of learning - we are currently locked into a 19th century approach and have learned the hard lesson of stagnant markets for education.

Whatever you think of the paragraph above (and how many floors would that elevator ride take to explain?), I am able to recite it at will because the pieces live in my childhood home on Long Island.

Allow me to elucidate.

Borrowing from Matteo Ricci and reaching back to 1596, I first rely on the accidental blueprint in my head regarding the home in which I spent my first 16 years (and then a few additional years, but that is a story for a different blog).  As I first heard and talked through our strategy, I walked through my home and placed artifacts or built structures to remind me of the elements.

Walking in my front door, I head first upstairs - in the bathroom I have placed a speedometer to reflect Acceleration.  We were a family of six, with one and one-half baths.  Acceleration was something often requested of the inhabitant.  Walking to the back bedroom, I find Personalization because my sister once painted the walls a hideous blue that refuses to leave my memory.  Walking back up the hall, I stop at the bedroom I used as a teenager.  Here is where I used to exit the home using the window, sliding down the garage roof for post-curfew appointments.  Of course, this reflects System Redesign.  In the smaller front bedroom, I placed imaginary scaffolding to reflect how much I wanted to rebuild the room when sleeping there as a small child.  Hence, Frameworks.  In the fourth bedroom are many boxes containing - the Tools.  The man of the house had been packed up and moved out when I was 11 years old, hence the packing crates with tools.

Walking downstairs, I sidle past the System Architects sitting on my couch - my sisters' boyfriends who curried favor by fixing things around the house - to the dining room which long featured a "swamp cooler" for "air conditioning."  Here I imagine the humidity and flora, including the Cocoon (innovation zone).  In the kitchen, where my mother spent weekends perfecting her sauce in a large kettle (every home on Long Island understands the Italian sauce that lasted all week), I find the Information Services Platform.  Here I pause for a bite of most excellent sausage (Laws), as most of my conversations begin with the new role of the Federal government in education and the opportunities this provides for our endeavors.

So there is my Memory Palace.  Hardly a palace to my recollection, but it's an internalized physical space through which I can wander and survey the elements of our strategy. My childhood home is filled currently with the elements for education system transformation.

Where is your Memory Palace, and what do you keep there?

Standing on the Toes of Giants

Regarding my reference above, Gary Klein defines the Recognition-Primed Decision model thus : "[it] fuses two processes: the way decision makers size up the situation to decide which course of action makes sense, and the way they evaluate to evaluation that course of action by imagining it." (p.24) Klein, in a his ground-breaking work regarding decision-making, shares the findings from a decade doing field research: decisions are not made according to classic methods of rational choice theory, but closer to Simon's satisficing model . ... Some excellent points are made by Bill Kaplan in comments to my original pos t, and by some justifiably emotional voices on the email chain I referenced earlier: Grassroots efforts do exist and thrive, but they have failed to scale across the Department or to effect the lasting change for which we all hope.

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.

PNSR: Knowledge Management and the Market Dynamics of U.S. National Security

The following is a "revised and extended" version of my remarks at the PNSR Futures Conference this week in Washington D.C. (PNSR = Project on National Security Reform.)


FINDING: The national security system is not organization, nor even a system of shared purpose.  My observations lead me to believe it is better described as an ad hoc consortia of competing interests. 

Assessing knowledge flow across this "system," therefore, is akin to understanding the flow of capital across and within financial markets. Yes, I am jumping on the coattails of current headlines.  Suddenly, people who never considered derivatives trading are telling each other "credit is frozen," and "the markets lack trust."  Suddenly, it's a bit easier to discuss knowledge management via analog to financial markets and capital flow.

Common between these two worlds:

  • issues of trust, 
  • expectations of reciprocity, 
  • primacy of individual cultures, 
  • expected rewards, 
  • hidden agendas, 
  • local authorities preferred when confronted with cross-organizational mission, 
  • etc.

For the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR) we used systems analysis – with an emphasis on complex systems – to understand the challenges and ideas for reform.   This an augmentation to the study's original reliance on organizational analysis, which can be normative regarding expected roles and functions.  If you approach a non-organization using an organizational lens, you will likely end at recommendations that speak of "headquarters staff size" or "unity of purpose."  

Some of these organizational observations will be useful - the human capital team's recommendation of a common approach to the national security workforce comes to mind.  But the use of an organizational lens alone will fall short of understanding how to employ leadership and management techniques best suited to a complex adaptive system of functionally-oriented public agencies.

Therefore, while we present KM problems and recommendations in the PNSR report, it is essential to understand that – because of the market, or systems nature of the problem – fixing the KM problems requires a concomitant focus on human capital, process, development of a grand strategy, placing mission instead of functional resourcing, etc.  

(I've written of the problems and recommendations before, but wanted to place them in context one last time before moving on with my life.)

Without a systemic approach to reform, these KM recommendations alone will not solve the basic problem of helping the national security system know what it knows.

Knowledge management problems

  • Sharing knowledge across organizational boundaries remains difficult.  Agency cultures still discourage information sharing, although this is changing at the "point of the spear."  Interoperability across classified networks is difficult, to say the least.  Even when we can communicate, we lack a shared lexicon across national security interests - try having a conversation with someone who has spent at least 3 years working at DoD or State.  (Or Morgan Stanley.)
  • Organizational learning is thwarted.  Not only does the new team find empty safes when they arrive, but there is a tendency (this last transition being an exception) among many new incoming national security teams to believe: "If these guys knew what they were doing, we wouldn't be here.  What could we possibly learn from them?"
  • The national security system lacks true global situation awareness.  A few cognitive truths here:  We don't know our own biases.  We don't fully understand how we make decisions.  Add to this the orientation of the functional organization, each interpreting new information within a group filter.  Now add stress, uncertainty, and you have a system where the only time a "common operating picture" is available is in the White House (or on Capitol Hill).  Lower in the ranks, it is extremely difficult to comprehend the global situation as it is unfolding.
  • Current data systems do not provide or are not employed in a manner that promotes optimal knowledge sharing.  The state of public sector computing, while improving in some ways, remains abysmal.  Program funding solidifies the primacy of functional coherence over whole-of-government understanding.  Information systems still lack common data abstraction, business logic, and protocols.  And, thanks to our friends the technology vendors, government clients come to believe that buying "a portal" or "collaboration technology" solves this problem.  "We have collaboration - other agencies can come share their information on our portal!" "My agency has an enterprise license for Search.  Now everyone can find the information they need!"


  • Provide Institutional  Memory Through NSC Librarian /Historian.  The National Security Council needs a library function to help it understand decisions across Administrations.  The Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff has an appointed term that crosses Administrations to provide continuity, let's learn from this example.
  • Establish Office of Decision Support on National Security Council.  Charter for this office is open to discussion, let them first tackle common security clearances - as the current efforts here lack inter-Agency authorities.  (Waivers are taking all the teeth - or at least the incisors - out of these efforts.)
  • Establish Agency Chief Knowledge Officers and associated Council. The cadre of Federal CIOs are incentivized to provide secure, reliable, performing systems.  In other words, CIOs would maximize their bonus if all their 'users' died or otherwise stopped trying to use the systems.  Perhaps it is time to focus on the knowledge their users need to do their job.
  • Establish a ‘Federal Information Services Agency.’ Stop talking and move to the cloud.  Get commodity IT services coordinated, get data servers out of downtown Washington, establish compatible GALs, stand up FISA to own the janitor and plumber functions of IT.  
  • Subordinate Information Security Functions to Operations.  If you have had the delightful experience of deploying systems on a protected network, doubtless you have had to pass (multiple) security audits.  Have you ever heard of a security person filing an "operational impact statement" before locking down a firewall rule, closing off access to YouTube, or taking away flash drives?  It's time the security professionals worked for someone - the current system places them in charge, and their decisions are unreviewable by the workforce.  We need to manage, not mindlessly work to reduce, risk.

And finally, in his Senate testimony (response to Q&A), ADM Blair – who was confirmed this week as the new Director for National Intelligence, pointed to these last two as essential reforms he plans to tackle immediately.  While efforts are underway, our recommendations involve removing the waivers inherent in the current executive orders and authorizing legislation.

  • Establish Unified Security Classification Regime
  • Establish Unified National Security Clearances

On "Lessons Learned" Programs

Chain of events: Acquaintance writes email, referencing this blog from APQC.  I respond with a rant, augmented by a couple of acidic twitter messages to release steam.  These rants are posted to my Facebook status line, and results in a brief conversation there with a FB friend - who initially believes I've lost my mind. And now here.  Why here?  I've already responded to the acquaintence, and interacted with the FB friend, and overall made my point.  Well, I'm blogging now to establish some measure of permanence to my thoughts.  My apologies then to those two individuals who have already been subjected to my rant.

The APQC blog asked a very reasonable question:  "What's the Deal with Lessons Learned?"  The author then posits several reasons:

"What is it about capturing and applying lessons learned that so often trips us up and causes us to never get past the "capture" step of the process? Is it that the mistake or error that prompts the lesson is so context-dependent that we think others couldn't benefit from it and therefore we don't capture it at all? Or could it be that whatever repository these lessons disappear into is so unorganized that retrieving them in order to apply them is a huge undertaking? Or is it simple communication--in other words, we simply don't share our lessons learned proactively with those who might benefit from them? Or some combination of the above?"

My answer: E!  None of the above.

My acquaintance works in the Pentagon alongside his command's "lessons learned" people, and shared that they go in the field, watch exercises, and then let people know where they made they repeated mistakes.  He was asking the same question:  why don't these programs work as intended?

In organizations where the machinery is larger than the man, where we serve and tend to the machines, where human behavior and decisions are minor aspects of the overall production line - then things like "lessons learned" along with six sigma, Lean, etc., make some sense and have proven results.  The trouble comes when we apply these mechanisms in organizations where the human predominates.

My response is below, slightly edited, but retaining all the snarkiness.  I should add that I was responding in the context of military training and operations.  In most organizations, my opinion is strongly against "lessons learned" programs.  

Regarding lessons learned...  Let's think about this for a moment.  The underlying presumption regarding "lessons learned" is that what worked before, will work again - and the context around the new situation will not differ enough to make the "lesson" insufficient to the new challenge.  This is arrogant, demonstrably false and dangerous.

First off, when gathering these lessons, we interview people regarding their decisions.  Trouble is, people don't know how they make decisions.  Not truly, they fill in gaps of reasoning where they actually went with deep intuition.  Finding hard to explain their intuition, they inaccurately weight other decision variables, dutifully captured by the interviewer.  And the lie is born.
Second, context matters.  It actually matters to consider the situation as it lies, and the application of sterile "lessons" that carry a (now lost) context will result in only random chances of success.  Complexity science reveals the teleological realities - you cannot predict events in complex systems; you can set boundaries, establish attractors and modulators and monitor for patterns.  In addition, these systems are highly sensitive to starting conditions (see Lorenz).  Where do "lessons learned" fit against what we know about context-sensitive complex systems?
Fortunately, no one actually uses lessons learned databases to make decisions.  When you are faced with a challenge, do you turn to the 'lessons learned' database, or to a trusted friend who may have faced similar challenges?  The latter is likely true, and you update this friend with your current circumstance so that he can match it against his experience - you both then discuss what may be different this time and the limitations of his experience...and then you learn together.
So what should your colleagues be doing?  Collecting "lessons observed" and distilling principles that may be more universal than the specific lessons - but more importantly, they should enhance the connection of professionals.  Consider the success of Companycommander, where Company commanders are able to collaborate and share experiences in near-real time.  Why is this such a success when the Army for years has had the CALL program?
Given this, which should your colleagues be doing?  Mimicking CALL, or CompanyCommand?
Lessons learned programs don't work because they don't align with how we think, how we decide, or even an accurate history of what happened.  Other than that - totally worth the investment.

So What Is Knowledge Management, Anyway

As part of this reform legislation, I've been asked to provide a definition for KM.  I've managed to avoid this for, oh, 11 years.  But no longer.  There are at least 47 definitions of KM, as compiled by one blogger.  Many good, many not.  I can't choose one, I need to craft one that I can live with, even if my name will not be associated directly with it. So here it is.

Knowledge Management refers to the management of the components and enabling of relationships from which knowledge emerges: used to enhance decision making, spark innovation, and comprehend weak signals in the information environment.  Knowledge management does not focus on managing knowledge itself; rather, it seeks the positive interaction of the component elements that can be managed to lay the foundation for better decision making, innovation, and adaptation.

Ok, not pithy, but then again - not everything can be reduced to an elevator speech.  Let's see if this one makes sense to the lawyers.

KM Mentoring, Episode 1

My brother-in-law is an economist by training, and imparted the following wisdom to me last week:  “Every bottle of wine costs no more than $2.50 to produce, the rest is just a lot of hands picking your pocket.” Which got me to thinking: – how do you account for the delta between $2.50 and $40, $60, and higher prices for wine?  I certainly accept the costs, and do not -– as my brother-in-law does -– seek out wine bargains with cost as my only driver.    This gap is the marketplace of intangibles, enabled by knowledge.  Value network analysis ( is the latest business methodology to help firms understand what truly brings value to the enterprise, by capturing the relationships across which these intangibles move.  Knowledge management (KM) is a related discipline, in that it recognizes the intangible nature of knowledge, both individual and organizational. Rather than believing that organizational knowledge dwells in documents or policies; KM, properly applied, extends to encompass the networks across which knowledge flows.

  Prusak, one of the fathers of the KM business field, points to three origins for KM:  ubiquitous computing, globalization, and a knowledge-centric view of the firm.  It has both intellectual and practice antecedents.  Intellectual areas include economics, sociology, philosophy, and psychology.  Practice areas include information management, quality movement, and human capital movements.  The coming together of these practice areas, informed by these intellectual disciplines, is termed – unfortunately – “knowledge management.”

  Snowden, another of these fathers, writes of three generations of KM over the past decade or so:  1. Information for decision support (spurred on by the technology revolution, which was dominated by perceived efficiencies of process engineering);

2. The “SECI” model (popularized in a book by Nonaka, and purported to show the movement of knowledge from tacit to explicit – Socialization to Externalization to Combination to Internalization).  This led to many unfortunate attempts to “capture tacit knowledge” or “make tacit knowledge explicit through technology,” etc.  A field day for IT vendors, and a black eye for the KM profession through frustrated objectives;

3. A recognition that knowledge is paradoxical – a flow (context) as well as a thing (content).  context is highly dependent upon individual and group cognitive processes, which cannot be captured in a computer (for one: we are pattern processors, computers are information processors). 

  There are voices who disagree with these two gentlemen to some degree, particularly Snowden who is a delightfully confrontational Welshman who is trying to bring the insights regarding complexity into the KM field.  Others believe knowledge is all flow, there is no knowledge in static artifacts; while still others believe the task is to enhance “knowledge processing” to produce more and better “knowledge.”

  A shaky foundation, for which I apologize, but I want to illuminate discord as well as agreement as we go along. 

  To close this first episode, I had a conversation yesterday with a former DoD SESer, who observed that with computing, the Pentagon moved the job of information management from secretaries to individuals – and the results were less than satisfactory with regards to storing and retrieving information.  This observation is critical, as we did believe at one point (or at least behaved as if we did) that staff assistants shuffling and filing papers could be replaced by information technology alone.  The system of papers and filing cabinets included the knowledge of the secretarial profession, which was not reproduced by giving everyone a word processor and email.  The need for effective knowledge management is obvious to all, but the implications remain murky for most organizations.

Is Knowledge a Product or Process?

A debate is underway, or should I say continues, regarding the nature of knowledge. If this sounds like an obscure debate regarding philosophy, cognitive science, and complexity, well, it is. But it also drives management behaviors if you are to tackle KM. Either knowledge is inherently personal, inextricably connected to experience, unarticulated brain functions, culture - that is, a process that is impossible to deconstruct or replicate - or it is a product that can be subjected to evaluation if not proof. Or perhaps it is both. Or perhaps it is many things, the beloved trinity of tacit, implicit, and explicit.

I haven't fully cast my lot in with the process folks (Ralph Stacey, etc), but neither am I comfortable with the product view. Joe Firestone is a friend, but I just can't square his views with any useful practice. Lambe recently observed off-handedly that data is not a primitive of information in a rant against the mindless DIKW pyramid, and I realized: of course. Data is the product of a decision to capture and represent something, a knowledge product or a product of a knowledge process.

I'll need to resolve thus for myself soon if I am to be of use, but first need to convey the landscape fairly as a first conversation regarding the discipline.

I've been asked to mentor someone in KM

This proves a timely request, as I face termination from my day job due to an inability to convince the Decider that the CKO position is still required and worth the investment. Surrounded by C2 management and fiscal leadership, and subordinated to a CIO who is truly a systems manager rather than an information officer - I am walking away from a company that has been essentially acquired through new leadership. Meanwhile, I find myself associated with a fascinating public sector project where I am trying to introduce the priniples of complexity and systems science to former SES and uniformed types.

So taking on two challenges where I am trying to succeed as change agent, I am living the quote from the Prince, to the effect that change is resisted by most and half-heartedly embraced by those who are not yet convinced it will succeed.

A return to first principles, then. I'll here capture what I am learning about each topic, and re-purpose that for mentoring, refreshment, reference, and general archival. Too much is trapped and being lost from my head - I will see if I can use the blog as personal notepad.

3rd time's a charm.