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U.S. Army Ready To Capture And Build On Information

Knowledge management is central to the Army's mission

InformationWeek Staff

April 12, 2002

7 Min Read

Chalk one up for brains over brawn. Armed conflicts soon may be decided not by who has the most powerful weapons, but by who has the most comprehensive access to knowledge.

That likely scenario has led the U.S. Army to formulate a vision of the knowledge warrior, connected by various electronic devices to all the data needed to carry out a mission. In the post-Sept. 11 world, access to information has become more important than ever, and no one understands that better than the Army. The Army is ramping up its use of knowledge management for everything from anti-terrorism efforts to determining the tax status of soldiers stationed in Afghanistan.

The Army's Training and Doctrine Command set up a Web-based application for sharing information on how to respond to a terrorist attack a few weeks after Sept. 11. The Installation Crisis Support System combines a knowledge base of potential terrorist scenarios and advice on how to handle them, a repository of relevant documents, and a collaborative interface for holding discussion threads. The system has been so well received that Army leaders are in discussions with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to decide how the effort can be adapted or extended to protect civilians from terrorist attacks.

The Installation Crisis Support System is emblematic of an Army that's attempting to take knowledge management to the next level. With a vision of soldiers equipped with sophisticated computer interfaces incorporated into their uniforms, such as a transparent face shield that doubles as a computer display, the Army is focused on what it calls knowledge dominance. It wants personnel to have more information at their fingertips than any other force on earth. Sept. 11 simply accelerated that goal.

Knowledge-management initiatives span a range of Army activities. Hospital administrators rely on Web-based collaborative tools to develop preparedness plans. Legal practitioners have used online forums to discuss Sept. 11-related topics in readying themselves for potential cases. And this month, the Army Knowledge Online portal is rolling out the Warrior Knowledge Network, a Web-based environment that identifies and creates communities to quickly link Army personnel with peers, experts, mentors, and other resources.

After building the fighting force, information superiority is the Army's highest priority, Army CIO Lt. Gen. Peter Cuviello says. Running the Army as a well-integrated enterprise "is our mission," he says.

That hasn't always been the Army's modus operandi, suggesting that a major transformation is under way. The Army is looking to use an E-business approach to improve efficiency, with knowledge as the commodity. To that end, Army knowledge leaders have turned to private-sector companies deemed on the cutting edge of knowledge management, such as Black & Veach, Science Applications International Corp., and Viant.

Army officials say they can learn a lot from private industry about how to build business processes around knowledge management. The executives they're turning to say the Army already is way out in front on capturing knowledge and making use of it.

The Army has a huge advantage because its personnel share knowledge willingly, whereas private-sector workers are likely to hoard knowledge to protect their jobs or preserve their organizational value. "It's simple for the military to set goals, make them stick, and have common objectives," says John Voeller, chief knowledge officer at engineering firm Black & Veach.

"If you asked me where the Army ranked in terms of knowledge management, I'd put them in the upper 1%," says Peter Engstrom, VP of corporate knowledge development at $6 billion employee-owned IT-services firm SAIC. "They do a great job of capturing lessons learned from one source and getting them to another."

Engstrom should know. His boss, SAIC chief knowledge officer Kent Greenes, borrowed the Army's knowledge-capture techniques while heading up knowledge-management efforts at British Petroleum. By using the Army's practice of daily project reviews, Greenes helped BP create a process for passing the knowledge of its drilling teams on to subsequent teams, in much the same way the Army uses the Center for Army Lessons Learned to pass knowledge from one field unit to another. The result at BP: $1 billion a year in cost avoidance, Engstrom says.

What distinguishes the Army's--and SAIC's--approach to capturing knowledge from private-sector efforts is the focus on tacit knowledge, the information inside people's heads that's not documented anywhere else. Most companies have focused their knowledge-management efforts on organizing and presenting the explicit knowledge that's already been captured and logged, Engstrom says. SAIC has zeroed in on harvesting tacit knowledge and packaging it for re-use by its clients, he says.

One such client is the U.S. Department of Defense, which is facing the retirement of half of its midlevel and senior leadership within the next five years. In an effort to capture the invaluable knowledge that's preparing to walk out the door, the department's Change Management Center has been working with SAIC on Project Exodus, a knowledge-harvesting initiative that depends first and foremost on interviews with the retiring leaders to collect their years-worth of wisdom.

Interviewers analyze the stories they're told and identify critical knowledge nuggets that will be presented through a knowledge base, which can be accessed via portals, Engstrom says. A senior decision maker might know best how to use the back channel, an insider term for how things are done behind the scenes in Washington. Such insight could prove to be highly valuable to more junior Defense Department staffers as they rise through the ranks.

This type of knowledge capture is at the heart of how the Army has approached, and continues to approach, knowledge management. Consider the Center for Army Lessons Learned, which since 1989 has been capturing knowledge from the field by having observers accompany troops on missions, interview them about their decisions, and note the events that lead to success or failure.

"The Army has always been a user of knowledge management, though it wasn't called that," says Col. Jane Maliszewski, director of strategic outreach for the Army CIO's office. It was called situational awareness.

What's different about how the Army is approaching knowledge management today is its desire to build an E-business around the collection and sharing of information. The capturing techniques are sophisticated and the access to technology is vast. But an Armywide understanding of online collaboration and Web-based processes is not. "We have the technology. That's not the issue," Maliszewski says. "The issue is cultural change. You've got to have senior-level buy-in, and we have that right now."

Building organizational momentum behind business processes could have huge military implications. The Army spends about 60% of its $90 billion annual budget on operations and about 40% on war-fighting technologies, Maliszewski says. Army leaders think knowledge management can play an important role in reversing those percentages by streamlining business processes through the Army's knowledge portal, she says.

Such processes are growing in many areas of the Army. After Sept. 11, for instance, Army hospitals had to create incident management plans for responding to future large-scale crises. Hospital administrators used a collection of Web-enabled tools available on the Army Medical Department's knowledge-exchange portal--such as threaded discussions, document sharing and distributed content-management capabilities--to develop those plans faster than would have been possible before.

"We've enabled established communities to do their work more effectively and efficiently," says Col. Robin Tefft, who oversees knowledge-management efforts for the Leadership and Instructional Innovation branch of the Army Medical Department.

Meanwhile, the Army's legal community has seen increased use of its Lotus Domino and Notes-based knowledge-sharing tools as it debates things such as a community-accepted definition of the term "terrorism" or exactly what tax breaks are available to soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. "Certainly, there's better thinking about all aspects of how we practice law," says Lt. Col. Joseph Lee, legal technology resource officer for the Judge Advocate General's office.

As the Army moves to embed business processes into a robust knowledge-management environment in which knowledge is captured systematically and shared without hesitation, the experience of private industry will be invaluable. But one possible caution from the private sector might be this: Be careful of focusing too heavily on those business processes at the expense of the knowledge-capturing strengths the Army has built to this point.

"To build a robust knowledge-management system, you have to be able to connect documents and people," says Chris Newell, chief knowledge officer at Viant, an Internet consulting firm. "These systems have to reflect thought flow and not workflow."

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