It's a complaint often heard in law enforcement agencies nationwide: "We don't know what we don't know." Police from one jurisdiction are unaware of a burglary ring operating in a neighboring city. Or police don't know the true identity of a suspect because there's no way to share information easily with another state where the suspect resided under an alias.

The Brevard County Sheriff's Department in Florida has seen that problem often. Typically, information about criminal activity is shared over the phone, a time-consuming process. To improve how it shares knowledge -- not just raw crime data, but knowledge about crimes, criminals, gangs and ongoing efforts in other jurisdictions -- Brevard County is using a knowledge management system of integrated databases of knowledge about criminal activity within the county.

Called The Bastille and developed by GTE, the system enables smaller police departments to tap into the wealth of knowledge Brevard County has assembled from its records-management system, photo identification database and crime-mapping system. In addition, officers and detectives can define characteristics in a search and have The Bastille continually probe the network, using an intelligent agent that reports back when it finds a match.

Right now, Brevard County is the main source of the knowledge in The Bastille, but as other counties add their knowledge, the goal is to build up a vast repository of criminal knowledge to improve the way crime is fought in Florida. Eventually, police officers will know what they want to know, when they want to know it.

Mind Mining

The police aren't the only people realizing that they need more than just information from a system to do their jobs and do them well. Lately, Fortune 500 companies and the federal government have turned to knowledge management. The purpose is to turn information into knowledge by tapping the wisdom of workers to spur innovation and better performance in the workplace.

Why the sudden emphasis on knowledge? Three reasons stand out. First, the nation's economy is shifting away from the production of tangible products, such as steel, cars and soap, toward such intangibles as services and software. Companies that find knowledge and use it to their advantage compete better in the marketplace.

"If you look at the Standard and Poor Index, you'll find that 70 percent of companies' value is in intangible assets, such as knowledge and intellectual property," said Jane Patterson, North Carolina's senior adviser to the governor for science and technology. "That's how you create wealth today."

Second, the workers who help create that wealth are no longer the loyal employees of yesterday. They switch jobs more frequently than their parents ever did. "During the past 10 years, the private sector has found it can no longer count on people staying for 25 years," said Mark Tucker, senior analyst with Delphi Group, a consulting firm based in Cambridge, Mass. "There's a lot of turmoil and turnover. Companies can no longer rely on their intellectual resources to stay." As a result, companies are turning to knowledge management to capture worker knowledge.

Third, there's been a growing realization that investments in information technology haven't paid off in performance. Something's missing, according to Yogesh Malhotra, founder and chairman of @Brint Institute, a consulting firm based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. What's absent is worker creativity and innovation fueled by knowledge. "There's been too much emphasis on treating people as passive recipients of technology," he said, "and not enough emphasis on individual enterprise."

An example, according to Malhotra, is California's failed State Automated Welfare System. "SAWS was a good example of too much technology not keeping up with the changes of the welfare program," he said. "The key to success is not the system but what people make of it."

To reverse this syndrome and to keep pace with the rapid

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor