Enhancing Government's DNA

With retirement ranks swelling, the public sector needs better strategies on managing its knowledge here are 10 ways CIOs can help.

by / February 9, 2006
Knowledge is the DNA of a government organization. And knowledge management (KM) is the art and science of organizing, preserving, connecting and sharing that knowledge. The objective is to transform an organization into a learning culture that fosters critical thinking and facilitates better decision-making.

When knowledge is readily reliable, accessible and shared throughout an organization, knowledge workers can perform their jobs efficiently. The late Peter Drucker first discussed the idea of a knowledge worker in 1959 as a person who works primarily with information, or develops and uses knowledge in the workplace.

They make fewer mistakes, avoid redundancy, communicate better with their associates, and can draw upon all the expertise and capabilities of the organization. New knowledge workers can get up to speed quickly. When they can easily tap into institutional knowledge as a basis for action, they can better execute mission-critical transactions, provide better service, and ultimately develop innovative solutions to serve its associates, stakeholders and the public. This makes knowledge management a powerful tool for the public CIO -- who is uniquely positioned to foster KM initiatives through judicious use of technology.

Technology not only provides the means of access to the institution's knowledge, it can also help people make connections they would not ordinarily make, as well as inspire new knowledge. It can frame information in a manner that fosters new ways of thinking. When knowledge is easily available, contextual and relevant, it enhances routines. Through technology, individual knowledge sharing and group learning are supported.

Enterprisewide technology allows business solutions across silos and streamlines workflow processes -- two critical components of a KM infrastructure. Technology facilitates knowledge sharing by offering a wide range of information processing support, including tools for content management, collaboration, publishing, personalization and taxonomy development. It delivers information to local or remote users in a variety of formats, such as wireless or intranet.

Plugging the Knowledge Drain
The need for effective KM in government agencies is greater today. According to a May 2005 Forrester Research briefing, The Retiring Workforce Is Creating a Knowledge Void in Government and Regulated Industries:

  • 46 percent of U.S. government employees are 45 or older.
  • 45 percent of U.S. public employees will be at retirement age within the next five years.

    For many government agencies, the turnover of knowledge workers due to retirement, reorganization and job mobility threatens the agency's ability to execute its mission. Mandated downsizing in the 1990s, the growth of outsourcing and increasing retirements in the work force have resulted in a loss of institutional memory, according to a 2001 U.S. General Accounting Office report. When expertise walks out the door, those remaining don't have the knowledge and experience to do those jobs; they must reinvent the wheel or risk failure.

    KM can prevent this loss of institutional memory and expose new and existing workers to the expertise residing within their agency. It can help government preserve institutional knowledge by capturing and maximizing hard-won knowledge -- best practices, lessons learned and stories told -- and by connecting prodigies with apprentices.

    The very process of collecting an organization's knowledge creates a culture that encourages individual knowledge sharing and learning. Assigning junior and mid-level associates to harvest knowledge from subject-matter experts, collaborative teams and workgroups preserves, and develops resources for a future generation of knowledge workers. At the same time, it embeds a learning- and knowledge-sharing culture in the organization.

    Technology delivers the infrastructure to embed, preserve and influence knowledge. For example, many federal government CIOs have successfully piloted and implemented KM practices as part of the e-government initiative. The Federal CIO Council has established the Knowledge Management Working Group, an interagency body whose purpose is to "bring together guidance on the content, process and technology needed to ensure that the federal community makes full use of its collective knowledge, experience and abilities." Its Web site offers a wealth of educational resources, information, speeches and presentations on KM topics.

    Over the past 25 years I have watched KM evolve more by trial and error than by design, and have observed a number of practices that can be key contributors to successful KM implementation within an organization.

    These have been distilled into 10 key strategies for facilitating KM within your agency.

    Better Knowledge Management
    1. Identify high-risk business processes likely to produce negative outcomes if errors are made or critical employees leave. The critical business processes of an organization are logical places to seek "pain points" needing solutions.

    CIOs should focus on identifying critical business decision points, monitoring workers going through their day, learning about workarounds -- how people expedite completion of a task bypassing protocols -- and identifying where performance can be impaired if the right information is not readily available.

    2. Take a user-centric approach to knowledge management. Technology often starts with a structure or methodology requiring users to learn how to take advantage of it. Good KM allows user experience to drive all KM implementations, and tailors projects to the way jobs are done.

    CIOs should examine how users employ existing tools and resources, explore user needs and desires for new tools and means of access, and employ these findings in all phases of the design and implementation of a KM initiative.

    3. Apply business case analysis methods and information to a KM, to predict its usefulness. The use of authoritative, third-party research can help document return on investment for senior management.

    Though it seems obvious that fast and reliable access to information leads to less time wasted and quicker problem solving, the inverse also proves true: The inability to find needed information quickly comes at considerable and demonstrable cost. According to the March 2005 IDC market research report, The Hidden Costs of Information Work, an organization that employs 1,000 knowledge workers:

  • loses $5.3 million annually in time wasted by employees not finding information. Not finding information is defined as poor search, lack of integrated access to all the enterprise's collections of information and lack of good content;
  • an average worker spends 3.5 hours per week searching and not finding needed information at a cost of more than $5,000 per worker annually; and
  • an average worker spends 3 hours per week recreating content at a cost of more than $4,500 per worker annually.

    4. Build consensus and ownership. KM initiatives are typically an iterative process, requiring feedback from stakeholders at every major stage of the process. CIOs can align theory and practice by gaining input from stakeholders, including experts, management, technologists and workers closest to business processes.

    Consensus building starts by identifying the subject specialists who use knowledge to do their job, identifying big-picture users -- those who understand best practices and business processes -- and gaining senior-level sponsorship to ensure objectives remain aligned with business requirements.

    5. Identify information users who "do." This means gathering information about how knowledge supports business goals and concluding with knowledge Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis. To decide which information is valuable, determine what people really want to know rather than what management thinks they need to know.

    6. Identify the knowledge experts who "know." CIOs need to develop a formal process for identifying institutional experts, and discover roles and responsibilities other than those listed in a job description (e.g., a person's job is described as "IT specialist," but her expertise includes professional photography and photo archiving for her region's agency).

    To harvest institutional knowledge, identify employees a year prior to retirement -- capture those workers' expertise and codify it as stories, best practices, etc. Useful techniques for capturing retiring expert knowledge include exit interviews, mentoring and job shadowing.

    Job shadowing captures key learning by having a KM team member work directly with a person on the job. It allows learning by both the KM team member, who audits the knowledge, and the expert, who becomes engaged in thinking about new ways of doing things. Develop a strategy for using or reusing this knowledge (e.g., new employee orientation programs or training).

    Monitor users to learn the knowledge experts they rely upon, and identify how knowledge flows through the organization. Several expert locator software packages, such as AskMe, Tacit Software and Sopheon, are available to help agencies identify their experts. Social network analysis software, such as KNETMAP, BranchIt and InFlow provide a visual representation of social networks within organizations and uncover relationships that can be the basis for new communities.

    7. "Connect people vs. collect information" is a false argument. KM pundits often argue whether the resulting knowledge from Communities of Practice (CoPs) is more valuable than codifying knowledge through the collection of best-of-breed documents. In practice, implementing KM requires multiple approaches.

    Etienne Wenger, originator of the concept of CoPs, defines the practice as a composition of members informally bound by the same problems and learning together through activities that attempt to solve a set of problems. CoPs are not defined by a business unit or a department/regional location, nor are they necessarily temporary, like teams formed around a project. Rather they appear as "islands" of knowledge where the emphasis is on problem solving and shared learning.

    Connecting people produces new relationships, solutions, CoPs and sources of knowledge. Collaborative tools help facilitate group communication across multiple locations or virtual communities.

    Codifying, managing and utilizing expertise in the form of best practices, lessons learned or storytelling harvests institutional knowledge for the next generation of knowledge workers. This is particularly useful when expertise is retiring or rapidly walking out the door.

    8. Help people find information more easily by structuring it. A taxonomy provides entry and connection points to users: It classifies, structures and manages information, making it easier to find what is there. A taxonomy that anticipates user needs and responses, together with a well designed underlying information architecture, is the infrastructure behind good search results. Reducing time spent searching for information creates a more productive organization.

    A taxonomy should drive each Web site, enabling users to access the information that is there and mine it for key insights. No two people think alike, nor do they have the same set of search skills. Therefore knowledge repositories should provide multiple ways for people to access information. Consult with CoPs, experts, stakeholders and customers to analyze topics and select keywords for a taxonomy that will reflect the way people perform their tasks.

    9. Use technology judiciously to embed KM in the organization. Just-in-time delivery of knowledge changes the existing ways of doing things; it is not a separate activity requiring additional time and effort. When access to knowledge is easy, it becomes intuitive or instinctive, and improves performance.

    Integrate and utilize current investments in technology to reach each user. Help a workgroup solve a business problem by providing the collaboration tools that will allow them to communicate more efficiently. Extend the reach of knowledge to local, mobile and remote end-users.

    10. Develop metrics and usage statistics to measure success. Test to find out what works and what doesn't. Metrics are critical to evaluate project success/failure, to provide feedback for improvement or to plan the next phase of a project. Measuring techniques must be linked to business objectives and should be developed in the earliest stages of a project. Some techniques used to gather data for metrics can lead to:

  • less time to complete transactions;
  • faster response times to key issues;
  • performance improvement;
  • fewer errors;
  • greater customer satisfaction;
  • Web site usage measurement;
  • data mining queries; and
  • feedback from stakeholders.

    Preserving the government's enormous data resources, experience and expertise is a critical aspect of the public mission. The implementation of a strategic plan for KM will have an important and lasting positive impact on the ability of the government to do its job.

    And as a final note, keep in mind that, according to Richard Saul Wurman's Rules of Organizing Information in Information Architects, "Most information is useless. Give yourself permission to dismiss it."
    Judith Ribbler Contributing Writer