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CHIPS Articles: A Pragmatic Approach to Implementing Knowledge Management at the Operational Level of War

A Pragmatic Approach to Implementing Knowledge Management at the Operational Level of War
By Nancy Jenkins - October-December 2009
Historically, U.S. military forces conducted operations in a joint operational area that was divided between the services in terms of time, latitude and longitude. Within the services, operational forces typically trained and deployed together.

Maritime battle groups were composed of the same number and types of ships. Any one ship of a particular class was fitted out with basically the same operational capabilities as all ships of that class.

The enemy we trained to oppose in the Cold War was the same enemy we trained to oppose for decades. The most likely geographic areas in which we would see combat were familiar to our commanders. But today, the services fight as integrated joint forces which tend to be made up of multiple ad hoc service units that have neither trained nor worked together to any great extent before deployment.

This integrated force is involved in opposing adversaries we are only now beginning to understand. Our new adversaries engage in combat within geographical areas unfamiliar to commanders who are executing command and control over dispersed units while trying to make informed, effective decisions within extremely compressed time cycles.

In this regard, using knowledge management methodologies can be invaluable to fighting in the current threat environment. Traditional KM implementation approaches seek to transform hierarchical, stovepiped organizations into "learning" organizations. While that goal may be desirable, the process of achieving that goal requires consistent leadership and unwavering commitment over an extended period of time.

At the operational level of war (OLW), senior leadership turns over in 12 to 18- month cycles on average. The operational environment is extremely fast-paced and results-oriented. Consequently, the requisite time period for the implementation of organizational approaches to KM simply does not exist. If KM is to be successfully implemented at the OLW, it must be focused, achievable (in terms of weeks), and have a benefit that is directly linked to enhanced operational performance.

Although command of a learning organization may be an ideal situation, most operational commanders would settle for a common understanding of the commander's intent; shared situational awareness; and well-informed decisions made in a timely fashion.

The following discussion seeks to articulate the operational value gained from implementation of KM methodologies in direct support of command, control and decision making. Although this discussion focuses on the OLW, carrier and expeditionary strike groups can also benefit from these practices.

What does KM look like?

In the most basic of terms, KM is simply an organization's approach to managing mission critical knowledge and information. The enhanced capabilities that effective KM can lead to are impressive.

Using the scenario of a large number of augmentees reporting to a numbered fleet or joint task force to support an exercise or crisis operation, an ideal command environment would be one in which all reporting personnel had a direct, expeditious means of understanding:

• the operational environment;
• the commander's guidance, mission objectives and decision cycle;
• their role in the operation and the organization as a whole;
• who their chief contacts are apt to be;
• what meetings they need to attend and what they are expected to provide at those meetings;
• how they discern the current status of the operations, plans and progress;
• what information sources are available;
• how to get questions answered; and
• how to find answers to questions asked of them.

Often, due to the high operations tempo, newly reporting personnel are hurriedly brought on board with minimal time for orientation. The remainder of that individual’s education is provided via on-the-job training. But implementation of KM practices could greatly mitigate the burden of training new personnel and dramatically reduce the time they need to “ramp-up” in a new job.

All of the information required to train new personnel already exists somewhere in the command. The trick is to organize it in a digestible manner. Once that is done, the process can be socialized to ensure the process is sustained and improved through the turnover of personnel.

Strike groups, on average, operate as a team for one deployment cycle due to crew and staff turnover; the challenge is always attaining and maintaining sufficient cohesion to enable rapid integration of units in joining and re-joining the group. Training and readiness are paramount and KM can facilitate a smoother cycle time in this regard.

Enhanced Command and Control
At the OLW, KM practices can be applied to enhanced command and control and support improved decision making. Improvements in the way in which participants establish and maintain operational understanding can be done through deliberate management of the knowledge and information exchanges involved in assessing situations, developing a plan, executing operations, and maintaining an accurate understanding of what is happening.

The example of an operations order (OPORD) may illustrate the point. OPORDs are made up of a base order and related annexes (many of which have multiple appendices). The base order describes the situation, mission, operational execution, concept of operations, coordinating instructions, and high-level information about administration, logistics, command and signal.

The real details of the OPORD are contained in a number of annexes that can run the lettering system of Annex A to AA and beyond. Individual annexes are usually drafted by various departments within a command. For example, Annex B (Intelligence) is usually drafted by N2, Annex C (Operations) by N3/5, Annex D (Logistics) by N4.

In extensive operations, the sheer volume of information provided in the base order and all related annexes make reading the entire document a daunting task. Normally, participants will read the base order and only those annexes that apply to their specific role. To expedite understanding, culling the key points and posting them to either an internal shared drive or a Web site will promote further review and enhance understanding.

Briefs that cover the operations, task organization and major plans should also be posted to a central area along with the listing of the main points of contact for staff functions.

A reports matrix that delineates what reports are required and by whom and on what basis is a great tool for informing others about what information is required, and when, how and where it can be found.

Often, the Reports Annex (Annex R) is written by the N3 or N5 staff and does not contain all the reporting requirements delineated in each annex. Creating easy access to information and updates promotes users’ ability (and willingness) to review the information frequently to maintain awareness of what is planned, what is occurring, and what progress toward mission completion has been made.

In this context, the answer to the question: “What does KM look like?” would be a central, accessible area that made the following information resources available to all concerned:
• Significant Event Logs
• Commander’s Critical Information Requirements (CCIRs)
• Well-understood/managed requests for information ( RFIs)
• Consolidated operational information
• Commander’s Guidance
• Orders
• Situation Reports
• Briefs
• Rules of Engagement (ROE)
• Battle Rhythm
• Report Matrix
• Planning Matrix
• Common Operating Picture (COP) Management
• List of chat rooms and directions for joining
• Functional/Staff Points of Contact

None of the suggestions and examples contained in this article are novel. Commands are already employing KM methodologies to facilitate understanding and awareness. But, deliberate management does not just happen automatically; it requires a focused effort and at least one “shepherd” to foster the process.

The Not Invented Here Syndrome
There are a number of reasons why KM is not practiced more widely and consistently. Two of the primary reasons are time and credibility.

Just the volume of information pouring into and out of organizations can be overwhelming. Being able to sift through all the chaff to find those kernels of needed knowledge and information is challenging. Message traffic, e-mails, orders, briefs and the seemingly endless litany of additional information referenced in these items can create a “bridge too far” for even experienced staff members. Most staff personnel are so weighed down with tasking and deadlines that they simply have no time to stay informed about anything that does not directly relate to what they are doing. In other words, people are too busy doing their jobs to figure out how to do their jobs better! It is a classic “Catch-22” example.

Credibility is an earned attribute. If something is credible, it has the power to elicit belief and value. One of the most frequent causes for not leveraging the insights gained by others is referred to as the “not invented here syndrome. “

The not invented here syndrome is manifested as an unwillingness to adopt an idea, approach, tactic or product because it originated from an event, individual or group outside the potential adopting organization.

It is interesting to see the extent to which people will try to justify their situation as “too unique” rather than recognizing similarities and the merit of hard-won experience and insight.

How KM Fits in an Organization
Up to this point, very little has been mentioned about information technology. Effective management of mission critical knowledge and information has much more to do with people and processes than technology.

Enabling technology can advance KM processes more conveniently. However, the vast majority of KM practices can be implemented with the IT infrastructure currently available at most commands. And yet, the tendency is to make the knowledge manager someone in the IT department and to assign the KM functionality to the webmaster.

KMs treated as technical support will tend to focus on technical issues rather than looking at the bigger picture of command knowledge and information flow challenges.

Who should the knowledge manager be? If an N3 or N5 were asked, “Who is the one person you cannot afford to lose?” The person they name would probably make the best KM for the command. But the odds of getting that person to be the knowledge manager are extremely slim.

Whoever is selected as the KM, he or she must understand the organization’s mission and processes. Operational experience will only increase the knowledge manager’s value.

Designating the KM position as a collateral assignment may have its merits in a command that already practices KM methodologies. At the starting point, however, a collateral duty knowledge manager will never be empowered with enough time and resources to make a difference.

Ideally, the KM should report directly to the commander or chief of staff. It is important that knowledge managers have either sufficient rank or sufficient support high enough in the command to avoid having their efforts re-directed to tasks of a more department-specific nature. If, for management purposes, the individual remains within a department, it is preferred that the individual be empowered with direct lines of communication to both the commander and the chief of staff so he or she can be most effective.

Most commands have some form of information management. At the OLW, the term, Information Management Plan (IMP), or Knowledge and Information Management Plan (KIMP), is often used to document processes. Within naval commands, the term, OPTASK IM, may be used. These documents, however, tend to be written by communicators for communicators. If an organization is trying to manage its operational knowledge and information, something written by and for communicators is not apt to be reviewed in earnest by those assessing, planning and executing operations.

A suggested alternative to traditional modes of documentation is to create a separate annex to an OPORD, or a reference within an OPORD, or a command instruction that specifically cites command procedures for information exchange and sharing.

Before You Start
A quick way to undermine a KM effort is to allow individuals to NOT comply. Compliance to established KM methodologies should be required because it adds to the body of knowledge and experience an organization possesses.

An example of effective enforcement occurred during a JTF headquarters operational exercise. Inputs to the Commander’s Daily Update were to be posted to a Web site using a prescribed template by a specified time. Inevitably, subordinate commanders wanted to create their own slides without conforming to the template and without heed to the submission deadline. Had the JTF commander allowed his subordinates to disregard the preferred process, it would have made coordination more difficult.

Instead, the commander ordered that input not received in the correct format by the established time would not be accepted and a place holder slide would be inserted in the brief that said “XYZ’s input was not received by 0715 (or) XYZ’s input was not submitted in the proper format.”

As a consequence, noncompliance issues were corrected immediately. Enforcement must be something the commander is willing to do if the processes are to produce the desired results.

In an operational environment, the KM methodologies a command chooses to implement need to be carefully selected. A brainstorming session involving experienced members from all departments will produce a list of potential projects. Those projects should be prioritized based on the following criteria: • alignment with the commander’s priorities/focus areas;
• level of effort and time required to develop and implement;
• level of benefit gained; and • scope of beneficial effect.

Most commanders would agree that mission completion is a high priority. Therefore, efforts should be weighed based on contribution to mission completion or enhancing mission performance. Initial KM efforts should be achievable within a few weeks to establish momentum.

The best efforts to start with are those that will reap benefits as soon as they are implemented so that the value will be immediately obvious to a large portion of the staff. Lastly, avoid starting too many efforts simultaneously; staff members can only juggle so much change within a given timeframe.

The Bottom Line
One might say, “We’ve been doing this stuff!” True, the Navy has long practiced various KM methodologies such as wardroom discussions, chiefs’ messes, surface warfare luncheons, message/read boards, planning boards for training and the plan of the day. These are all examples of getting the word out and promoting a common understanding of what needs to be done and the plan to do it. Knowledge management is NOT new. The only thing that has changed is the impetus to do it better.

Nancy Jenkins is a retired U.S. Navy commander and the knowledge management officer at U.S. Second Fleet.

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan (Sept. 9, 2009) U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Ryan Tucker, assigned to 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment Police Mentoring Team, walks through a field during a patrol to an abandoned bazaar with Afghan national border police in Little Jugroom, Garmsir District. Afghan Border Police and the Police Mentoring Teams are looking for possible enemy activity after reports of the Taliban using the bazaar as a meeting place. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Pete Thibodeau.
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