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CHIPS Articles: Knowledge Management ... Not Just a Catch Phrase

Knowledge Management ... Not Just a Catch Phrase
By U.S. Air Force Capt. Jim "Gumbo" Coughlin - January-March 2008
Everyone has heard the phrase, "one hand is not talking to the other." If you are like me, you may have felt that if you had just one more piece of information you could get a project completed. The question is how do you find that last elusive bit of information in your organization?

The answer lies in using knowledge management (KM). Lately, KM has become a catch phrase to solve all sorts of organizational problems, but to be an effective means of organizational change for the better, you must first find an applicable definition of KM and the right way to apply its concepts to your organization.

You will find tons of books about KM, and these books can provide some great insight. However, we have found that we benefited the most by actually applying some basic KM concepts and working outside the box to make KM work for us.

KM is not information management (IM), and it is not information technology (IT). These three areas are closely linked, but they are not one in the same. IT focuses on getting the bits and bytes to the customer or warfighter and the tools used to do this. IM is heavily focused on how these tools facilitate the information flow for the customer or warfighter. IM also involves the rules and tips, techniques and procedures for the tools.

But KM looks at people, their processes and tools, and ensures they are all in sync. KM also looks at the organizational structure to ensure it is aligned to facilitate the flow of knowledge through the organization.

I am going to explain KM from the perspective that we have been using at Standing Joint Force Headquarters-Pacific (SJFHQ-Pacific). I will tell you what we have learned and how we have applied it both in garrison at Pacific Command headquarters as well as in the Pacific area of responsibility with the many joint task forces that our unit supports.

What knowledge management is and is not

To understand KM, you first must understand the cognitive hierarchy which defines four different levels of meaning: data, information, knowledge and understanding. In this process, information is gathered and transformed by adding progressively greater meaning at each level of the cognitive hierarchy. The cognitive hierarchy process raises information from the lowest level, unstructured data, to the highest, understanding.

Data can be anything from maps to e-mail messages and everything in between, but when you apply context and the experiences of subject matter experts to information, it then becomes knowledge. Finally, once you synthesize and apply judgment to knowledge it becomes understanding. Armed with this understanding you can make accurate, well-informed decisions.

In short it should look like this:

DATA becomes INFORMATION becomes KNOWLEDGE becomes UNDERSTANDING, as shown in Figure 1.

I would argue that KM is the control of the transformation of data into understanding. KM is NOT a technical solution, although it may include technology. Too many people want to throw money at the problem when frankly a technical solution is not always the answer. Sometimes the answer could be as simple as providing your employees with a break area where it is easy for them to sit down and talk about the things they are working on.

In today's office environment we tend to build cubicle "farms" for efficiency, but these walls can be and often are the cause of inefficiency. That cubicle wall you are staring at could be what is stopping your left hand from talking to your right hand or keeping you away from that last bit of data.

Sometimes that wall could be a digital wall that separates different communications systems within an organization. But whatever the barrier may be, you will need to find a solution that allows the flow of knowledge in your organization.

In a military organization, your KM officer (KMO) does not need to be a communicator by trade. In fact, it would probably be more beneficial to have a KMO with an operational background. You want a person that can look at your organization from a top-down approach and understand its mission. That person can then ensure that you have the right mix of personnel and processes in place that facilitate execution.

In our unit, with the exception of our KM department head, the KMOs are communicators with operational backgrounds, and this has worked well for us. But, you really just need to have an individual that has the authority to look into every part of your organization and implement improvements to the way your organization gets things done.

This is where your KMO has to also become a change management officer which also includes becoming the salesman and project manager for change.

How to apply knowledge management concepts

The KMO should be attached to the chief of staff or deputy commander or equivalent, depending on the size of your organization. By doing this, members of your organization will understand that your leadership delegates authority to the KMO and supports KM efforts in your organization. Those two steps are critical to progressing through the levels of the cognitive hierarchy in your organization.

The key to a good KM strategy is understanding how an organization functions. In any organization you must first understand how the person at the top thinks. In the military, that person is the commander. The overall objective is to understand the commander’s decision cycle, including who is involved, what information is required and the method of delivery.

Every good leader is supported by many outstanding individuals working to make the leader’s decision accurate and timely. In the military, we focus on the commander’s critical information requirements to vector our efforts. These information requirements are based both on the enemy and friendly forces. Once these requirements have been “tripped” they usually require a decision by the commander.

The process of managing all the data, information, knowledge and understanding of an organization is done by all the personnel of that organization. We manage this through the organization’s battle rhythm.

I like to call the battle rhythm, the true “heartbeat” of the organization. The functional levels of an organization are the organs that feed the necessary products to that heartbeat. The battle rhythm is owned by the chief of staff or equivalent. This person is the most attuned to what the commander will want and can best facilitate the management of the staff.

An organization’s battle rhythm cannot be set in stone. Many entities from within the organization and certainly outside of an organization will shape the battle rhythm on a regular basis. The key is to be flexible because course corrections occur on a regular basis to achieve your mission.

What we have come up with here at SJFHQ-Pacific is what we call our KM Planning Process. This process is used in garrison as well as in the field with PACOM’s joint task forces. The following information shows the step-by-step approach we used:

• Understand an organization’s structure and roles.

• Understand the commander’s decision cycle, the organization’s battle rhythm (critical processes) and the commander’s critical information requirements to gain a preliminary understanding of the current IM/KM tools being used by the organization.

• Identify the current IT/IM/KM structures and how they are linked. What methods do they use to ensure efficiency between these three focus areas.

• Identify and train KM personnel in all levels of the organization.

• Identify an information exchange matrix that shows how the different sections of your organization get and release information. If you don't have a matrix — make one. One of the major things that you will find is how critically dependent one process completion may be to another. For example, Office B cannot put out their product until Office A has provided input to Office B.

• Identify the organization’s collaborative information environment. The CIE will provide a baseline for the many tools that your different organization levels use.

• Draft a KM plan. The goal here is to ensure that methods are in place to get the knowledge that is in everyone’s head written down and captured so that all personnel can benefit.

• Draft and release any KM directives as needed when processes and tools have been changed. This will keep everyone on the same page in the organization.

• Reinforce the mission of KM within the organization to new personnel coming onboard. Everyone is a knowledge manager in an efficient organization.

• Perform periodic surveys to ensure that you are covering the needs of all the personnel in the organization. The KMO will need to develop performance metrics to assess if knowledge is flowing better in the organization.

You can get there!

I guarantee that you have been doing some semblance of knowledge management already in your organization; you just didn’t call it that. Every organization has looked at its processes for efficiency — now you just need to standardize and institutionalize these processes.

I hope that the work that we have done and the lessons we have learned can benefit you and your organization. The key is to remain flexible. Many people fear change and applying KM techniques and concepts will cause change. But with top-level support, you will reap tremendous benefits by working through the steps that we have used. We wish you luck.

Special thanks go to the following knowledge managers who helped us develop an effective knowledge management approach.

PACOM: Army Lt. Col. John O’Malley, Navy Cmdr. Danelle Barrett, Air Force Majors Jim Ng and Ken Mullins, Air Force Capt. Jerome “Tank” Nash, Air Force Master Sergeant Michelle Hacecky and Army Specialist James Key. I Corps: Army Maj. Dan Ruder and Col. Fuller. 7th Fleet: Marine Corps Capt. E.J. Jewett. Marine Corps Forces Pacific: Marine Corps Capt. Paul Webber.

Capt. Jim “Gumbo” Coughlin is the knowledge management operations officer for Standing Joint Force Headquarters-Pacific.

Figure 1. Knowledge Management Flow.
Figure 1. Knowledge Management Flow.
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