Email this Article Email   

CHIPS Articles: KM is Dead, Long Live KM!

KM is Dead, Long Live KM!
By Capt. Ramberto “Rambo” Torruella Jr. - January-March 2015
The first section of Niall Sinclair’s book Stealth KM: Winning Knowledge Management Strategies for the Public Sector is titled “KM is Dead, Long Live KM!” That section describes the push-pull between knowledge management professionals working in the public sector, and their organizations’ typical inertia to change, no matter how beneficial. The section and the book, quite frankly, are filled with good techniques for inculcating solid knowledge management principles into the culture of an organization to encourage an evolution toward a learning organization. But for me, the title of that first section says it all; it captures the struggle we all face as knowledge management professionals.

Most good organizations already practice sound knowledge management principles without calling those practices knowledge management, especially military organizations. They strive to be organizations that learn from mistakes and improve information flows to ensure mission success. But some organizations are better at practicing those principles than others, and many organizations are practically hostile to the concept of knowledge management as a discipline. So what’s a budding knowledge management practitioner to do? How do you encourage that evolution toward a better learning organization using the principles of knowledge management without seeming like zealot?

Step 1: Stop Calling It KM!

If you have been deputized as the knowledge management officer or as the knowledge manager do not immediately bombard your unit or organization with knowledge management principles and strategies. In most cases, it is just not necessary. The evil, awful truth of knowledge management in the military is that the military does knowledge management just fine.

Need proof? Look no further than boot camp; in just six short weeks each service can take a raw 18 year-old youth from off the street and provide enough training and knowledge so that young adult is ready to integrate into a unit. True, some recruits require further training before they can integrate with a ship’s crew, or an infantry platoon, but that is just further proof, that the military knows what it needs to do to prepare young recruits to integrate with a military team.

Need further proof? Look in the ship’s library at the tomes filled with processes and procedures, look at the commanding officer’s night orders book, look at the sailing directions used to update navigation charts, all examples of implicit knowledge made explicit. Look at the Napoleonic staff system, developed by Louis-Alexandre Berthier while he was Chief of Staff to Napoleon. True, we complain about its tendency toward creating information stovepipes, but when you consider the alternatives available in the 1790s, when the commander did much of the staff work himself, Berthier’s staff system was a revolution in military affairs. We in the military have been practicing knowledge management for thousands of years, and are often the envy of other government organizations.

Where a knowledge management officer can make a difference is in understanding how the organization uses implicit and explicit knowledge to accomplish its missions and in finding efficiencies to improve that information flow. Why do we need knowledge management principles to find those efficiencies? Remember, in Napoleon’s time communications took place at the pace of the hand-scrawled note, a rate of transmission of words per hour. Today the volume and velocity of information flow occurs at the rate of several libraries per hour, as shown in Figure 1. You need an expert in the flow of information to better understand where the bottlenecks to understanding occur (See Figure 2). You just may not need a formal knowledge management program to find those bottlenecks. Accomplish the same effect; just don’t beat the knowledge management drum.

Step 2: Recognize that you are Not the KM Officer

Whoever is responsible for executing the organization’s mission; the executive officer, the chief of staff, the operations officer, that person is the knowledge management officer. You, as the designated knowledge manager, are that person’s assistant. That individual will probably not even realize that there is a formal responsibility in the realm of knowledge management, but he or she will completely understand there is a responsibility to manage the flow of information around the organization so that the crew or staff works efficiently, and critical information gets to key decision makers in a timely manner. When you, as either a designated knowledge manger or as a self-appointed acolyte of knowledge management principles, help that person better manage the flow of information life gets easier, everyone’s life gets easier.

One personal example, the junior officers on my last submarine asked to write the in-port watch bill. I was hesitant, but they explained that despite my efforts to take into account their leave and school requests, and be fair with the number of days each officer stood watch, the junior officers still spent time horse trading duty days to support personal events, like scuba classes, three-day trips and so on. They argued that they didn’t mind standing duty four days in a row during the day to support a shipmate’s desire to take scuba classes, if they knew they wouldn’t have to stand weekend watches all month. It turns out the junior officers were better at tracking their day-off requirements than I ever would be, so I agreed. I still tracked their schedules, but I found that in general everyone still stood the same amount of watch standing. Since the junior officers had better control of when they stood watch, everyone was happier.

This may have seemed like an obvious solution until you realize two things: this ship did not have a tradition of the junior officers writing watch bills, so this solution was very novel to the wardroom, and most knowledge management initiatives seem obvious in hindsight. The key lesson to learn here is that the junior officer who suggested the change understood what the mission requirement was (fair share of watch standing in port), understood the information flows (junior officers with their needs), and understood that the process owner was the key to change (senior watch officer approving the watch bill).

Step 3: Remember, it’s People, Processes, then Technology

Knowledge management is not about a portal. It’s not about taxonomy management tools, or auto data tagging tools, or search tools, or digital library structures, or record management systems, or task management systems. Those are important technologies, but the tools are the last step in devising a knowledge management solution. Knowledge managers must first work to understand who creates and owns an organization’s information and how it is processed, used, and consumed, and most important, how the information flow supports the organization’s mission. I would call this knowledge management by walking around.

I once watched a very savvy portal management team destroy the productivity of a large staff by replacing the portal library structure with a document center based solely on meta-tags. On the surface the idea had tremendous merit; meta-tagging all documents posted to the portal would make information more easily discoverable and searching more efficient. Version control would become easier. There were a host of other benefits. Unfortunately, as the libraries disappeared, staff members spent a great deal of time recreating their library structures using the meta-tags. Many divisions stopped using the portal altogether, choosing to share information via email and shared drives. Eventually, the portal team reinstituted the library structure, but only after portal utilization dropped significantly.

What went wrong? In this case the portal team spent a great deal of time and resources engineering a solution that was modern and seemed in alignment with knowledge management principles, but was not in alignment with how the staff operated on the portal. Remember, knowledge management is not the same as information management. Information management is one enabler of knowledge management, but only after it is incorporated into a solution set that first considers the people involved and the processes they use. See Figure 3 for the measures of success in implementing knowledge management practices.


Knowledge management isn’t dead, it is alive and well and prospering, especially in the military. Your organization may be dead set against a knowledge management program, but it probably doesn’t know it is already using knowledge management principles to accomplish its mission. Your job as a knowledge manager is not to help your organization be aware of knowledge management principles as a science, but to practice knowledge management principles to help your organization be better, stronger, and faster in accomplishing its mission.

Use the principles and techniques, just don’t announce them. Enable the key members of your organization responsible for mission accomplishment; help solve their information flow problems and you gain credibility for yourself and the changes for which you advocate. Always remember people, process, then tools — and you will lay the groundwork for taking your organization to the next level of information superiority maturity.

Capt. Ramberto “Rambo” Torruella is a Navy Information Professional serving as the Deputy CIO for United States European Command in Stuttgart, Germany. He has served as an IT Program Manager and Knowledge Manager on the Joint Staff, as an Expeditionary Strike Group N6, a Carrier Strike Group Deputy N6, and as a Submarine Combat Systems Officer.

Figure 1. Diagram depicting the volume and velocity of information flow.
Figure 1. Diagram depicting the volume and velocity of information flow.

Figure 2. Diagram depicting the cognitive Hierarchy; how data turns into situational awareness.  Understanding this flow is a key skill of a knowledge manager.
Figure 2. Diagram depicting the cognitive Hierarchy; how data turns into situational awareness. Understanding this flow is a key skill of a knowledge manager.

Figure 3. Diagram depicting the measures of success in implementing knowledge management practices.
Figure 3. Diagram depicting the measures of success in implementing knowledge management practices.
Related CHIPS Articles
Related DON CIO News
Related DON CIO Policy

CHIPS is an official U.S. Navy website sponsored by the Department of the Navy (DON) Chief Information Officer, the Department of Defense Enterprise Software Initiative (ESI) and the DON's ESI Software Product Manager Team at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific.

Online ISSN 2154-1779; Print ISSN 1047-9988
Hyperlink Disclaimer