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CHIPS Articles: Knowledge Management on a Joint Task Force

Knowledge Management on a Joint Task Force
KM can be successful without expensive technology and with simple changes
By Cmdr. Diane Boettcher - April-June 2009
During Operation Torch, the World War II invasion of North Africa, Gen. George Patton directed operations about 20 hours each day. This means that if he made a decision every other minute, he was making 600 decisions a day. We can estimate that as 60 seconds to be briefed, 30 seconds to discuss options with his staff, and then 30 seconds to issue orders.

Knowing that his primary source for information was the telephone, along with letters and a radio network, we can assume that current commanders have access to exponentially more information. However, they do not have access to more decision-making time. You could say they are still limited to 600 decisions a day.

As early as 2002, Gartner Research reported that 90 percent of business managers believe they suffered from information overload. Information overload can cause physical stress, as well as poor decisions, due to overconfidence in information that is actually incomplete or inaccurate.

U.S. military leaders share the same concerns about information overload that business managers do. Following a recent exercise, an intelligence officer told me, "I still don't know what knowledge management is, but I know we needed some. I had no time for analysis, only to check my e-mail and develop slides for the next briefing."

KM as Information Sharing

Knowledge management is a discipline that requires organizations to be deliberate about how they process knowledge that will be shared with the people who need to know it so they can make better decisions faster.

While we don't manage knowledge, we can manage the people, processes and technology that handle knowledge to maximize sharing. Lately, the phrase "information sharing" has gained prominence in the lexicon and has the added advantage of being quickly and easily understood.

KM Staffing

Most military organizations are finding that their chief knowledge officer (or knowledge management officer) can achieve better results when reporting to the chief of staff or deputy commander vice reporting to a division or department head.

The KMO/CKO should have sufficient rank to avoid being redirected to other efforts. KMOs that are treated as technical support will spend their days solving the command's IT problems rather than identifying and resolving knowledge flow difficulties.

KMOs should also have appropriate background and training. Too often, this position is given to someone who lacks a fundamental understanding of KM principles, who becomes enamored with tools, rather than focusing on the people and process aspects of the organization.

Trained KMOs should be placed in all key boards, centers and cells, but at a minimum in the operations, intelligence, logistics, administrative and training groups. These KMOs will report to the KMO/CKO and have other duties, but they still must be trained to recognize key information and how to share it.

The CKO will work with the J6 (command, control, communications and computer systems) to ensure that the tools provided are appropriate for the KM plan. The J7 (plans and force development) will help train personnel on the processes and tools, while the J1 (manpower and personnel) should identify and recruit the people needed to execute the organization's mission.

It is important to emphasize that KM can be accomplished without technology and begin with simple changes. For example, early KM practitioners recommended locating personnel, who needed to work together, in the same physical proximity. This seems like common sense today, but it wasn't that long ago when all the executives of an organization were on a single floor, middle managers on another, and line personnel somewhere else.

Placing people next to each other increases the potential of random, unanticipated knowledge sharing that can improve an organization's efficiency and effectiveness.

Other KM practices seek to take advantage of the systems already in place. Most e-mail applications, for example, have a variety of features that can improve knowledge sharing without an additional IT investment.

KM on a Joint Task Force Staff

Knowledge management on a joint task force staff focuses primarily on the creation and flow of knowledge within the staff and at key interfaces with higher and lower headquarters.

Many processes and tools exist to help facilitate this flow of knowledge. Among them are the Commander's Critical Information Requirements (CCIRs); the Battle Rhythm; a significant events (SIGACT) log; and even a phone book or contact list. Other processes that need to be supported are building briefs, capturing lessons learned, handling requests for information and tracking actions.

The KM plan must begin with an understanding of the staff structure and their roles and responsibilities. Just as one would first survey the technical architecture of a network before recommending improvements or upgrades, the KMO must survey the cultural architecture of the knowledge network of the staff.

Who do they share information with? Where do they seek information? How do these exchanges occur? Where and when do they take place? This information can be used to build an "as-is" information exchange matrix.

The "to-be" or recommended information exchange matrix can then be developed. This matrix should outline what information should be exchanged, how and when.

Keep in mind when developing this matrix the cultural implications of changes to the existing information exchange mechanisms. For example, a staff that is accustomed to using e-mail as their primary form of communication should receive training and encouragement if they are being asked to move such communications to a portal.

The Battle Rhythm is the information exchange matrix described over time. This rhythm will be a key element of the KM plan and typically hinges on a specific daily action.

The daily update brief that the commander must provide to higher headquarters or a tactical decision to proceed might be the precipitating event around which the battle rhythm is built.

The rhythm is not carved in stone, but should be modified to meet changing requirements. However, consider the ramifications to lower headquarters before changing any incoming information exchange requirement. Those at the tactical edge may be at the far end of a long whip. Minor battle rhythm changes at the JTF may cause major shifts for tactical users, so be sensitive to user needs.

A significant events log should be maintained where everyone in the JTF can access the information. Embedding the SIGACT log into the processes of the JTF can ensure that it will be part of the process rather than in addition to it.

Requiring extra work of the staff is not an efficient use of their time and is unlikely to be sustained over time. For example, a call for CAS (close air support) might require a SIGACT number before being accepted. This type of process support enforces best practices over time and through staff turnover. Ideally, the information would also be available for historical analysis and data mining.

In the early days of any JTF effort, a phone book is essential for communications. If cell phones are distributed, they must be tracked. The Army often uses a large, printed organizational chart that includes names and contact information.

Known as a "horse blanket," this chart provides a clear view of the organization and whom to contact for various issues. While some think that print documents are an anachronism in the IT age, others have seen an immediate improvement in shared understanding among staff members using such basic documents.

Of course, having a horse blanket doesn't preclude the use of an online directory. External points of contact, particularly with nongovernmental organizations and coalition partners, should be included in any phone book. If these basic tools can be updated and annotated with critical information by staff members, the information is more likely to be accurate and more valuable to users.

Future of KM

Knowledge management at its heart will always be about people and processes. However, tools can help transform the way people institute processes.

Young adults joining the military today are changing the way information is viewed and shared. These "digital natives" are bringing with them an ease and familiarity with technology that is unrivaled. They eagerly network and collaborate often because they understand the innovation and creativity that can occur when users collaborate on a problem.

Digital natives, also called Generation Y or Millennials, grew up using digital technology such as cell phones, home computers and the Internet. They have Facebook and MySpace accounts, iPods, and they instant message. They can text on their cell phones faster than most of their parents can type on a full-size keyboard.

Millennials collaborate with gusto so it is important to leverage their abilities when designing a KM plan. Their enthusiasm for networking can have a positive effect on those in your organization who may not be as proficient or are skeptical about sharing information.

Since knowledge management focuses on people, the organization and training for KM personnel will be critical to the proper execution of a KM plan. As new people join the Defense Department and new technology becomes available, we will need to adapt and adjust KM tools and processes to enable them to capture and share knowledge.

Knowledge management can be the best facilitator for the efficient operation of a joint staff and for helping the commander make the best decisions possible in the challenging environments warfighters operate in today.

For more information, contact SPAWAR public affairs at (619) 524-3432.

Cmdr. Diane Boettcher is the commanding officer of SPAWAR Reserve Unit 303 located in Mayport, Fla. In 2007, she was mobilized to the Standing Joint Force Headquarters where she served as knowledge management officer and deployed to Afghanistan.
Cmdr. Diane Boettcher is the commanding officer of SPAWAR Reserve Unit 303 located in Mayport, Fla. In 2007, she was mobilized to the Standing Joint Force Headquarters where she served as knowledge management officer and deployed to Afghanistan.
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