The Day DoD KM Died

Yesterday, I was most privileged to sit in on a session with some of the senior folk in DoD Knowledge Management (KM). The setup encouraged an intimate conversation among these government leaders, with twice more their number sitting and observing (a well-placed gag rule limited conversation to the table people only). Each Service was represented, as well as select Commands and activities. Disclaimer 1: While the meeting was invitation only, the findings/preliminary decisions were discussed in open panel sessions later in the day.200904291229.jpg

It was here I was privileged and sobered to witness the death of Knowledge Management in DoD.

The gathered expressed an interest in coordinating their efforts for greater effect. These are honest, hard working professionals who, unfortunately, ended up embracing approaches and models that have failed repeatedly, and have helped sound the death knell for large-scale KM programs across industry.

In the audience, at least one of us was eager to hear of the most pressing challenges for KM in DoD. I imagined the issues would include improving the work of the warfighter, increasingly faced with knowledge-intensive tasks in rapidly changing environments. Or perhaps they are frustrated by the lack of coordination with security and information officers.

Of course, they are. But addressing these directly would require a more passive role for KM. Perhaps solutions would include quietly raising the information transfer dial tone, to enable the warfighter to discern signals in a noisy environment; applying KM principles to colleagues and workflows within and among HR, IT, strategy, and operations; or embracing social media strategies, pilots, and deployments to enable ambient feedback and unanticipated participation across the DoD workforce, etc.

These notional ideas involve embedding KM ideas into existing organizational frameworks and work lives. None of these would focus first on the establishment of a central KM function; with standards, vetted processes, certifications, and a KM workforce with specific competencies. Indeed, Stephen Bounds recently crafted a white paper that describes the futility of “un-targeted” KM programs in reducing knowledge failures. More troubling, these programs fail to identify the knowledge failures that carry the largest risk.

After all, KM successes are targeted initiatives: such as Air Force Knowledge Now, where 15,000 communities of practice self-organize across the USAF, providing the ability to discover expertise in the field or even revolutionize approaches to work among teams such as the ones currently training the Iraqi Air Force. Or like CompanyCommand, where army platoon leaders self-organized so they could share online issues of immediate interest in the war zone. Or like the adaptive processes that are currently being worked in Afghanistan. Or Intellipedia, initially a guerrilla deployment of a collaborative authoring capability that is questioning, and may one day transform, the notion of “finished intelligence” for the U.S. Intelligence Community.

What do these successes have in common? They were grassroots efforts, emerging from the workforce. Each came under fierce attack from the established information and knowledge leaders. Perhaps these KM leaders would find new and imaginative ways to get out of the way of the noble warfighters, to allow for more frequent successes, and clear the path for more of these targeted successes.

Instead, the gentlemen in this room converged on the need to convene as an enduring working group, with an initial agenda as follows:

- Establish a higher reporting relationship for Chief Knowledge Officers (CKO). The fear is that unless the CKO is located high enough in the food chain, KM programs will not receive funding. There was also some discussion about peer interactions among the leadership – sadly, the focus was on organizational charts and reporting chains of command, rather than process or methods of value exchange among CIO, CKO, Personnel, Training, Operations, etc.

- Establish a certificate program for KM at an accredited school affiliated with DoD. Participants were careful not to cast this as a certification program, which would imply a certifying body and other rigor – a fool’s errand in KM. Rather, this is envisioned as a graduate-level certificate for KM in the DoD. Where I would hope to see the teaching and mentoring of KM “competencies,” however defined, across all of DoD; these gentlemen instead focused on developing a KM workforce unto itself.

- Develop common KM metrics across programs. There is some frustration with answering the “value question,” and agreement on the need for predictive and quantitative metrics that will finally justify and codify the work of KM. They agree on the notional value of narrative, but there was precious little discussion regarding the assessment of individual narratives against KM value proposition – what makes a “good” story?

- Embrace a KM organizational maturity model. The analog discussed was the CMM program for software development (reference: Software Engineering Institute). Pursuing this analogy, I was struck by the fact that the most promising software methods of the day (XP/Agile, etc.) emerged not from any SEI effort, but rather outside the hallowed halls of CMM-certified organizations. This is natural: maturity models are not designed to foster innovation or creativity – relatively messy endeavors when one is seeking standards and efficiency. Instead, these maturity models presume stages, indicators, and a relatively static representation of what an “mature” organization looks like in terms of software development, project management, and perhaps soon for DoD: Knowledge Management.

Thanks to this central focus on an “un-targeted program,” DoD KM is dead. And federal KM, coalition KM, indeed whole-of-government coordination is today much harder. Or at least it was not made any easier following these deliberations.

The first and last conversation involved a plea to define knowlege management. As Confucius taught; “first, define your terms.” The fundamental first step for any discipline or even conversation might involve a clear agreement to terms, and this, apparently, has yet to occur within DoD KM. Disclaimer 2: One participant referred to the 31-page section on KM in the recently released (full) report from the Project on National Security Reform as a reasonable starting point to get them past the question of KM definitions. On behalf of my hard-working team from the PNSR KM Working Group, I am delighted our work is proving useful to the field.

With a focus on KM structures that will fall eventually of their own weight, the grassroots are left to their own devices, as they have been all along. KM is not the job of these gentlemen. It is incumbent upon all of DoD to find ways to solve their problems locally, as they always have been, with a leadership across IM/IT whose job is to balance the security of the information space with the need to get out of the warfighter’s way. It is everyone’s responsibility to share information, to grow their combined knowledge and competence, and to help the Department advance, thrive and prevail. 200904291102.jpg

The focus should not be on the KM troops or the CKO. DoD has arrived at the notion that KM is essential, and has moved therefore to secure the position of KM across the Department. This, sadly, removes the focus from what works, and from the warfighter. A focus on a large KM program, careers, etc, is to focus on a structural fix to a behavioral and technology problem. Worse than not fixing it, these structures work against the very types of initiatives that succeed on the ground.

There are others working quietly to raise the dial tone, others working outside this room. There will always be “heroes of the revolution” who will seed social media and open up access to knowledge despite the barriers. There remain ways to get around rigid processes that do not add value to the mission. And, while not betraying confidences, not everyone at this table agreed to the monolithic approach for KM. So there may be hope yet.

One final thought. Every single person given a voice, and a seat at this august table, was a middle-aged or older, white, man. [Update, I am not trying to imply that race matters in this conversation, I'm trying to focus on the need for diverse voices in a field that relies so heavily on behaviors and persuasion.  Apologies for any who were distracted.]

This matters.

In theory, diverse voices help sustain the health of a complex organizational system. In practice, it was jarring to hear not a single young voice from the Generation these men are trying to assist. I couldn’t help but wonder how these deliberations would have sounded on the ear of someone serving today in a Joint Operations Cell, or on a high mountain somewhere far from Washington, DC.

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24 Responses to The Day DoD KM Died

  1. John, very depressing indeed to see that “old-think” remains so prevalent. As to your question of what a soldier in the sandbox would think of this, they’d shake their head for the 10th time of the day and simply go back to figuring out “work-arounds” to enable the sharing and management of knowledge.

    One suggestion is that DoD needs to pay more attention to the government-at-large communities which it titularly belongs to, but regularly ignores. There’s no reason why DoD shouldn’t be paying attention to the new federal CIO and CTO, for example… their approaches might surprise many of the fuddy-duddies who were at the table with you yesterday.

  2. Jamie Hatch says:

    Thank you for this most excellent post. What you are describing is what myself and my colleagues would call the perpetuation of the self licking ice cream cone . Rather than launch into a lengthy discussion in your comments section, I will post something to my own blog as a follow on, but I had to first thank you for sharing this and say I couldn’t agree with you more.

    Cheers and thanks @DavidGurteen for Tweeting the link to this post.
    Jamie Hatch
    Knowledge Management Officer
    Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet
    Twitter: @cpfkmo

  3. john scott says:

    wow, and the monkey keep banging away at the keyboard

  4. john scott says:

    really really sad

    so what’s next?

  5. Pingback: Knowledge Management 101? | Above and Beyond KM

  6. John says:

    What’s next? Not a big fan of prediction here, but I think the answer is both good and bad news. The Good news is that the effort to establish a monolithic “way of doing KM” will likely fall of its own weight – much like ill-advised efforts to create a Federal KM Agency, there will not be sufficient capital to finance the structures. So the current hero methods will not be challenged by this anytime soon. However, the Bad news is that these heroes will continue to be challenged by the uncoordinated security, policy, process, efficiency, etc., efforts that hamper true transformation and systemic change.

  7. Bravo!

    And thanks to my co-worker who sent me this link this afternoon. It was desperately needed.

    With regards to your “final thought”. As someone whose practice of KM owes much to the field of Adult Education, I was extremely pleased to read what you wrote here. Too many organizations of all types (particularly in the Western world) have such an appalling disregard for the diversity of the world in which we live and are a part. If we are to experience the true act of sharing (knowledge) in community we must be receptive to a variety of ways of knowing, thinking, doing, and being. It is becoming almost a “generational sin” how some people insist on making critical, consequential decisions in a vacuum, without bringing the viewpoints and experiences of others to the table, despite having had their own voices stifled and/or ignored at some point.

    I hope you have fun with your new role!!

  8. Tom Schlosser says:

    I can understand your frustration, but I wouldn’t give up. Out at SPAWAR we have a thriving blogosphere that’s gotten strong support all the way up to the DoN CIO himself.

  9. Tom Schlosser says:

    Hmm. My hyperlink got blotted out. Accepting comments – ur doin it rong!

  10. John says:

    Mea culpa, I will put my Virtual Assistant on the case to find out what I screwed up in terms of accepting comments… Could be our spam filter, we’ll fix it. Thanks!

  11. Bob Gourley says:


    I really appreciate the post and the context. I normally get queued to your writings by following your Twitter feed but in this case I didn’t learn of it till a retired four-star sent it to me. The bad news is my personal info gathering mechanisms let me down there, but the good news is that your post is making its way around the senior ranks in DoD. Maybe things will change because of what you wrote.

    I’m writing a post on my blog now to point others this way.


  12. Pingback: The Day DoD KM Died |

  13. Bill Kaplan says:

    I am a corporate CKO, a long time KM practitioner, and have also published on KM from the practitioner perspective. I define knowledge as a combination of “all of the information” (explicit) in an organization” and “all of the experience” (tacit) in an organization focused for some purpose (knowledge convergence).

    All academic and theoretical discussion aside, I see KM as simply as “the ability to capture, adapt, transfer, and reuse what we know about what we do to improve individual, team, and organizational does neither has to be complicated (which is not to say that KM does not require skill, competency, and practice — it may be more art than science) nor does it have to take a long time to show results and demonstrate value for the investment in time and resources for KM to be successful within an organization.

    The real value in KM is in its ability to solve business and operational challenges and make measurable improvements in performance measured in the context of where it is applied. It provides agility to an organization to more readily adapt to change (call it “operating faster than the speed of change”) and more quickly access and leverage what knowledge is needed when it is needed.

    I know a few things to be true about KM since this concept works in my company and has worked for my clients.

    1. Trying to apply KM on a system wide basis usually fails when one starts at the system level.
    2. It doesn’t have to be complicated and it doesn’t have to take a long time.
    3. The practical application (what I call Knowledge at the Point of Execution) of KM is where the value lies.
    4. You need to start at a “local” level to demonstrate value and apply KM where you can see business or operational solutions addressed and resolved. The nearby greater organization will usually see value in KM and why it makes sense—Knowledge is personal and KM starts locally.
    5. The ability to capture, adapt, transfer, and reuse knowledge must be part of the business and operational processes of the organization for it to succeed…not something extra or applied from the outside.

    So, I wouldn’t say that DoD KM is “dead.” I would say that DoD KM is neither enabled nor practiced nor understood at leadership levels in such a way that supports a consistent and disciplined approach to creating easily understood KM concepts, an easily understood strategy, and relevant implementing practices that can be understood and applied at the “point of execution.” There are those that “get it” and the examples John references are good ones but they are isolated (but are delivering value and saving lives).

    Focus on the practical application where value can be demonstrated and evolve from there…you will need resources, commitment, and leadership that demands collaboration and sharing who really support this…defer “KM central” which can take on a bureaucratic and diversionary life of its own and look for places in DoD where there are committed early adapter leaders who see that the ability to capture and reuse knowledge very fast can make a measurable difference in operational and business performance and they are willing to resource its success…work outward from there and reflect on what makes this successful so that you can derive some common learnings for effective concepts, strategies, and implementing practices.

    For consideration

    Bill Kaplan
    Acquisition Solutions, Inc.

  14. Pingback: Standing on the Toes of Giants

  15. Interesting premise John. I’m happy to report, however, that fluid, transparent, evolutionary and “always improving” KM in DoD, IC and the extended national security community is neither dead nor particularly threatened by a room full of “fuddy-duddies” (from Lewis’ comment) at the top of the heirarchy. If one needs to get a sense for the groundswell of new methods, tools and cultural shifts happening in nooks and crannies of the USG, one most certainly needs to get out of the Capitol Beltway Region (where I presume your meeting took place). The continuing march to modern, net-centric, socially-netted, organic and dynamic collaboration is happening without much help from the policy-makers and top-level resource or acquisition decision-makers. Many of them are perfectly happy to ride the wave of success, however, so that helps in some cases in keeping them out of the way. Urge you to take some road trips and use your contacts and considerable following to get inside at the grassroots working levels across USG — what you will see will give you a much better perspective, and perhaps you will then have occasion to write another blog about it. This glass is WAY more than half full. All the best and Aloha, Dave

  16. Abigail Howe says:

    Your posts has highlighted the need for a multi-pronged approach. As I have been viewing the KM discussion from a distance (through friends in USAF), I acknowledge that there is a large learning curve for some senior individuals. Part of the discussion needs to be the applicability of new technology. There is a dynamic evolution of social media, as well as KM which will no doubt be codified in the new Cyber command structure. However, there are a few things that you mentioned that need to addressed throughout the DoD, where diverse requirements and levels of ‘openness’ for each separate services (ie. Joint, USAF, USA, USAR and ARNG) will require both command structure and emphasis, as well as openness for operators. Numerous hurdles exist in the process of creating unified metrics and performance expectations, including the variation within operating environments, risk definition and SW application requirements. Each of thes core challenges will require collaboration at all levels of DoD for KM and IM in different working environments (ie. tactical WIFI, Shipboard, Strategic sattelite, FBCB2) to be successful. Furthermore, the core of changing warfare and global landscapse dictate that cross-functional requirements be available for ALL MOS and Services and ranks (ie. reference expanded tactical experience and training required for new USAF lieutenants that are NOW leading supply convoys) .

  17. Tim Snyder says:

    I was also at that conference and attended the invite only meeting. While I agree with most of what you are saying, I was neither surprised nor disheartened by what I heard, nor do I believe that KM is dead within DoD. KM is alive and well within DoD and as with any really valuable endeavor in the military, it happens with or without top level support.

    I have been working in the KM field for 3 years with Navy Strike Groups, and KM continues to prove its value, with increasingly higher level support for resource allocation – note the opening remarks at the Pacific Fleet KM Conference by the Pacific Fleet Commander The “so what” of KM is being proven every day in the fleet. Would it be more effective with support from the beltway? Maybe… Look at what happened to KM in industry in the 90’s, and they had plenty of leadership buy-in! Successful revolutions start with efforts at the grass roots of an organization. In each of the branches of DoD there are KM thought leaders and KM practitioners that are at the vanguard in the battle for resources, and they are winning that battle because they are proving the value of KM day in and day out.

    Tim Snyder
    Knowledge Manager
    Tactical Training Group, Pacific

  18. John says:

    Excellent comment, thank you! You’ve hit on the core message – had I taken a more gentle route to the conversation, it would have been the lead. These folks in the Beltway believe that in order to “advance” KM, you do need central funding, attention, human capital strategies, etc. Meanwhile, the heroes in the field are using KM principles and methods to make a difference. The perspective in the field is framed by the need to accomplish a Divisional or Unit mission – the perspective in the Beltway appears to be to advance KM in order to address “all” missions. It is this focus on what is a process step that represents the greatest problem for me. This is how we ended up with a Capability Maturity Model for software that is somewhat irrelevant to how software methods have evolved.
    Do you “advance” KM by strengthening the core, or by enabling connections across nodes? Or do you need to strengthen the core in order to enable these connections?
    These are questions of theory, but I am accused of (among other sins) excessive excursions into theory. After all, the KM people here “know” what will work, they just need to get their Program or Center funded.

  19. Successful knowledge-sharing most often emerges out of need and evolves into informal organization of professionals who’s basic survival (success) requires real-time actionable information. From the outside looking in I am struck by the lack of innovative and entrepreneurial insight of the formal organization and the power of same across small knowledge sharing communities. IF only DoD could provide the pipe, the infostructure to support such creative efforts. Combining the best of social networks approaches and information discovery applications provides a cost-effective transformative, flexible and successful organization.
    As sad as DoD looks regarding KM, there are way too many examples in large industry as well. It was once said that those who hold knowledge (information) hold power. There is a paradigm shift. Shared knowledge is infinitely more powerful and required for success and ultimately survivability.

  20. Shawn Bradford says:

    An excerpt from the book, “Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor” – I implore these KM Leaders to hear our collective KM Worker voices…

    “Then do not have one mind, and one alone
    That only your opinion can be right.
    Whoever thinks that he alone is wise,
    His eloquence, his mind, above the rest,
    come the unfolding, shows his emptiness.
    A man, though wise, should never be ashamed
    Of learning more, and must unbend his mind.
    Have you not seen the trees beside the torrent,
    The ones that bend them saving every leaf,
    While the resistant perish root and branch?
    And so the ship that will not clacken sail, the sheet drawn tight, unyeilding, overturns,
    She ends the voyage with keel on top.
    No, yeild your wrath, allow a change of stand.
    Young as I am, if I may give advice,
    I’l say it would be best if men were born
    Perfect in wisdom, but failing this
    (which often fails) it can be no dishonor
    To learn from others when they speak good sense.
    Sophocles’ “Antigone”

  21. Shawn says:

    People will talk with each other to get the information they need regardless of channel or technology so the need should be focused on listening to what conversations are out there that support the military mission such as in “companycommand” rather than creating endless empty forums and forcing people to go there.

  22. PaL says:

    Within our AF organization, the AFKN Community of Practice (CoP) was a VERY important tool for interacting with our global counterparts. As the focus of our CoP was collaboration on training issues and a location to share resources, the ‘death’ was a significant blow to the collective effort of our programs. As with MANY other support programs and communities in the DOD (AF particularly), too often the individuals making decisions have only ‘academic’ experience or these are ‘grey beards’ with outdated concepts and ineffective methods of application to our modern organizations. The Air Force’s Training community has for a long time lacked tools for sharing best practices, knowledge and experience. It has been my experience and impression over 20 years in the AFS that either the ‘collective’ AF community undervalues the need for a robust and experienced Training Management community or the AFS has lacked the leadership to implement policies, clear guidance and the tools needed within the community for effectively management. In light of this, for those of us actively involved in various AF Training CoPs, the grassroots CoP model allowed professional at the MAJCOM, Wing, Unit and work center levels a tool for cross-organizational/hierarchy collaboration, communication and sharing. My analogy of AFKN is that of being within a University Library, free to share tools, collaborate together as well as passing along best practice ideas, without the need to interact or depend on the Librarian’s in charge. The cancellation of AFKN felt as though the Librarian’s discovered they had lost control of the conversation and rush to turn the library light off. Those of us that understood the potentials of this in our professional communities, we still know the answers are out there, however, now it’s nearly impossible to find those answers in the dark… thus, control of the conversation has been restored. I recall my previous O-6 Commander once told me, ‘the military is really just a friendly dictatorship, and not always so friendly’.

  23. William (Mark) Jones says:

    This was an enlightening article. While I appreciate and applaud the efforts of grass roots movements to make things better, there is a place for knowledge managers.

    I have been working as the KMO for Regional Command Southwest in Afghanistan. Since I have been here, I have heard a hundred competing definitions for knowledge management. I have also seen several distinct approaches to it. I view most of them as doomed to failure because they are not attempting to provide value added to the warfighter.

    Operationalizing knowledge management gives it relevance. I will provide an example. At RC (SW), I began by reading all of the documents which provided direction and Commander’s intent. These included OPORDs, CONOPs, FRAGOs, etc. It was a long list and took a couple of weeks just to read. I also went to the various Battle Rhythm events to better understand how what was being discussed and in what forums. With that information, I was able to create a comprehensive evaluation of RC (SW)’s Battle Rhythm. The report highlighted discrepancies between our stated goals and our curent efforts. It was used by the Chief of Staff to help refocus the meetings toward our stated objectives.

    This is one example of many I could provide on the issue. Operationalized knowledge management can be a force for good within DoD.

  24. Pingback: DoD KM: A Fish Out of Water? « Adventures of a KMO

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