posted 31 Oct 2003 in Volume 7 Issue 3
Engaging in the KM battle
All organisations possess knowledge, and in the business of defence this knowledge must be managed and applied when protecting a nation’s people, fighting wars and developing doctrine. John McNaughton recognises that the identification and capture of this knowledge is both complex and difficult. Here he outlines the key knowledge-related issues faced by the Ministry of Defence and explains the development of its pan-defence KM initiative.
That all organisations possess knowledge is an uncomplicated truism. Knowledge is not, self evidently, the only factor that leads to success, yet it is an organisation’s ability to exploit knowledge that will be a differentiator between comparable organisations. If you consider that warfare represents the ultimate competition, then military organisations have much to gain from knowledge management, however they are not generally perceived as being at the cutting edge of what is sometimes considered to be a fad in management techniques.
Organisations have always used forms of knowledge management. In some organisations this activity is one of passive adaptation while others have adopted more active interaction. Indeed, before knowledge management became a specific management skill, successful organisations passively used a mix of framed experiences, values, contextual information and expert insight to good effect. The development of craft skills or the optimisation afforded by studying working practices provide a context for versions of knowledge management. At the same time, and often in the same organisation, there are practices that actively discourage knowledge management; the adoption of a so called ‘need to know' culture often associated with security or research activities and a viewpoint that knowledge is power held by staff immediately rewarded for their apparent knowledge.
The concept of an organisation as a collection of individuals with defined roles, shared values and certain norms means that a discussion about organisational knowledge would be more valuable in the context of a particular organisation to illuminate abstract points. In his thought-provoking book, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, Dixon presents the British military as an organisation traditionally prone to incompetence and an inability to learn from experience. This provides an unusual vehicle for an examination of a specific organisation’s ability to manage knowledge.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) differs from conventional commercial businesses in that it does not fabricate or sell products; it cannot easily measure success in financial terms or shareholder value. This presents a number of challenges for the exploitation of knowledge that are addressed through various forms of management.
All defence organisations are presented with an environment in which they must innovate and adapt in order to recruit and retain quality personnel, maintain levels of equipment capability necessary to inter-operate with allies, and ultimately overcome an enemy. In the MoD there is a willingness to adopt innovative tools and techniques, it is recognised that this must be balanced against the need to provide a dependable yet versatile service. Inept and decrepit armed forces that are geared towards fighting the last conflict or high-tech systems usable only against specific targets or threats represent unacceptable extremes of capability.
Why update knowledge?
The complexity faced by the MoD is daunting. Its primary purpose is the defence of the UK, to act as a force for good that strengthens international peace and security.
The scope of the organisation is impressive: it has an annual budget of £24.6bn, involves the day-to-day management of 294,000 people and the procurement, support and use of weapons systems as diverse as bayonets and nuclear-submarine-launched land-attack missiles. It must manage knowledge across these diverse elements.
Knowledge management is sometimes assumed to be the application of emerging technology, for example search engines and collaborative-working tools. Solely technology-centred approaches to knowledge management may be inadvisable but there can be no doubt that technology has a part to play. Indeed, an approach to knowledge management that shuns technology might be accused of being backward. The MoD invests heavily in information systems, however the size of the organisation, its stringent security requirements and the need to deploy elements of the architecture mean that the equipment in use is often obsolete. Currently an emergent project is the development of a pan-defence information infrastructure (DII) but it is the organisational knowledge that is of more intangible value.
The MoD’s equipment is often highly bespoke and technologically advanced. Understanding the capabilities and limitations of that equipment is relatively straightforward but gaining insight into the equipment of allies and enemies, and estimating relative performance is complex. Without that knowledge, subsequent recruitment and training of personnel, delivery of logistic support, and strategic and tactical development is ill founded.
Although the numbers of servicemen and civilian personnel employed in defence is decreasing, the overall capability and the diversity of the current population are greater than ever. Maintaining organic knowledge within the organisation at times of change is key to sustaining overall capability and a range of competencies. As well as the routine operation of military units, the identification and capture of knowledge manipulated by scientists, engineers and administrators in specialist defence agencies and policy departments allows the re-use of knowledge built up over years.
Internal processes are key to the ability of an organisation to sustain itself and, in the case of the MoD, these processes can take different forms. There are long lead procurement items and specific equipment capabilities for example, fighter aircraft or more back-up oriented environments such as integrated logistics support. In both cases there is a need for innovative process improvement coupled with a systemic approach to the maintenance and growth of sustainability. These are facets of an organisational culture that makes processes more effective and efficient, but also recognises that the military rarely operates twice in exactly the same circumstances. Each project and operation is different and this requires a knowledge-based approach rather than procedural or mechanistic methods of process development.
In conventional organisations, explicit knowledge or intellectual capital can be measured in terms of patents generated, products taken to market or financial measures. The MoD, however, has a different approach. At one extreme the MoD funds corporate and applied-research programmes - largely vested in research agencies and commercial partners. At a lower level, in-house innovation and improvement are recognised through various reward schemes.
Concepts, doctrine and policy provide guidance to the organisation of defence. The formulation of concepts and doctrine combines the sciences of operational analysis with more subjective group decision-making techniques, such as table-top exercises, seminars and scenarios to refine and test the rigour of thought processes in a complex environment. The need for completeness is essential, and new developments and technologies result in the need for a continual cycle of review.
Identification and capture of an organisation’s knowledge
Identifying and capturing an organisation’s knowledge needs is both complex and difficult. Some argue that a commercial organisation can stretch itself based upon an understanding of customers, competencies and capability (the three Cs) targeted at specific markets. In the MoD this is reversed and the organisation must be geared towards defence and protection. Politics and military research are prone to sudden changes or twists in events requiring swift reactions. There are ongoing tasks that require attention but also a need to maintain a surge capability to counter unpredictable threats.
The procurement of equipment capability on the basis of an annual spending round gives rise to a process that determines what equipment is required. It also sets off a formal research and development programme that decides what knowledge is needed to develop systems to counter a variety of threat scenarios. This provides funds to initiate, perpetuate or stop successive iterations of a knowledge-creation cycle. These iterations continue at various stages of the lifecycle of projects and, following initial procurement, may lie dormant until replacement capability is required many years downstream.
The cost-benefit analysis for specific projects relies upon a number of hard systems-analysis techniques. The equipment plan for defence is a programme where projects are screened and scrutinised at progressively higher levels. This screening activity requires a depth of knowledge that covers both the inter-relationships between projects but also the context and scenarios in which the equipment would be employed. This blend of hard and soft analysis represents an exploitation of knowledge in the field of purposeful action.
A large proportion of the defence budget is spent on the education of personnel. Junior members of the services are pushed through the training system to learn how to execute specific tasks. As people become more senior, however, they are educated to understand not only their own knowledge needs but also the level of knowledge that can be expected of other agencies and parts of the organisation. To this end the services have a partnership with Cranfield University to run a number of specific courses at the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham.
The use of formal communities of practice is not explicit across the MoD although they are becoming a popular feature in the procurement and research agencies. Knowledge sharing is however intrinsic to an organisation that has a culture of consensus and where many staff have long-standing and close personal relationships. It would be misleading to interpret the rigid hierarchical structure of the military and civil service as leading to an exclusively top-down style of management; Nelson’s ‘band of brothers' attitude persists, and there is an emphasis on discussion and agreement.
There are many and varied communities within the Ministry of Defence and the various cultures span many stereotypes. The fighting arms of the three services have their own ethos while the support elements often eschew behaviours that are associated with the military - in many ways to act as a foil to short-term approaches. There are bureaucratic communities associated with accountability and audit trails, while the research and development community has be described as being in constructive chaos. Due to the need for specific expertise there are expert communities in equipment procurement and support, as well as within the intelligence community. Less well-defined communities exist in the development of policy in headquarters and elsewhere in informal areas. In the MoD all these types of communities exist and often have the autonomy to create and dissolve themselves as required.
Having the knowledge to make an organisation sustainable can be an empirical or heuristic skill that only becomes organic over time. It can be argued that when the dotcom bubble burst, a contributing factor was the lack of organic knowledge on how to run businesses, and a lack of adherence to disciplines such as financial strategy and risk management. This led to the creation of fragile structures that were unsustainable. A similar collapse would be unacceptable for any public service and particularly for defence.
In stable or static systems the development of processes for sustainability is relatively straightforward by using structured analysis and implementation techniques. Defence is not a static system; it has, for example, been undergoing a period of radical change since the end of the Cold War. The ability to modify existing complex processes depends upon a deep knowledge of the organisation and its overall strategy. The smart-procurement initiative, for example, is sweeping away moribund or obsolete procedures and is being achieved through the creation of integrated project teams. By bringing together teams of experts, existing projects can continue uninterrupted during a period of change.
A key element to sustaining a fighting force is the degree to which people and equipment operate together, and this must include training and maintenance. This is analogous to the integration of hardware and software in information systems but over a wider sphere of expertise. As with the integration of hardware, the key element is often the interface between systems and its subsequent specification. This can be explicit and highly detailed, or tacit and developed through knowledge generation and sharing exercises, such as war gaming and training exercises.
The value of developing concepts and doctrine is difficult to calculate but the importance of strategic direction is intuitively understood. The organisation of the MoD relies upon a series of cascading strategies and plans based upon agreed principles. Each related document has its own lifecycle of review and reiteration with specific teams looking at detailed plans. Providing the knowledge needed to support the development of these plans requires an understanding of the organisational structure and high-level priorities as they are developed and passed down. The review process means that there is alignment from top to bottom in different plans. The doctrine of defence is agreed at the top level and then broken down in ever-increasing levels of detail.
The MoD has also adopted a variant of the balanced scorecard to support performance planning. The Defence Balanced Scorecard Application (DBSA) is a modification of the perspectives put forward by Kaplan & Norton. The prime perspective focuses on outputs and deliverables (in place of the customer perspective) and oriented towards the delivery of operational capability. The methodology forms the agenda for the Defence Management Board Service Executive Committees and has been adopted by the top-level budget holders across defence resulting in increasingly integrated and aligned strategy.
Challenges facing defence
The picture that has been presented is one of a complex organisation that manages a number of knowledge needs with a mosaic of knowledge-management techniques, although they are not within an explicit knowledge-management programme. There are problems that face the organisation in identifying and capturing its knowledge.
One of the key issues is that the capture of knowledge is not seen as intrinsically valuable; there are few explicit references to knowledge management across defence. The term knowledge management is seen as a fad and while there is an acknowledged need to maintain an audit trail to record decisions and determine accountability, there is often little focus on the re-use of knowledge at the time of capture.
The procurement of defence equipment is repeatedly the subject of criticism. Poor control of cost and time, and the comment that long timescales result in the acquisition of obsolete equipment appears regularly in the press and National Audit Office reports. The dangers of repeated scrutiny and re-examination of the facts result in an inability to reach decisions without disproportionate investigation, which is sometimes cynically called paralysis by analysis. The required knowledge is repeatedly reviewed and techniques such as studies, seminars and scenarios mean knowledge is often re-worked from scratch. There can be a disproportionate effort directed at proving the quality of the decision rather than the decision itself. Rationale needs to be captured so that reviews or subsequent changes can be dealt with. The subsequent management of change remains an elusive skill.
The war fighters who spend entire careers in a succession of diverse appointments rightly head the business of defence. There exists a high churn rate through these posts, and while this has the advantage of exposing the breadth of the organisation to its eventual decision makers, there are disadvantages associated with frequent and regular upheaval. The need for organisational stability is achieved in part by placing military and civil service personnel in positions of balance. For example, the chief of the defence staff (a military officer) and the permanent under secretary (a civil servant) report jointly to the defence minister. This represents one situation where this balance is achieved, which is repeated in many parts of the organisation. This blends the reactive and output-focused elements of defence with a more process and learning-oriented element to good effect.
The problems associated with the capture of information to support sustainability and logistics management are becoming more complex. Extended supply chains, convoluted contracts and more advanced technological equipment compounds the historical knowledge-management problem of knowing about internal capabilities and competencies. Knowledge-storage and sharing technologies are being used to assist in the delivery of integrated logistic support, for example the use of shared data environments between military users, procurement and support agencies, and the supply chain. As the number of servicemen decreases and the capability of equipment increases the complexity of learning and development similarly grows. Additionally the armed forces are being deployed to more diverse situations. The need to gain knowledge for exploiting successive iterations of equipment will rely on the quality of our personnel and a desire to manage and pass on knowledge. This is often not articulated within the MoD but is nevertheless a real activity and is being addressed in local rather than pan-defence activities.
Concepts and doctrine take time to develop as they are cascaded and ingrained into the culture of the organisation. They are, however, subject to change, which makes the presentation of this knowledge at successive iterations more difficult as it becomes more complex. Managing the configuration of abstract concepts presents a significant problem for knowledge capture and review.
A debrief of the KM battle
As an organisation, the Ministry of Defence needs to understand its knowledge needs and then continually update this knowledge. Such a task spans a highly technical and detailed understanding of the capabilities and limitations of defence equipment, as well as the interests and morale of the people employed. There are a number of mechanisms to identify knowledge needs and subsequently capture it. Passive adaptation is the MoD’s chosen route recognising the difficulty associated with the intangible cost-benefit analysis associated with a pan-defence knowledge-management initiative. Despite the size and complexity of the organisation there is a good deal of autonomy invested in each part, which allows for localised actions to solve problems.
In many cases the capture of knowledge is more successful than its ongoing maintenance. Nevertheless the problems that hinder knowledge identification and capture are being recognised. Without the explicit declaration of a KM programme there are a number of highly successful activities underway. At a time of considerable change, organisational turmoil and legislative demands, these understand yet determined activities are a valid approach to support the exploitation of knowledge.
1. Dixon, N, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (Futura, 1976)
2. The DII project represents a centralised approach to information-systems infrastructure
3. A process of reforming the MoD equipment-acquisition system
4. Kaplan, R., S. & Norton, D., The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy Into Action (Harvard Business School Press, 1996)
5. The Defence Management Board is the highest level defence meeting involving the eight members of the Defence Council Group representing military and political interests
Checkland, P. & Holwell, S., Information, Systems and Information Systems: Making Sense of the Field (Wiley & Sons, 1998)
Dixon, N, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (Futura 1976)
Davenport, T. H. & Prusak, L., Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know (Harvard Business School Press, 2000)
Hatten, K., J. & Rosenthal, S. R., Reaching for the Knowledge Edge: How the Knowing Corporation Seeks, Shares and Uses Knowledge for Strategic Advantage (Amacom, 2001)
Kaplan, R., S. & Norton, D., The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy Into Action (Harvard Business School Press, 1996)
Nonaka, I. & Takeuchi, H., The Knowledge Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation (Oxford University Press, 1995)
Snowdon, D, ‘Complex Acts of Knowing – Paradox and Descriptive Self-Awareness’ in Journal of Knowledge Management (Emerald, Vol. 6, Number 2, 2002)
Lieutenant commander John McNaughton is currently appointed to the Ministry of Defence headquarters in London as information manager for naval staff. He can be contacted at email@example.com