posted 18 May 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 8
The art of war: Empowering front-line decision making
Seven years ago, the US Department of the Navy launched an ambitious and pioneering knowledge-management programme that would encompass more than two million people. In large part owing to the dedication and passion of those at the vanguard of the initiative, KM has since become an intrinsic part of the way the organisation operates, and knowledge itself the most potent weapon in the navy’s arsenal. By Jerry Ash
‘Mine is not to reason why; mine is but to do or die’ was an oft-heard lament in the lower ranks of the
From 1998 to 2002, the DON’s chief information officer, who was positioned at the highest level of the navy, piloted the most comprehensive and far-reaching knowledge-management initiative ever attempted anywhere in the world. The project involved more than 750,000 people from the DON, the United States Navy and the Marine Corps, plus as many or more military and civilian partners positioned throughout the US government and private enterprise: in total, perhaps two million people. The purpose of this report is to revisit that four-year initiative, and contrast it with the state of KM on the naval side of the
The foundation of a KM initiative
The first KM champion in the DON was a four-star admiral (the pacific fleet commander himself), so KM at the DON was supported by the uniform side of the house early on, which provided leadership and credibility. Soon after, Dan Porter was appointed to the CIO position, which involved leaving his post as acquisition reform executive, a role in which he worked with Alex Bennet, who in turn is now renowned as a leading KM advocate. While working together, the two had already identified and written about KM. Bennet took over Porter’s vacated post as acquisition reform executive, until Porter asked Bennet to join him at the DON. Together again, the two re-organised the CIO office, creating three deputies: one to focus on technology (Ron Turner); one on e-business and security issues (Dave Wennergren); and, the third to deal with ‘enterprise integration’, which was primarily KM (this was Alex Bennet, as deputy CIO/CKO).
Bennet thus had all the tools necessary to do the job of launching a KM initiative: executive power that extended up to the secretary of the navy, communications and outreach, enterprise licensing, strategic planning, workforce and training, and measurement processes. Even the librarian of the navy was part of her staff, which gave her access to library functions throughout the DON and eventually led to the development of an ‘information literacy’ toolkit, which was soon used government-wide.
“The system would have balked initially at the term ‘chief knowledge officer’,” Bennet recalls. “Generally the concept wasn’t understood. But when we began to build networks and approached this thing collaboratively and in a support mode, the terminology began to catch on.” Indeed, by the time Bennet received the Distinguished Public Service Award from the secretary of the navy, it was presented to her as chief knowledge officer of the Department of the Navy. In the words of the secretary, “Ms Bennet led innovative navy and Marine Corps enterprise-knowledge technology and information-management efforts that transformed the DON as it entered into the 21st century. Her singular mastery of the complexities of this vital force-multiplier function effected unequalled advances in the DON’s operations.”
KM was therefore married to an aggressive IM/IT program, providing the value that linked effective IM and IT to the people who use it. To achieve this, the team relied on a dozen integral change-based elements.
Create a shared vision – The DON IM/IT Strategic Plan, developed over six months by hundreds of people who represented different organisations and functional areas, presented a vision of the future:
An effective, flexible and sustainable DON enterprise-wide information and technology environment that enables people to make and implement efficient and agile decisions;
A knowledge-centric culture, where trust and respect facilitate information sharing and organisation.
The ‘k’ word was present in that first strategic plan, but the message was carefully crafted around the more familiar term, ‘information’. An important aspect of the plan was that it included success stories and, since this was an opportunity to get recognition from senior leadership and Congress, over a hundred success stories were submitted during the six-month planning process. By the time the plan was submitted to Congress, it had been staffed through the offices of the secretary of the navy, the chief of naval operations and commandant of the Marine Corps, and had been signed by the representative CIO organisations. The components of the DON were aligned, senior leadership was committed and implementation had already begun.
Build the business case – Sun Tzu, a Chinese general and contemporary of Confucius, said that what enables an intelligent government and a wise military leadership to overcome others and achieve extraordinary accomplishments is knowledge. He authored The Art of War, which is not about how to fight wars, but about how to fight wars without actually having to do battle – how to out-smart your opponent. It is still an important military reference today and is often used by civilian organisations as a training guide to prepare people for office politics and corporate culture.
Its influence was evident in autumn 1999, when senior military and civilian personnel met at the US Naval Academy for an intensive six days focused on what knowledge management could contribute to sailors and marines on the front lines. Discussion also focused on how the DON could ensure ‘knowledge superiority’, which was framed by the group in the following way: “More than any other nation, more than any other navy, and more than ever before, we rely on the creativity, ingenuity and intellect of our people. As we cross the threshold of the information age, we intend to realise this awesome potential in every corner of our navy, by every person, as a highly interactive, total team. Transcending even our current advantage in physical firepower, our navy will be alive with the firepower of shared understanding. We will do this because we must if we are to ensure our navy’s relevance and readiness in this new era. No foe, present or future, will match our knowledge or our ability to apply it. Indeed, just as forward presence has become a way of life for us, so too will knowledge superiority become a navy way of life.”
Demonstrate leadership commitment – The story of the successful use of KM by the commander of the Pacific Fleet and the 100-plus success stories collected in the planning stage spread, and as other early adopters began to demonstrate and communicate KM successes, other leaders at all levels recognised the potential value of KM to their own organisations. The DON promulgated the message of leadership commitment and soon the language of KM began to creep into everyday conversation.
Facilitate a common understanding – Text and visuals were used to facilitate a common understanding. Early DON models addressed the areas that were identified as needing the greatest clarity. The first graphic depicted a move from the bureaucratically embedded concept of ‘knowledge is power’ to the emerging concept of ‘knowledge shared is power squared’. Another graphic showed a red apple with a bite taken out of it. Within the apple was a list of IT advances and out of the empty space where the bite had been taken flowed the word ‘knowledge’.
Graphics and the associated messages became more complex as people began to grasp the idea of knowledge management. One complex graphic made the point that the role of IT is to support the infrastructure; that IT in and of itself exists to facilitate the management of information; and, that the management of information should be in support of decision makers.
Provide focus – The DON provided focus by developing and refining descriptions and definitions. It worked with the Federal Chief Information Council to focus on what knowledge management meant to the federal government. A clearer understanding of the role of CKOs in
With the emergence of e-business concepts, the DON built relationships between KM and e-business to capitalise on the synergy between the two. The focus of KM on intellectual capital and people was paired with e-business’s interchange and processing of information via electronic techniques, reflecting a common focus through different lenses.
Share new ideas, words and behaviours – Thinking in new ways, according to Bennet, demands new words or putting old words together in new ways to communicate new thinking. Similarly, new behaviours drive new thinking and new words.
An important concept included in the DON template was the sharing of new ideas, words and behaviours.
An aggressive and comprehensive communications strategy, both internal and external, was essential to facilitating a common understanding. The use of teams and communities helped facilitate the flow of information and knowledge across the organisation. As the DON recognised the value and opportunity offered by communicating, sharing and innovating, communities emerged naturally.
Identify a strategic approach – The DON took a distributed approach to the implementation of KM, promoting, supporting, encouraging and building on the hundreds of champions that were emerging throughout the system. The continued surge of investment in information technology significantly increased the amount of data and information that decision makers had available, thereby increasing the complexity of the decision-making process. Applying a systems-thinking approach, the DON began to create balancing loops to break this cycle. As individuals learnt and applied systems thinking, individual decision-making capabilities increased.
At the organisational level, increased decision-making complexity drove the need for KM systems. The DON developed a knowledge-centric-organisation toolkit to facilitate KM implementation at the organisational level and sent out ‘assist’ teams to help others to implement the programme.
Develop the infrastructure – The overarching importance of information management and knowledge management in improving decision making led the DON to conclude that managing information, and creating and sharing knowledge – rather than taking ownership of technology – was the primary role of IM/IT.
To develop a seamless infrastructure, the DON created the Navy Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI). The NMCI gave civilians, sailors and marines access to the rich intellectual resources that extended throughout the naval enterprise. Replacing the navy’s numerous shore-based networks, the NMCI provided data, video and voice services to navy and Marine Corps personnel. Coupled with the navy’s shipboard system and the marines’ tactical network, the intranet gave sailors and marines who were deployed around the world direct access to the network of people, information and knowledge available in government, industry and academia.
Measure and incentivise – The DON published a metrics guide for KM initiatives focusing on three types of specific measures: outcome metrics (measuring large-scale characteristics such as increased productivity or revenue for the enterprise); output metrics (measuring project-level characteristics, such as the effectiveness of lessons learnt); and, system metrics (monitoring the usefulness and responsiveness of the supporting technology tools). As successes began to emerge, the secretary of the navy established awards to recognise those teams that were increasing effectiveness and achieving efficiencies through knowledge sharing.
Provide tools – As guidance and policy details were issued, appropriate tools were also distributed. These toolkits were published on CD and were made freely available to all of government and academia, and various industry-support organisations. The issue of information literacy was also addressed: people were taught how to locate, evaluate, integrate, use and effectively communicate information.
Promote learning – Distributed learning technologies, experiential learning and other non-traditional approaches to education and training supplemented the traditional student/instructor approach. Those who were part of the IM/IT workforce were expected to participate in 80 hours of learning activities each year to augment the minimum competencies established in each career field. The bottom line was that every person who used IM/IT – which meant nearly everyone in the naval family – needed to become a continuous learner. Virtual learning courses on areas such as systems thinking were developed to help support this need.
Work towards an even greater future – The US Navy moved forwards at a fast pace with a vision and strategy, but without a predetermined path. The path would be forged by thousands of dedicated professionals, working individually and collectively towards an even greater future as a knowledge-centric organisation.
In 2002, after four years working on these 12 elements of a successful KM launch, Bennet announced her retirement from public service.
While still embedded in the CIO’s role, responsibility for supporting KM fell to a manager at a lower level. Meanwhile, Wennergren moved up to the position of CIO for the Department of Navy.
Three years later
The rest of the story lies in what happened to KM during the three years after it moved from a position of high-level advocacy to implementation at the operational levels of the navy.
Wennergren remains a passionate champion of KM. “It has been wonderful to watch the vision translated to activity and transformed into the fabric of the navy and the Marine Corps,” he says. “In the beginning, we had to create the sense of urgency and buzz, so we focused on the things we should say and write to compel people to embrace new ideas. Since then, it has been a maturing process through the actual incorporation of KM in strategic documents, operations, education and acquisition – a powerful change from understanding to doing.”
KM has become part of the basic philosophy not only of the navy, but of the Department of Defence (DOD). In today’s DOD documents, phrases such as ‘knowledge dominance’ and ‘information superiority’ are commonplace. KM is now part of the coursework at the
While support for KM at the highest levels of the
KM on the front line
Today, there are CKOs and knowledge managers in the field at the command level. A revolution in training troops in new ways of fighting and defending the nation has led to the development of 14 learning centres, each with a dedicated CKO. On the technology side, the NMCI has grown from being accessible to 20,000 early adopters to encompassing more than 300,000. It is flanked by other networks, such as the Distance Support Portal, which brings the intellectual capital of 100,000 people together to provide things like ‘telemaintenance’ and ‘telemedicine’.
The work of the DON has already started to influence strategies throughout the armed services. In 2003, the US Armed Forces introduced ForceNet, an operational framework first developed for the navy and Marine Corps to make network-centric warfare an operational reality. By using new communications links, computer-processing techniques and miniaturised electronics, ForceNet is delivering on the promise of network-centric warfare. “I don’t care what you call it,” Wennergren says. “When we refer to ForceNet, we mean KM.”
On the human side, communities of practice are now so numerous that the CIO has stopped trying to control or manage them. They exist within all levels of the organisation, including communities for flag (top-level) and general officers. “The beauty of knowledge management,” says Wennergren, “is that information becomes the way to fight and win wars. The importance of this has to be part of the way people think, build, train and fight. The downside, however, is that whenever you coin a new term, academic activity distances the term from the space of IT. Ironically, the people who first pushed the term KM were computer guys. Today, it is operational commanders and war-fighters, which is a huge victory.”
The job at the top level is not to prescribe, but to raise understanding and provide support for KM. General Alfred M. Gray, former commandant of the marines, in his foreword to the USMC Book of Strategy – which is still in use today – wrote: “You will notice that this book does not contain specific techniques and procedures for conduct. Rather, it provides broad guidance in the form of concepts and values. It requires judgement in application.” Likewise, the role of the DON was never to force implementation, but to lead and support. “There are wonderful examples of KM in the Marine Corps,” Wennergren says.
Marines on board ship receive the same KM training as sailors. The USMC Centre for Lessons Learnt, a huge knowledge centre operated by the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Expeditionary Force Development Centre in
Lieutenant Commander Bryan ‘Leif’ Erickson, KM manager, Tactical Training Group Pacific (TTGP), focuses on operational KM for carrier- strike-group staff worldwide. His group educates knowledge managers who are afloat on their roles and responsibilities when they arrive at their respective assignments, and on how best to streamline their organisations. “We are trying hard to break the paradigm of legacy thinking by attempting to implement new processes,” he says. “There is some resistance, but we are marketing this by touching every battle group in the Pacific Fleet.”
Erickson uses a collaborative toolset called Collaboration at Sea (CAS). This is the second generation of a project started by the Stennis Battle Group in 2000. The TTGP has also created a community of practice for ship-based knowledge managers. Teleconferences take place on the second Wednesday of each month, addressing KM issues and initiatives throughout the fleet.
For instance, Captain Scot Miller, knowledge manager at Multinational Forces Iraq, spoke with fellow community members about his KM initiatives with respect to knowledge management in a war zone. Similarly, Commander John Pietkiewicz discussed his initiatives and quick wins during a joint operation called Blue Flag.
“Collaboration at sea means sharing problem solutions and insights real-time, at every level,” explains Bennet. “The kind of exchanges Leif is facilitating allow those on the front line to do their every day jobs better. Marines are at sea as well, and are generally a part of every carrier group, so they would be part of Leif’s network.”
The DON model in federal government
As the DON KM initiative developed, interest in the concepts that drove it leapt right across the public sector, and KM pioneers from bureaucracies outside the military looked to the DON for guidance and support. That interest continues today, and knowledge-savvy federal leaders and workers make frequent pilgrimages to Bennet’s mountain retreat in
At a recent workshop at her Mountain Quest Institute, a four-hour drive from the
A programme with passion at its core
Thought leaders in the knowledge field have often warned against grandiose initiatives to establish KM as a way of doing business all at once and across an entire enterprise. The expectation was that such programmes would fall under the pressure of their own weight. Yet the DON has, over seven years, tackled the task all at once, yet with measured and sustained cadence across a multi-layered bureaucracy representing an enterprise far larger than any corporation.
For all the wonderful strategies the DON developed, the key was, and still is, passion. In her recently completed doctoral dissertation (see sidebar: ‘Passion makes KM an easy sell’), Bennet writes of the relationship between thought leaders and their passion. Based on interviews with dozens of KM practitioners, she concluded: “After exploring the rich response, it became clear that the aspects that excited passion in KM thought leaders were much larger than KM in terms of individual drivers (such as needs and goals and values), external relationships (also organisational needs and goals and values) or environmental factors (change, uncertainty, complexity and so on).” Indeed, it was far higher ideals that galvanised knowledge leaders within the DON to dedicate themselves to such a far-reaching knowledge programme. And without passion, it is questionable whether knowledge management would ever have had the impact it has within the US Department of the Navy, or whether the organisation would have benefited in such a fundamental way.
Join Alex Bennet in an AOK STAR
Series Dialogue from 20 June to 1 July 2005.
To join the AOK, visit www.kwork.org.
Although Alex Bennet is widely credited with the early KM initiative in the Department of the Navy, she gives the real credit to the people involved – the men and women of the navy who took to KM like ducks to water. There is a natural bent towards networking and knowledge-sharing among people who are together on battleships or standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the front lines.
Her recently completed doctoral dissertation explores aspects of knowledge management that contribute to the passion expressed by KM thought leaders. Across four continents, almost all of the 34 KM thought leaders she interviewed – working in, and with, industry, academia and government – made it clear that the aspects that excited passion in KM were much larger than KM in terms of individual drivers such as needs, goals and values.
What KM represents (knowledge sharing, networks, improved performance of organisations etc) is, in the words of these thought leaders, a tool “for living in the world, and with the world, in a more human and humane way”. While sharing knowledge in the organisational setting impacts efficiency and effectiveness, it also builds relationships and facilitates learning and understanding. Thus, KM is more than a management process; it is a way of living.
So what are those aspects of knowledge management that thought leaders connect with passion? They include joy, commitment, action, a sense of urgency, leadership, energy, freedom, growth, speaking from the heart, engaging with other people, promoting the greater good, doing the right thing, duty toward others, morals, values, purpose beyond self, a desire to make a difference, and making one’s life meaningful. Quite a list.
Indeed, the field of knowledge management appears to have a magnetic attraction. One interpretation of the intense connection between knowledge management and its practitioners is the resonance of the field with the best of what it is to be human. The interviewees, for example, associated KM with the “nourishment and cultivation of the future”; “the richness of multidimensionality of experience”; “the value of knowledge and what it can do for society – for individuals and for interactions between individuals”; “the creation of new ideas”; “making a contribution”; and, “making work really worthwhile”. To the thought leaders Bennet spoke to, their passion was considerably more than energy; rather, it crept into their being, their basic existence, and influenced how they saw themselves in the world.
Bennet’s dissertation is available free online at www.mountainquestinstitute.com/dissertation.htm.
Although Alex Bennet has left the Department of the Navy to pursue a simpler lifestyle in the Appalachian mountains of
The two left their corporate and government worlds to establish The
At the heart of the inn is a two-story library containing more than 14,000 volumes. In keeping with the Bennets’ bent on sharing, the Mountain Quest collection has become a part of the West Virginia Library System. In the adjacent conference centre, cherry hardwood floors, warm lighting and attractive wall coverings are in keeping with the rural ambiance of the retreat itself. The main conference room can accommodate groups of up to 60, and offers the latest audio and video technologies for small to mid-sized educational and business workshops, off-site retreats and meetings.
The Bennets hosts frequent workshops focused on what makes a successful firm, emphasising the importance of individual relationships and knowledge. “To be successful in this fast-changing and complex world, we need to become adaptable, knowledge focused and people centred,” says David. “That’s what our work is all about.”
The research and sharing also continues far beyond the bounds of their retreat site. The Bennets are frequent speakers in
For more information, visit www.mountainquestinstitute.com.