posted 23 Jan 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 5
In defence of KM
The effective management of the knowledge and information at its disposal is critical to the success of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DATL) in its role as the research and technical advisory arm of the UK’s Ministry of Defence. Chrissie McCracken and Steve Thornton explain the central targets of the agency’s knowledge-management programme, and reveal the progress DSTL has made so far in achieving these goals.
The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), a new government agency created from the partial privatisation of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (Dera) in July 2001, has had to re-evaluate its existing knowledge-management programme and introduce one more suited to a non-commercially-oriented organisation. With the emphasis on the quality of science rather than an immediate return on investment, this has meant a radical re-shaping of the existing programme, to one more attuned to the culture with which the agency now finds itself.
Working from the basis that the requirements of DSTL staff are fundamentally different from those of Dera staff, a considerable amount of effort has been directed towards identifying the actual needs (rather than wants) of DSTL users and ensuring that those needs are met. It has also had to find quick and effective methods to meet and help change the culture that currently exists, and to assist and support one where the sharing of information is the norm rather than the exception.
The Knowledge Services Department is at the forefront of DSTL’s knowledge programme and is co-ordinating these efforts. The solutions chosen have been pragmatic and affordable, and it is hoped that they will help solve some of the outstanding KM issues faced by the agency.
Dera invested a considerable amount of staff, time and resources in developing and implementing a knowledge-management programme, starting with a KM systems strategy in 1994, the creation of an effective internal electronic communications network in 1995, a revised KM strategy in 1999, and various technical initiatives including KNet (a knowledge network), collaborative teamworking and the development of a central ‘knowledge store’. Not all of these initiatives were an unqualified success, however, and a serious dichotomy became apparent between the cultural ethos of Dera and effective knowledge management.
Strenuous efforts were made within Dera (and its predecessor, the DRA) to reduce overheads and maintain a much tighter control on expenditure. In addition, Dera was required to be a profit-making agency, a significantly different environment from the almost pure research atmosphere of the past. This had a particular impact on Dera’s library services, seen by many in management to be an overhead without a significant impact on output. The emphasis placed on allocating all costs where possible to customer project codes led to the introduction of charging even for minor services such as the provision of photocopies and inter-library loans, to the extent that some profit-centre managers insisted on vetting and countersigning any and all requests from their staff. While correctly emphasising that everything previously considered ‘free’ actually had a corporate cost, it also had more damaging effects: staff no longer used library services as a matter of routine; unless employees had a cost code to justify it, visits to the library just to browse were reduced; relevant articles and reports were missed; and, information gathering became piecemeal and sporadic.
Outside of the library service, knowledge sharing was severely hampered. The introduction of profit centres enabled effective identification of where costs lay, but encouraged internal self-sufficiency. Staff in some centres would be encouraged to retain and execute all of the tasks involved in a project, even though the tasks could be carried out more effectively and efficiently by staff in other centres. The information and knowledge in individuals’ heads was recognised as an asset, but as one to be corralled and not shared. Such attitudes and policies were not universal, but were becoming more pervasive. In turn, they had a severely detrimental effect on the organisation’s ability to sustain a culture conducive to knowledge management.
DSTL’s purpose and values
From the outset and as an integral part of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) itself, DSTL’s only purpose was to provide the advice and technical answers that the MoD needed to conduct its business efficiently. It aimed to concentrate on scientific research of topics important for defence and for government, high-quality, coherent analysis, and integrated technology advice and solutions. Key to meeting these targets were DSTL’s organisational values, defining how, as individuals, employees should behave day by day. They were, and still are:
- Supporting each other regardless of position;
- Commitment to the public interest;
- Cherishing knowledge;
But glib management phrases butter no parsnips. If DSTL was to meet its targeted success criteria, it would have to do more than just state that ‘cherishing knowledge’ was one of its values.
During the pre-privatisation phase of Dera, a shadow Knowledge Services Department was set up under Chrissie McCracken. Its constituent parts were those existing library services and records-management staff at Porton Down (the only major site wholly under DSTL control) and the Defence Research Information Centre in Glasgow. The latter consisted of the Defence Reports Collection and a specialised team of information scientists providing detailed bibliometric research and associated information analysis. These, together with two web-team members of staff, would form the core of information-management provision for the future.
Overall responsibility for knowledge management and information provision, including line management for the Knowledge Services Department, was vested in a member of the board – the technical director – who set up and chaired a working group to review all aspects of the associated problems and issues. Although the working group was aimed at what are conventionally described as ‘knowledge-management’ issues, it was decided that it would be called the Knowledge Programme, for two main reasons: first, scepticism in some quarters about the concept of knowledge management and, second, the idea that anything ‘tainted’ as a management-led project could lose local support from the beginning.
The working group consisted of the technical director, representatives from each scientific sector, the head of knowledge services and any additional expertise from that department as and when it was needed. It saw its first priorities as defining what the immediate needs of the new organisation were, creating an effective KM strategy, and establishing longer-term aims for the programme.
Themes of DSTL’s knowledge strategy
In order for it to be effective, the knowledge strategy had to be aligned to DSTL’s business strategy, technical strategy and information-technology strategy. Unless it was in complete support of the first two, it would have been a waste of time – a theoretical potboiler. It also had to be in accord with the information-technology strategy, with which it would have to have an equal partnership. The IT strategy would need to accommodate the aims of the knowledge strategy as some of its own targets, but over-enthusiastic KM pipedreams also needed to be tempered with the practicalities of affordable technological solutions.
The final knowledge strategy, produced in the summer of 2001, was an overarching, annually revised, five-year plan, fully aligned with DSTL’s mission, vision and values, and actively supported by the board as one of the key elements of DSTL’s future.
The key elements of the strategy were:
- To create a positive staff environment that supports and encourages the exchange of information and knowledge;
- To implement effective processes that enable the easy interchange of information and knowledge;
- To identify what the existing information, data and model resources within DSTL are;
- To identify the information needs of DSTL staff;
- To identify knowledge and bridge knowledge gaps within the organisation.
People and culture became the highest priority. People create and supply the content of the knowledge corpus and, without their enthusiastic co-operation and input, any knowledge strategy would be a waste of time and money. As mentioned above, the environment within DERA had led, in some areas at least, to a growing environment of secrecy, internal competition and mistrust. If DSTL’s corporate aims were to be met, we would need to replace this with an environment that encouraged the sharing of information, successes, failures, knowledge and skills, as well as to introduce mechanisms for rewarding knowledge creation and sharing.
The processes affecting KM all had to be re-assessed to encourage knowledge sharing and co-operation – information-management processes, HR processes, project-management processes and security processes. It is no good encouraging people to share information and knowledge if the mechanisms in place do nothing but hinder that aim.
To define the content needed within the knowledge corpus, we needed to know what the information needs of the users – the knowledge workers – actually were. That content would need to be planned, structured and coherent, and an ongoing awareness and assessment of what content was available from both the commercial world and the defence community had to be an integral part of the strategy.
Finally, information technology had to support the strategy (but not drive it, as is so often the case). The tools and systems implemented had to be driven by well defined, real (not just perceived) user requirements, starting with a re-assessment of legacy tools and systems, including re-evaluation of initiatives that had been underway at the time of the partial-privatisation split.
Putting theory into practice
Anyone who has been down this road themselves will realise that these relatively few aims and targets actually hide a great deal of work, much of which was either carried out or led by the nascent Knowledge Services Department.
Core to much of what has been carried out was the future library strategy (FLS). Although DSTL staff sit on five major sites and nine much smaller ones, only one had its own dedicated library – the equivalent of a university departmental library. Some of the other sites had access to basic library services provided by QinetiQ (see box-out below), but this was only seen as a stop-gap solution. QinetiQ could not provide services on all sites, and could not provide all of the services DSTL needed to have access to. The FLS addressed the question of what information facilities/resources were needed by the knowledge workers to do their jobs better, and the only effective way of finding this out was by asking them. It should be stressed that although the title of the study implied a focus on what library service we wanted to develop in the future, its remit was far broader than this, and addressed many of the fundamental knowledge-related issues that DSTL needed to face up to.
A series of workshops, backed up with anecdotal information and web-based questionnaires, were carried out in the summer of 2001. This gave us the foundation evidence on which to base any future planning, and led to the radical FLS itself, which was approved by the board over the winter of 2001/2002, and in turn became one of the factors that led to a serious reappraisal of the structure and role of Knowledge Services itself.
A major finding of the study was that DSTL comprised three very distinct user communities, only one of which equated to the model that could be satisfied by conventional research libraries. Whichever solutions were implemented would satisfy one, possibly two, of these communities, but would almost certainly fail to satisfy all three. Each had different information-resource requirements, different knowledge-sharing habits and procedures, and different knowledge-gathering mechanisms.
One of the few needs shared by all three communities was universal access to both DSTL’s intranet and the internet. Although we had inherited an effective intranet infrastructure, charging mechanisms, budgetary constraints and varying day-to-day requirements meant that some areas had full access from the desktop, while others might be sharing one intranet terminal between 40 employees. Internet access was also limited, as direct access from the desktop was only possible from dedicated machines not connected to the intranet.
Over the past 18 months a number of steps have been taken, or are being taken. It is only possible for us to highlight some of them here, but they should give a flavour of some of the ways thinking in DSTL has developed:
- E-access from the desktop – the board has implemented a target that all staff should have access to the intranet at their desks. In addition, there is limited access to the internet via the intranet through a secure portal maintained by Knowledge Services and the web team;
- Access to e-journals – an extensive data-capture exercise identified those journals to which electronic access to the full-text at the desktop was needed. This, together with access to the contents pages of many thousands more journals, has now been enabled;
- Full-text reports – the full e-text of scientific and technical reports published either by or for the Ministry of Defence are being scanned and made accessible through the intranet. A major push to extend the coverage is planned over the next few years;
- Fixed facilities – although we will still only have one sizeable library within DSTL, alternative solutions to support knowledge sharing are being introduced. These include ‘tea boat’ support, ‘information bistros’ and ‘anti-bistros’, and small, focused collections:
- Tea boats – most departments are keen to support informal knowledge sharing, and the tea boat (tea club, tea room, coffee klatch) is seen as central to this. The tea boats are (largely) equipped with internet terminals, white boards, a selection of locally chosen but centrally funded journals, and a couple of shelves of ‘ready-use’ books, supplied and maintained by Knowledge Services;
- Information bistros – these are located at central locations on some sites and equipped with comfy chairs, electronic whiteboards, internet terminals and so on;
- Anti-bistros – the place to get away from the phone, the open-plan office, your roommate’s conversations. Quiet work areas to get on with some serious thinking;
- Small, focused collections – very small, dynamic library collections with the minimum of staff, but of the highest quality. These operate a very active stock-selection policy, to focus the collection on the direct needs of the users on site. There is also an emphasis on supplying information rather than on building a library.
Progress on the above has varied from site to site, largely depending on the availability of accommodation and site re-organisation, but who said life was going to be easy?
- Knowledge agents – not a software package, but science-trained information specialists based on the major sites, capable of tackling almost any sort of task either individually, within the knowledge-agent team, or using the skills and resources of the rest of Knowledge Services. Knowledge agents do everything from supplying basic open literature searches to supporting every phase of a project’s information and knowledge-sharing requirements, technology watches, technology road-mapping, etc;
- Centralised information funding – the board accepted that charging footling amounts for photocopies, loans and any other information-related services served no useful end, and was in fact detrimental to staff development, current awareness and the overall value of DSTL. These services are now ‘free at the point of use’, up to a reasonable limit;
- Distillation – an in-house scientific magazine published every two months, with articles by staff on current research in particular areas and overviews of scientific topics by Knowledge Services information scientists;
- E-learning – a plan to develop e-learning and e-training, both at the desktop and in dedicated facilities, is being instituted. This includes the creation of training programmes to enable staff to get the best out of the facilities already at their disposal.
What (we think) we have learnt so far
- You can’t manage knowledge;
- You cannot solve the problems of knowledge use/re-use by throwing technology at it;
- The only way to improve the situation is to create:
- A culture in which the knowledge users understand its value;
- A culture actively supported by all levels of management;
- An identification of the real knowledge needs of the users, not theoretical assessments drawn up by non-users.
- Provide technological support to assist those needs and that culture.
Where do we go from here?
The successes to date have largely been on the information-management side, and much remains to be done on the people and culture aspects. Future activities of the programme will focus much more on issues such as knowledge retention and capture, succession planning, rewards and motivation, mentoring and training, and the encouragement of communities of practice. We recognised from the beginning that we were starting on a long journey. We have taken the first steps (we hope in the right direction) but there is still along way to go – and our journey may not have an end in sight.
Chrissie McCracken is the head of knowledge services of DSTL, as well as the UK representative and vice-chair of the NATO Research & Technology Organisation’s Information Management Committee. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Thornton is the group leader (technical) of DSTL Knowledge Services. He can be contacted at email@example.com
The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) is a government agency created from the partial privatisation of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (Dera) in July 2001, the remainder of the former organisation now forming the government-owned, private company, QinetiQ. Preparations for the separation of the two parts had begun over a year earlier with the setting up of a shell management organisation for DSTL and an appraisal of which elements of Dera would belong to which of the new organisations.
Consisting of about 3,200 scientists, engineers, analysts and support staff on 13 separate sites, DSTL’s remit is carry out that scientific research best carried out within government, provide the Ministry of Defence with analysis and technical advice, and lead on scientific collaboration with the UK’s international defence partners. Within this kind of organisation, information and knowledge are recognised as the keystones of future success, and the effective management of these assets is regarded as a critical success factor.