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Airmen Tap Into Knowledge Now

May 15, 2008
by Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

E-communities are growing by leaps and bounds in the U.S. Air Force’s premier professional networking venue: Air Force Knowledge Now (AFKN). With more than 225,000 users and nearly 12,000 communities of practice (COPs), AFKN is fast becoming the virtual go-to place for airmen seeking to connect with each other to discuss issues and solve problems. And although the e-space was originally established for members of the Air Force, it is quickly becoming a joint collaborative environment as members of active-duty, Reserve and Guard of the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps join the ranks of users.

The social networking and e-collaboration that has been seeping into the organizational fabric of the commercial sector today is a tool Air Force personnel have been taking advantage of for some time. In fact, in 1999 when the service first introduced AFKN, it had to create its own technologies to establish the capability because nothing like it existed on the commercial shelf. Over the past nine years, however, the Air Force has seen it take on a life of its own, continuing to produce benefits that even its originators did not foresee.

At the core of the AFKN’s structure are COPs that registered users create to open discussion about specific areas of interest. Topics can range from procurement procedures to security forces. Randy Adkins, director, Air Force Center of Excellence for Knowledge Management, says the increased use of AFKN simply reflects how technology has changed professional interaction. In the past, airmen would call or e-mail each other to get information or collaborate; now many look to the Web as the venue for exchanging ideas and solving problems.

And although some online environment experts contend that growing usage is the result of the millennial generation entering the work force, Adkins disagrees, relating that AFKN’s demographics tell a different story. Baby boomers are just as likely—if not more so—to turn to online communities for collaboration because their generation values efficiency in getting things done and the Web delivers that efficiency right to users’ desktops.

The AFKN, accessible through the Air Force Portal, offers a number of tools that users of any age are finding extremely useful. Members are able to share documents and track not only changes made to the document but also who made them. In addition, community members can use this feature to make large documents widely available, a task that would otherwise be difficult because many military e-mail systems restrict the size of e-mail attachments.

The system also features numerous ways to locate subject matter experts. In one tool, users choose a subject area and a box drops down where they can type a question. Established experts in the field can then e-mail the person who posted the query. This feature has yielded an unexpected benefit: when questions continue to pop up about the same topic, Air Force leaders know that it may be time for more training in an area, Adkins shares. Users also can obtain expert help through the Virtual Yellow Pages, which includes contact information of vetted experts in particular fields.

Integrated e-learning is one of the newest AFKN features. Adkins explains that course material is published on the site so users can access it from this central location. In some instances, completed coursework is even tracked to be used during personnel evaluations. The tool has been particularly useful for teaching troops about process or procedural changes, and it allows military leaders to see who has reviewed material about changes that will be instituted, he adds.

Virtual mentorship also takes place through the AFKN. Several tools enable users to locate another AFKN member who is willing to provide guidance in a specific field. For example, someone new to the financial management field can seek out an experienced member in the community then make contact to request assistance. The two then agree about how they will work together—online, on the phone or in person. Details are often set forth in a formal contract.

The real success of the AFKN has been brought about more by its users than by its architects, Adkins admits. “One of the lessons we’ve learned is that our users are smarter than we are. We look in on communities and they’re using AFKN in ways we never even thought of,” he says.

Surprisingly, non-combatant uses of the AFKN have produced some of the most captivating stories about how it has been applied in unexpected ways. For example, personnel at Hurlburt Field set up its Emergency Operations COP to disseminate pertinent information before Hurricane Dennis blew through Florida in July, 2005. Initially set up as an information source about evacuations, base status, recall notices and recovery efforts, the COP is now considered a one-stop shop for Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) headquarters command personnel and wing commanders. It provides more than 10,000 in the AFSOC community with real-time details about hurricane conditions, evacuation orders, reconstitution recommendations and policy decisions. In fact, during the deadly hurricane summer of 2005, more than 300 AFSOC members who were deployed overseas logged into the COP to obtain hurricane and evacuation information that related to family members.

That same year, airmen at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia created a COP so they could rapidly disseminate tactical airborne imagery taken by active duty and Air Guard units to support hurricanes Katrina and Rita recovery efforts. Four distinct imagery intelligence sources converged in one location, which eventually hosted more than 2,300 images. Portal accounts were established for members of federal agencies, relief crews, the U.S. Coast Guard and even Texas Governor Rick Perry so they could identify inaccessible roadways, assess damage and create rescue plans. The COP turned out to be more than just a response to a single incident; it gave birth to unclassified imagery dissemination procedures that will be used during a national crisis, Air Force officials say.

The uses for the AFKN continue to grow. For example, the AFKN team had been interested in launching wiki technology for some time, but a business case could not be made—that is, of course, until the thought of putting the “help desk” system on the AFKN surfaced. Now, instead of just having 200 or so members on a help desk team, airmen can tap into the expertise of the more than 225,000 members of the AFKN, Adkins notes.

One of the AFKN team’s ideas to encourage such creativity is something that is central in the military: awards. “We figured the military is big into awards, so let’s leverage that,” Adkins shares. The result is the “Champion COP” award program that recognizes COPs that have developed useful and innovative ways to utilize the technology.