Command Takes Leap To Web-Centric Knowledge Sharing

October 15, 2009
By Maj. Vincent W. Lau, USAF, and David P. Martin

U.S. Forces Korea aims for ubiquitous, authoritative data.

As the civilian sector moves toward available collaborative networking applications and technologies, U.S. Forces Korea finds itself on the crest of this wave and is transforming how it conducts business across the command. The results of this effort will enable the command to provide authoritative, far-reaching data while dramatically improving its decision-making capabilities both in peace and wartime.

Anyone who spends time on the Internet most likely has experienced the latest evolution in computing and networking: Web 2.0. This is the concept behind the development of many new Web-centric, community-based applications. The ability to collaborate, store, access and share information from any computer with Internet access has created a major shift in users’ understanding and expectations of data access and storage. Web 2.0 applications—examples of which include YouTube, Google Docs, Facebook and instant messaging—enable users to connect and collaborate with colleagues and friends across the world, while at the same time freeing them from the confines of their local computing and storage devices. Users become more efficient and effective through collaboration when they are able to capitalize on these capabilities.

While the civilian community has embraced Web 2.0, the U.S. Defense Department is working to incorporate these technologies into its critical command and control (C2) networks. Examples of successful Web 2.0 concepts can be found, including the Defense Knowledge Online, Army and Air Force portals—one-stop shops for service members to access collaborative communities of practice and pertinent Web sites; and the Strategic Knowledge Integration Web, or SKIWEB, application—a collaborative blogging tool developed by the U.S. Strategic Command.

The power of Web 2.0 and its application on defense C2 networks lies in its potential to make warfighters even more effective by providing them with tighter decision-making loops and more relevant information through collaboration and networking. However, the key to Web 2.0’s success on defense C2 networks will be based on two overarching principles. First, the data accessed must be authoritative. Users must be able to trust that their data source is the definitive source from which all collaboration and work are based. For example, imagine the problems warfighters could face if each part of a team based its work on different or outdated versions of enemy intelligence. The second principle is that data must be ubiquitous; it must be available anywhere, anytime the user needs it. This means being available not only on any computer but also under any condition ranging from peacetime to war.

The importance of authoritative and ubiquitous data has been a challenge since the explosion of networks and data sharing. The C2 networks at U.S. Forces Korea first grew as a collection of disparate unit-owned networks and servers. As time passed and a command-wide communications strategy was adopted, many of these networks would be incorporated into a singular, centrally managed C2 network. But even with network consolidation, U.S. Forces Korea still had to deal with the vast quantities of fragmented data being stored throughout its systems. “Early on, there was no single, overarching strategy for our knowledge management,” Col. Russell Wilson, USAF, chief of the U.S. Forces Korea Knowledge Operations and Initiatives Division (KOIN), explains, “so units just posted their data on the networks anywhere and everywhere they could.” Initially, the command’s staff identified a critical need to manage all the data. “We knew we had a problem, and we wanted to make sure our senior leadership didn’t have to scour the networks to find the data they needed. It was critical for us to give them easy access to the information they wanted and needed,” Lt. Col. Phillip Badar, USA, notes. He is the director of the U.S. Forces Korea Joint Command Information Systems Activity (JCISA), which is responsible for operating and maintaining the command’s C2 networks. In the early days, the command’s staff members first would have to search across the network to find the data they were looking for. Then, assuming they could find it, they would summarize and recompile the information manually into a format the U.S. Forces Korea commander and his staff could use.

The arrival of Gen. Walter L. Sharp, USA, as commander of U.S. Forces Korea would kick-start the transformation of data management on the network. Gen. Sharp’s experiences in his previous assignment at the Pentagon had made him fully aware of the efforts made by Gen. James E. Cartwright, USMC, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and others to receive authoritative data “anytime, anyplace.” Gen. Sharp immediately set to work resolving the situation. From the beginning, he stated his vision of how his C2 networks and data should look. “I would like to go to a place on [our C2 networks] where data is authoritative and accessible to people who want to get it,” the general emphasizes. To fulfill this vision, Gen. Sharp tasked his staff to “identify ubiquitous and authoritative information flow [to] flatten the organization.”

During his first visits to U.S. Forces Korea’s command posts, Gen. Sharp observed that the data being displayed on the video walls was great for his wartime situational awareness, but wondered why it was not virtualized on a portal so that a commander could access this same information from anywhere in the world. Soon after, the concept of the Virtual Knowledge Wall (VkW) became reality.

The first attempt at creating a VkW (prior to version 1.0) was an online PowerPoint slide with embedded links to data and applications that the commander and his staff used in their decision-making process. This low-tech solution quickly outgrew its usefulness, and efforts were started to develop a true VkW. During Exercise Ulchi-Freedom Guardian 08, the JCISA Web development team worked hand-in-hand with operators to transform the initial PowerPoint product into an actual Web product. “It was actually quite tough since we developed the product in the midst of the exercise under simulated wartime conditions. There were many changes made as it evolved according to the commander’s wishes,” said Joshua Scott, J-6 Web developer. In the end, the VkW 1.0 provided Gen. Sharp and his staff with easy access to key products such as the common operational picture, commander’s critical information requirements, crisis action standard operating procedures and a host of other C2 applications.

Although VkW 1.0 successfully replaced the static PowerPoint slide, the rush to finish it during the exercise left VkW 1.0 incomplete. While some level of “accessibility anywhere” had been gained by providing the commander with direct access to many products and applications from a single location, VkW 1.0 did not provide true ubiquitous and authoritative data. Although the VkW itself was ubiquitous, the data behind it was still fragmented across the network on multiple servers. No ability existed within the VkW to ensure that the data on the other end of a link was the definitive copy or that the data would be available anywhere, anytime. On top of that, the static nature of VkW 1.0 added additional administrative overhead and difficulties in content management.

With the exercise over, the JCISA and KOIN staffs began work on the next generation of the VkW. Presenting ubiquitous and authoritative data to the commander was a priority, but it became obvious that meeting that goal would entail a much more dynamic system. The VkW would have to provide data owners the capability to store and manage their data centrally, while giving warfighters the flexibility to display the data in a format conducive to operations. Using agile programming techniques of quick prototyping, modular development, multiple user tests and frequent customer feedback, the JCISA Web development team was able to build a dynamic, database-driven VkW application in six weeks. “This was quite a large undertaking. We basically went from a simple, static Web page to a full-fledged dynamic, operator-centric platform in a month and a half. I think it goes to show how focused the JCISA and KOIN team was in providing the commander with what he needed and wanted,” Col. Badar explains.

With the development of VkW 2.0, U.S. Forces Korea came closer to meeting the goal of ubiquitous and authoritative data. Data owners now had the capability of uploading their data to a centrally managed database on a C2 network that had built-in redundancies and fail-safe measures. Because the data was managed centrally, the commander could be certain that the data he was seeing was definitive and current.

The JCISA Web development team also incorporated usability and intuitive design concepts in VkW 2.0. As an example, all critical information presented to Gen. Sharp and his staff is only two or three mouse clicks away from viewing. Easy-to-read red and green document icons next to each folder indicate the freshness of the data. Green means that the data is less than 24 hours old, while red means stale documents or data.

While the dynamic VkW 2.0 made huge steps toward providing ubiquitous, authoritative data, the command still has further to go to make it a true Web 2.0 application. While the data itself is now mostly ubiquitous and authoritative, the ability to exploit the data to its fullest requires additional Web 2.0 capabilities. For the VkW to reach its complete potential, users would need the ability to automate processes, connect and collaborate through it. For instance, many of the documents being uploaded to VkW 2.0 contain raw data that had to be manually gathered, filtered, analyzed and reformatted by action officers. In addition to collaborative capabilities, U.S. Forces Korea also needs automated processes to allow data at the lower levels of the organization to automatically filter up to higher organization and leadership.

A full analysis of the VkW and future capabilities led command to search for a more robust solution without having to continue down the homegrown application development path. The solution was found in Microsoft’s SharePoint technology, which utilized a combination of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007 and the ability of Microsoft Office 2007 products to interface seamlessly with it.

U.S. Forces Korea already is implementing MOSS technologies across its C2 networks. At the beginning of 2009, JCISA, KOIN, Microsoft and General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT) formed a partnership to design, develop and implement MOSS 2007 portals across the command. The portals will flesh out Gen. Sharp’s vision of ubiquitous and authoritative data, and allow the command to perform data summarization, data mining, and data querying and staff collaboration in a real-time environment. This will be done with built-in data access tools, business intelligence applications and automated key performance indicator dashboards.

The command moved to MOSS 2007 because of the advanced Web 2.0 capabilities it offered. MOSS 2007 enables advanced and seamless collaboration of documents, complete with check-in and check-out capabilities, and version control. This capability allows data entry at the lowest levels of the organization to be authoritative. SharePoint provides additional capability to roll up and summarize data from anywhere on the network through its use of business intelligence Web parts. Through its use of workflow management and Microsoft InfoPath forms, SharePoint provides the capability to automate the staffing process. Additionally, the knowledge-based, team networking and collaboration tools embedded in MOSS provide users with the capability to look up and collaborate with subject matter experts (logistics, operations, intelligence) throughout U.S. Forces Korea. Finally, MOSS 2007 offers the ability for organizations and users to develop collaborative Web sites and Web journals with a few clicks of a mouse.

The advanced features of MOSS 2007 can make any organization more effective and efficient, but by itself, technology alone cannot succeed. As Tim Berry, the JCISA GDIT program manager, states, “The technical piece of SharePoint is the easy part. The hard part is the paradigm shift that has to occur within the organization and at the user level to ensure that SharePoint’s features will be used on a daily basis. It’s not enough to just throw a bunch of features out onto the network—policy and procedures will need to be developed to ensure that we as an organization use it wisely. It will be a team effort with lots of work ahead, but in the end the command will be better for it.”

With KOIN leading the way on the knowledge management front, U.S. Forces Korea has positioned itself to tackle the paradigm shift swiftly and smartly. Dedicated knowledge managers already have been assigned at every unit and staff section with the responsibility for ensuring their organizations apply and use the command’s knowledge management policies and tools properly and effectively. Regularly scheduled workshops and training sessions are held to bring focus to knowledge management efforts and to increase the effectiveness and capabilities of the knowledge management team. Through their efforts, KOIN has enabled the command to establish a strong knowledge management foundation from which U.S. Forces Korea’s Web 2.0 successes will be built.

Under the leadership and vision of Gen. Sharp and with the efforts of his staff, U.S. Forces Korea is making great progress toward a ubiquitous and authoritative data environment. The command has moved quickly from static to dynamic Web portals across all the networks that can be rapidly manipulated to meet the changing data needs of its leadership without sacrificing the quality or robustness of the critical underlying data. With the move to MOSS technologies, the command is positioning itself to fully exploit Web 2.0 concepts with true ubiquitous and authoritative data. It will add to the capabilities of its C2 networks as a force multiplier and will give the command even more ability to “fight and win tonight.”

Maj. Vincent W. Lau, USAF, is chief of the Joint Command Information Systems Activity (JCISA) Systems Integration and Implementation Division.

David P. Martin is the General Dynamics Information Technology manager of the JCISA Web development team. 

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