Knowledge Management Is Both a Goal and a Means

May 2005
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

The network-centric Free World is placing a greater emphasis on intelligence than ever before—both for battlespace military operations and for winning the war on terrorism. However, while much attention has been focused on intelligence collection, processing and dissemination, it is knowledge management that will win or lose conflicts in the future.

An observer need look no further than the controversy over weapons of mass destruction to understand the importance of investing in knowledge management. The Free World currently lacks the ability to determine when someone across this globe is working on weapons designed to kill thousands and challenge democracy. Neither can anyone determine the shape or form of these weapons, where people are putting them, how they are transporting them or how they are using deception techniques to prevent the Free World from learning about them. These shortcomings are as clear a definition for why knowledge management is required as is any that I know.

The old paradigm of data becoming information becoming knowledge is fading in this era of a networked force. Diverse forms of intelligence, whether raw or processed, are being shipped across the network. No longer does the value of data increase only as it moves up the processing chain. Now, its value is determined not by its form, but by its usefulness to the customer. The key to achieving the full value of all of this data is knowledge management, and its importance in turn is enhanced by what it leads to.

Knowledge management is not the end of the line for information exploitation. When a user is dealing in knowledge management, that user is dealing in the “now.” But beyond the now is a step called wisdom. It allows a user to take the now—or even the past—and make accurate predictions about what is going to happen in the future.

This capability to look into the future may be the most indispensable element of knowledge management. If all that national security personnel do with knowledge management is use it to define what has happened in the past, then we are failing to capitalize on the power of a data rich network. Knowledge management must permit the decision maker to focus on that given moment in time and then allow logical projection to move forward to the future.

This is important because the military will move forces, move supplies and make decisions based on someone’s projection of the future. For example, a commander does not move an aircraft carrier to a location based purely on the information of the past. The commander moves that carrier to a place because something may happen there in the future. So, the commander needs the knowledge that leads to the initial concept to look at something, as well as the wisdom to act at the right time in the right place.

Knowledge management is the enabler, and it is the direction in which we need to go. It will take work to achieve effective knowledge management. It will take work in culture, in technology, in training to use new tools. One thing is certain: If we don’t make real investments in time, technology and training for knowledge management, then it’s not going to happen.

Achieving a knowledge management environment is easier said than done. There are technology issues that are solvable. Cultural problems also exist, and they are solvable too. But, both must be overcome.

Knowledge management is not a natural occurrence. It doesn’t just happen because people recognize its importance. No one should think that simply the collection and sharing of data will lead to the precise solution or prediction of the future.

Experts simply cannot put together the technology that is required to sample an enormous database and permit users to connect the dots and arrive at a knowledge goal. That goal is not so easy to attain. Investment must be made in both people and time.

The major technology issue is how to create the interfaces necessary among different databases in the military and in the intelligence community so that each individual has access to all of the information that is available. This will enable the true fusion of data into knowledge.

One of the pushbacks on sharing databases is that the source of the data can be more fragile and need more protection than the data itself. So, we must develop a database that allows source information to be detached from data for some individuals and reattached for others. There are some places where the source and the data must stay closely linked, but in many other areas, they must be separated. Ensuring this separation opens up a much wider user audience.

This problem is both a technology and a cultural issue in which the private sector can play a key role. Industry must find ways to tag data so that the military and the intelligence community can separate the source from the actual information. This will broaden the audience and permit moving information down to a much lower common denominator—all the way down to the individual soldier. The result will be decisions based on a much wider range of data.

All told, knowledge management is much more than fusing information to feed elaborate wall-size displays. What defines knowledge management is its ability to allow all decision makers to decide on an immediate course of action and to make projections about future events.

Knowledge management is vital for the “now.” Hopefully, we will get to the point where not only are we developing tools for knowledge management but developing tools to help provide the wisdom necessary for our decision makers to do what is required to defend the Free World.