Government Knowledge Management Group Seeks Answers

May 2005
By Robert K. Ackerman
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A low-profile organization looks far ahead into an esoteric world.

The key to understanding and processing information may lie not in new technologies or advanced system architectures, but instead in the secret of effective storytelling. It also might be found just as easily in the classification of ideas, in the semantics of the Web, or even in the ability to pass personal lessons learned on to others. Or, this key could be an as-yet undiscovered aspect of knowledge management that only now is emerging in this information age.

A group of U.S. government information system professionals, along with their counterparts in the private sector and leading theoreticians in academia, is exploring how to define knowledge management. These professionals are exchanging ideas in an organization known as the Knowledge Management Working Group. As part of their activities, they regularly share experiences and concepts about managing information in the course of their professions. But, not content with system maintenance, they also are looking ahead to how knowledge will be defined—and applied—as the information revolution picks up steam.

The Knowledge Management Working Group is a federal-level organization that reports to the Best Practices Committee of the Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO) Council. Two elected co-chairs who are federal government information system professionals currently head the group: Earl Carnes and Harriet Riofrio. Beneath them, the group is organized into a listserv group, several communities and special interest groups, or SIGs.

The SIGs focus on topics such as communities of practice; content management; governmentwide communities of practice; knowledge management education, learning and development; public policy and outreach; knowledge management stories; Web site content and knowledge management technology; and taxonomies and semantics.

When the group began meeting only a few years ago, it tended to focus on the nuts and bolts of knowledge management as the government digitized to improve service to the citizen. In many cases, discussions centered on how to sell new approaches and technologies to management.

Over time, as information architectures took shape, the focus of the group evolved along with the concept of knowledge management. Members began to float new ideas that sought to set a new path for understanding knowledge management. Instead of being dependent on one or two general challenges, knowledge management has evolved into an umbrella theme that comprises many diverse disciplines—all of which must be addressed for knowledge management to be mastered.

“If you don’t have the whole picture, it’s not going to be successful,” Riofrio declares. “You really have to understand how people think, the context in which they are looking for information, the way we use language, the way we filter information to find what we want. There are a lot of important questions that need to be asked and understood. It’s more than just search engines,” she emphasizes.

“We’re interested in the concept of knowledge, knowledge transfer, the nature of knowledge, and the opportunities and problems as we work through this new networked world,” she continues. “We have a real common understanding, so we can pass off ideas and build on our understanding instead of building from scratch.”

Riofrio relates that the working group’s members are looking at many elements of knowledge management. “Knowledge management asks about validity; how do I know this is true; what does ‘authoritative’ mean; what is the best way to transfer knowledge, to disseminate knowledge; the basic question of what is knowledge,” she offers. The classic pyramid of data-information-knowledge may not address the complexities and synergies of language, cognition and other basic issues.

“What we have found is a renewed respect for the complexity of what it is that we know,” she says. “This is why communities of practice and the focus on collaboration have become so important. We realize that we weren’t going to be making this knowledge explicit or making it useful [in standard repositories],” she offers.

At first, most participants were technicians tasked with building knowledge management systems. Now, the working group is welcoming a new crop of interested people who range outside of the technically oriented core.

Librarians now are a part of the group’s thirst for knowledge management. A working group session a few years ago at the Library of Congress brought librarians into the knowledge management neighborhood, and many of them are active in the community.

The group has become more compartmentalized compared to its origins. Many of the important questions in its early years were asked and answered, Riofrio relates. She analogizes the progress of the working group as beginning with philosophical questions that directed and drove the group as it matured. But, during this process, the group would focus on one issue at a time to answer its questions. Eventually, the group realized that it had to delve deeper into many other areas to view knowledge management as a whole.

To disseminate knowledge among members, the working group established a listserv. All members can access it and ask questions on it. Each SIG holds its own sessions that are Webcast when and where possible, and they also seek to disseminate products. As part of its charter, the knowledge management group is active on the Best Practices committee, where it interacts with other affiliated working groups.

The working group’s listserv comprises about 500 people who function as a virtual community. The group is looking to move this element into a more sophisticated community of practice, Riofrio relates. For now, it can serve as an exchange point for questions, answers and suggestions. A simple request for ideas on defining content management, for example, can generate several dozen responses in a short period of time, she notes.

The working group also has a number of partner groups throughout the Washington, D.C., area, and the interaction between the knowledge management group and its counterparts includes exchanges of ideas and coordination of events. “It’s almost the nature of knowledge management that you want to share and you want to collaborate,” Riofrio illustrates. “We enjoy getting together and transferring knowledge.”

Under the umbrella of communities of practice, the working group has identified aspects such as portals, content management, categorization, search and retrieval, and other tools needed to support collaboration. While many of these are already known by expertise, they must be re-learned through progress.

Early last year, the working group began reorganizing its SIGs to reflect a changing emphasis on knowledge management. Some aspects that were important a few years ago have been eclipsed by others as technologies and approaches evolve, so the SIGs were arranged to reflect these changes.

One of these burgeoning elements is storytelling. Riofrio expresses that group members feel strongly about its importance, which emerged from tacit knowledge and transfer. Many academics who have worked on expert systems and artificial intelligence now are dissecting storytelling as an effective means of knowledge management.

Storytelling has proved to be a highly effective way of impressing information on an individual, and that individual tends to remember that information better and can mentally cross-index the knowledge stored from that story. Riofrio relates that some business leaders have become proponents of using storytelling in a corporate context.

A SIG on taxonomies meets on the same day of the week so that members can share information on knowledge classification. This discipline likely will increase in importance as knowledge takes more diverse forms.

The semantic Web is a focal point for one of the working group’s most successful SIGs. This involves portals, technologies, services and other elements that characterize the Web, which itself is a study in knowledge management. Participants are starting a series of modules that address aspects of Web semantics such as better communications and machine-to-machine connections. Some of these areas touch on taxonomies, Riofrio notes. “The Web involves connections between people at an unprecedented scale—solving problems in an unprecedented way with access to so many different individuals,” she points out.

And, one of the most overlooked aspects of knowledge management is knowledge retention. This complex issue combines information management with human resources, and it is especially important with the changing demographics of the government workforce.

Important knowledge is stored in the minds of many longtime workers who are nearing retirement, and passing that information along to successors and others is not as easy as it may seem at first consideration. Having a person try to type his or her knowledge into a database does not take into account information categorization, cross-indexing, time elements or other important user-dependent characteristics of knowledge.

Riofrio relates that a federal government official and a corporate leader recently spoke at a working group meeting. They observed that the looming threat of mass retirements of the aging government workforce has not yet come to pass, but continuing to use their knowledge accumulated through years of experience remains important. Simply having an experienced person available to mentor others does not necessarily mean that the knowledge is transferred well, Riofrio points out.

And, this transfer of knowledge is important not only for institutional efficiency, but also for broad aspects of society. If every time a person is born he or she has to learn everything over again because there are no very good vehicles, techniques and institutions to speed up learning—so that one can get to the point where he or she can take those ideas and push them forward and create something new—then we just are constantly back to ground zero, Riofrio points out. “In some ways, mankind has come up with different ways of doing that [knowledge management] such as storytelling, which is such a basic, primal technique that survives to this day.

“The better we achieve explicit knowledge, tacit knowledge, knowledge transfer—the better we get doing that, then the better that business is able to evolve and expand, the better government is able to make better decisions and move on, and the better we are as a culture,” she continues.

“It really is about evolution.”


Web Resources
Knowledge Management Working Group:
Federal CIO Council Best Practices Committee: