Sunday, April 05, 2009

Knowledge Management in Federal Agencies

The Federal Knowledge Management Working Group launched a Federal Knowledge Management Initiative a while ago. Members of the group are feverishly working within Action Groups to create sections of a Roadmap document. I'm a little skeptical about the overall value and quality of what is going to emerge as the final document but if the primary objective of the initiative is to put knowledge management on the agenda of the Obama Administration and the leadership of federal agencies, then it might achieve that.

I have been participating in two of the Action Groups and in the process, I've learned a few things about "writing by committee", the challenges of writing a coherent piece when the authors come from different perspectives and don't share a common language, using a wiki to work on collaborative writing, how to get group members to volunteer for specific writing or review and editing tasks, and more generally, how to voice disagreement effectively.

The centerpiece of the initiative is the creation of a Federal KM Center. Sometimes, when you are trying to make a point (as in.. there is a need for a Federal KM Center to increase the visibility of KM in Federal Agencies), you end up emphasizing the negative (there are few Chief Knowledge Officers, Federal Agencies employ ad hoc KM practices, etc...) and failing to highlight the real successes. For example, a couple of agencies (esp. Army and NASA) are perceived as good examples to follow and repeatedly mentioned as such while many agencies that have developed relevant and successful "knowledge management" practices are much less visible and never mentioned.

What if the reality is that many more Federal Agencies are implementing Knowledge Management related activities, don't necessarily feel the need for a formal KM program, and achieve great results without one? There is an assumption that if you don't have a formal KM program you're probably not doing enough, not doing much. What if not needing a formal KM program is a sign that you are already ahead of the curve and your KM approach is well integrated in your operations?

What if an agency that is allowing its various offices to develop their own best practices or lessons learned activities is more effective than a centralized KM office? Which should come first? A centralized KM program? The ad hoc emergence of best practices/lessons learned activities within organizational units? If the objective is to generate quick wins, I would suggest that ad hoc activities at the local level, within organizational units is more effective. Once those local level mechanisms are in place, coordination and knowledge sharing across organizational units can help build greater organizational learning at the agency level.

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