DISA and Federal KM Symposium Feedback

It has taken me way too long to get to writing this. With a little time off between contracts, I decided to take a couple days and visit this symposium because I once worked in the Office of Knowledge Management at DISA. I wanted to see how much things had changed, hopefully for the better. A good man, Bill Balko, is still involved. He worked in a different office when I was at DISA but was highly engaged, and it looks like he really stepped up after a few shake ups.

When new senior leaders arrive to any government organization, they love to reorganize the structure to “streamline business functions” because the bullet looks good on their evaluations.

I don’t want to rehash the whole conference, just something that really bothered me. Most of the conference seemed to focus on something you won’t see happen within government on a big enough scale to take note: artificial intelligence. All we really need is Amazon’s Alexa doing your taxes…

The conference ended with a number of folks from the IRS on a panel to discuss the future of KM, but it was a lot of self-congratulatory praise. They gave metrics about their communities of practice. They had something like 22 with a high of 90+ members in one of the communities, 2 of them—JUST TWO—crossed business units. This is what bothered me. As proud as they were of themselves, only two of these communities were communities. The rest are really just team sites. They might have engaged in the tenants of KM to identify, capture, store, and share knowledge, but a site isn’t a community of practice just because you say it is, even if they are engaging in KM.

Communities are there to break through the tradition silos of information and communication. It is where you get all of the people engaged in a particular function across a large agency and all of its business units to talk horizontally in the organization. If all of the people who had a purchase card to get supplies for an office in the whole organization were to meet in a space and discuss how they were processing their purchase orders faster, where to get government discounts, and ways to save their offices money, that would be a community. They all engage in the same practice but they work across the organization. If, however, you get all of the people who report to the same boss to meet and discuss whatever their mission within the organization is, IT IS NOT a community. It is the difference as that between a habitat and environment or between weather and climate. Communities think bigger.

Another thing I really didn’t like about their metrics was just saying how many members these groups had rather than how many active members there were in the group. When I first established the SharePoint community of practice at the last intelligence agency I supported, there were two active users out of maybe 20 for the fist two months. Without a decent amount of content and constant nudging along, everyone else was just there to learn what I was typing up in how to articles and such. Eventually, I got a number of others to join in, and then I got SharePoint analysts, site admins, front end developers, etc to all jump in from other intelligence agencies. Fast forward, the current steward of the community just told us the other day that a former member of the group who had gone to another agency working on different network had created her own community doing the same thing and was asking for some of the material, and she was getting the people at that agency involved.

That is real KM. Even though I left that agency 16 months ago, I was able to not just transfer my knowledge but get others to further pass that knowledge. We motivated them to stay engaged and grow the community further. People from some of these agencies still call me to ask what I was thinking when I created certain things. You can get a lot from reading someone’s posts, but your problem is rarely exactly like what one discusses in his or her posts. Being able to find those who already possess that tacit knowledge and get them to have a conversation pays far more dividends.

To end my rant, I’m sure those folks at the IRS made leaps and bounds in the last few years to justify their KM award they were so proud to advertise. I’m sure they worked hard to get where they are. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that they won, however, based on having great KM practices. It is because the rest of the government still sucks so much. The IRS just had really bad competition. They have so much room to grow that they should feel confident in their ability to keep improving and getting the award for many more years to come.