How the Government Gets KM Wrong

In my nearly quarter century of Knowledge Management consulting, I’ve been pleased to see organizations across the globe mature in their understanding of enterprise KM programs, and I’m proud that EK has had a meaningful impact on this awareness. Increasingly though, I’m seeing a disparity between public and private organizations, specifically between the U.S. government and for-profit organizations.

Many of the world’s largest and most complex corporations, non-governmental organizations, and private institutions have now made, or are making, significant investments in KM transformations. However, too many U.S. federal agencies seem stuck in the status quo with old definitions of KM.

This is particularly frustrating when one considers that Knowledge Management should be core to the operations of most federal agencies. For regulatory agencies, like the IRS, FDA, or EPA, this means ensuring all constituents are aware of their laws and policies in order to be compliant. For agencies with a core mission of research, like NSF, DOE, or NASA, their mandate is very much about generating new knowledge and then distributing the knowledge and experience housed and generated within the organization to the public. For standards agencies, like NIST, OSHA, and the FCC, again, their responsibilities include aligning internal expert perspectives to make decisions, harnessing knowledge to set definitions and rules, and imparting those definitions and rules to various stakeholder groups as well as the public. 

The list goes on, but the binding thread between these various agencies and their missions is that the creation, management, and sharing of files and documents, as well as actual knowledge and experience, are critical components to their mission success. To operate effectively and be productive, these agencies need to harness and connect the full spectrum of their knowledge, structured and unstructured, tacit and explicit, and serve it to their stakeholders (the U.S. public amongst them) in a way that is intuitive and consistent.

Why is it, then, that we keep seeing the government refer to file management as Knowledge Management? Over the last few years, I’ve seen several requests for information or proposals released with “Knowledge Management” in the title. Initial interest and excitement have quickly given way to frustration when I open these documents to discover they’re either dreadfully limited in scope, seeking a SharePoint implementation, singular document or records management, or some sort of article subscription service. All of those are perfectly fine pursuits, but it does a disservice to the field of KM to refer to them as such.

Good KM must approach a solution from each of the perspectives of People, Process, Content, Culture, and Technology:

  • People refers to the individuals who hold the knowledge, the individuals who need knowledge to grow and perform, and the flow of knowledge between them. Mature people organizations know who their experts are, have easy and effective means of transferring their knowledge to those who need it, and maintain strategies to consistently spread and transfer their knowledge.
  • Process covers the policies and procedures, roles, and responsibilities governing the capture, management, and maintenance of knowledge and information. This entails not just whether the appropriate policies and procedures exist but how well they’re being followed and how consistently they’re being applied. Mature process organizations have built these policies and procedures into their KM systems so that they are easy to follow, or even better, nearly impossible not to follow.
  • Content refers to the full breadth of an organization’s knowledge, information, and data. This includes both unstructured information, such as files, e-mails, documents, and images, as well as structured information, which is typically data and appears in databases, data lakes, and other transactional systems. Mature content organizations have connected all of their types of critical content, enhanced them, and related them so that the right people can find the content they’re looking for and act upon it in the way they want.
  • Culture refers both to an organization’s leadership supporting good KM practices as well as the overall willingness of individuals within it to share their knowledge. Mature culture organizations have created incentives for good KM and included KM job responsibilities, competencies, and official employee reviews. 
  • Technology refers to the KM systems themselves. Yes, this includes document and records management repositories but also every other system where knowledge, data, or information may be housed. This includes collaboration tools, communications systems, data repositories, enterprise search, and increasingly, knowledge graphs. Mature technology organizations will have a focused suite of KM technologies that are integrated, that work with each other, and that have been designed with the end user in mind. The most mature organizations will achieve a KM suite that feels natural to end users and maximizes good KM actions in a way that consistently results in greater knowledge capture, sharing, and use/reuse of the right information. 

By approaching enterprise KM from a holistic perspective, the government would be able to address several major challenges, including:

  • Solving their “brain drain” issues by creating easier mechanisms to capture expert knowledge and creating more ubiquitous tools to drive conversations and learning, resulting in natural knowledge transfer between soon-to-retire experts and newer employees.
  • Improving customer service through more usable knowledge bases, driven by improved findability, Natural Language Processing (NLP), and more consistent content, allowing federal contact centers to operate faster and better and also enabling vastly improved self service.
  • Linking learning content with semantic capabilities and enterprise data assets to drive improved learning, resulting in faster and higher quality employee upskilling and thereby yielding higher employee retention and satisfaction.
  • Enhancing content tagging and formatting to enable content assembly, resulting in customized content and much greater content reuse to drive overall usability for customers (the public, in most cases) and employees alike.
  • Breaking down organizational and content silos, integrating systems through a data mesh, and constructing knowledge maps of the organization to allow new joiners and external users to navigate the otherwise complex web of people, processes, and content they would otherwise encounter.

Of course, some federal agencies have already taken steps toward KM maturity. We’ve been happy to help many of these agencies or offices along on their journey, and we have seen how KM has yielded improved customer/constituent service, better findability and discoverability of information both for employees and external stakeholders, far less redundancy and conflict in operations, and improved innovation through collaboration and connection of experts previously stuck in silos. With all that said, there is a long way to go to get KM enabling the true missions of government at the enterprise level.

The government has both the means and the mandate to truly invest in Knowledge Management. I hope the time has come that they also generate the will, as it can prove to be transformative for a number of agencies and how they complete their missions. We have both the expertise and supporting technologies to deliver more connected experiences, better delivery of the right information at the right time, and increased consistency and innovation to lead each of these respective fields.

Zach Wahl Zach Wahl Expert in knowledge and information management strategy, content strategy, and taxonomy design. Zach is passionate about forming and supporting high-functioning teams and facilitating results-focused outcomes with his clients. More from Zach Wahl »