The Knowledge Management Section of the U.S. Army’s Field Manual FM 6-01.1 is a classic example of the formal structure and organization one can apply to just about any organizational process that requires management.
Given the nature of the Army, this shouldn’t surprise anyone. Whether this will be useful in other environments is another question, given the dismissive nature of discussion of informal networks, as in the following from page 3-4:
3-15. Each virtual community has a life cycle and serves a specific purpose. Key to all Army communities are links to organizational objectives and a need for facilitated, managed conversations. Forums that lack these features (most informal networks) tend to focus on nonprofessional areas. The Army does not usually support informal networks.
The document provides a very useful discussion of processes for implementing and managing knowledge management practices that goes beyond old-fashioned knowledge management concepts to embrace the importance of collaboration and expertise sharing. I found the following figure titled “Virtual Communities” to be quite instructive (click the thumbnail image to display a fullsize version):
The text that accompanies this illustration clearly describes the different types of collaboration and the supporting roles that technology can play. The text is also sprinkled with examples of the use of different knowledge sharing methods, as in the discussion of how networking technologies were used in Stryker training:
Stryker Symposium II – Exploiting Online Collaboration
The first Stryker brigade combat team symposium, held in 2005, was conducted at Fort Lewis, Washington. Travel and per diem payments to participants resulted in a significant expense. In contrast, the symposium conducted in 2006 employed an online collaborative learning environment. This environment facilitated knowledge transfer among all the participating brigades, two deployed and four at home station. The 2006 symposium was a two-day event with focused dialog in three discussion areas, one for each Army force generation phase. Leaders from brigades with current experience or specific expertise facilitated each discussion. The 2006 symposium comprised 29 echelon and warfighting function subject groups. Participants in multiple locations engaged in virtual dialog using their normal military workstations. Each subject group used peer-facilitated discussions across all warfighting functions in small breakout sessions constituted from the brigade, battalion, and company echelons.
The symposium demonstrated how a geographically dispersed community could engage in dialog using network-based tools. The nearly 400 symposium participants made Stryker Symposium II the largest online collaborative event ever conducted by the Army.
The symposium demonstrated that meaningful knowledge transfer can occur in an online symposium. Based on that knowledge, the Army moved to acquire the hardware and software needed to form a collaborative network to support the Army’s distributive learning program. The Stryker University began testing this network when the first Stryker brigade combat team returned from Iraq.
While the basic finding of savings in travel and per diem expenses has always been the primary justification for all manners of corporate electronic training initiatives, the fact remains that such collaboration exercises, when managed correctly, can potentially bring together more viewpoints and experience stories than is usually possible with smaller face to face sessions.
Still, there are some caveats regrarding the general applicability of the processes and definitions presented in this document:
- Figure 3-2 illustrates a pyramidal hierarchy of collaboration styles that I have found to be unrealistic in typical organizations. Just as there are multiple organizational structures that may or may not map to what you see on the formal organizational chart, you also see people engaing in different types of collaboration at different times for different purposes. Sometimes this collaboration can be planned, and sometimes it emerges spontaneously. Fixating too solidly as a manager on a theoretical progression of collaboration types may be less useful than concentrating on identifying when different type of collaboration make sense and making sure the resources are available to support what is needed.
- While the text quoted above does appear to dismiss “informal networks” the reality is that informal networks exist in any organization, they are useful in many instances, they may have little relationship to the formal organizational structure, and to ignore them is to ignore a potential avenue for effective communication and sharing of knowledge and expertise.
- The “Knowledge Management Process” outlined in the manual — Assess, Design, Develop, Pilot, Implement — will be familiar to anyone with experience in project management. In other words, it’s a process that lays out the role of knowledge management and how learning can be captured and fed back to improve operations. It’s no better nor worse than any other set of “process steps.” But as I have learned, (a) any process is better than no process at all, and (b) all processes must be adapted to conditions “on the ground” for them to be useful.
- This section of the manual focuses on Knowledge Management. What its underlying them is, though, is learning — learning from what others have done and making that learning available for others to use. It makes it clear that collaboration and sharing are important elements in any practice-oriented learning environment, and it begins to suggest the usefulness of technology in supporting this collaboration (without going into much detail on this last point, though).
- Even though the manual is dismissive of “informal networks,” the reality is that distinctions between informal and formal networks are increasingly difficult to maintain. The military’s interest in maintaining control and authority is clearly a high priority, but as we have seen with how easy it is for information to “leak out” from our forward units in Iraq and Afghanistan via blogs and other “informal” communication channels, we ignore the reality of such communications at our own peril. My hope is that, rather than eliminate all such informal communications and informal networking, we learn how formal and informal systems can coexist and benefit each other.
- Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald