Above and Beyond KM A discussion of knowledge management that goes above and beyond technology.

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This publication contains my personal views and not necessarily those of my clients. Since I am a lawyer, I do need to tell you that this publication is not intended as legal advice or as an advertisement for legal services.
  • If We Only Knew

    How often do you hear someone say after a disaster, “if we only knew about the warning signs…”? And then you discover that the warnings were there all along, but we missed them. In other words, the information was available, but the right people did not find it and were unable to act on it.  We heard these words in the aftermath of 9/11.  And now we’re hearing it in the aftermath of the Fort Hood tragedy.

    Today’s news included a report on a supervisor’s assessment of Maj. Nidal Hasan:

    Two years ago, a top psychiatrist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was so concerned about what he saw as Nidal Hasan’s incompetence and reckless behavior that he put those concerns in writing.  [...]

    Officials at Walter Reed sent that memo to Fort Hood this year when Hasan was transferred there.

    Nevertheless, commanders still assigned Hasan — accused of killing 13 people in a mass shooting at Fort Hood on Nov. 5 — to work with some of the Army’s most troubled and vulnerable soldiers.

    We may discover that the supervisors at Fort Hood saw and ignored this letter.  Presumably, there will be legal consequences for that behavior.  But what if they never saw the information?  That’s a classic case of inadequate knowledge management.

    If the only thing knowledge managers do right is to set up systems that help get the important information before the decisionmakers, we’ll have done a great deal.  It’s critical to focus on this issue every day — otherwise you may end up with incomplete information leading to bad decisions and horrible human consequences.

    [Photo Credit:  Flags lowered at Fort Hood, The U.S. Army)

    Published on November 19, 2009 · Filed under: KM, knowledge management; Tagged as: ,
    7 Comments
  • http://DougCornelius.com Doug Cornelius

    Hindsight is always 20/20. In retrospect 9/11 and Pearl Harbor both look obvious when you look at the individual pieces of information. But it is hard to find these landmarks in the see of information.

    Certainly, every organization needs to be better at sharing information to capture opportunities and avoid unknown risks. That has always been one of the goals of knowledge management. We also need to learn from our mistakes.

  • tonyjoyce

    Sorry, but I can't agree with your assessment that this is a classic case of inadequate knowledge management. If it turns out that the memo was *not* transferred in spite of a process to do so on personel transfers (typically not by the Walter Reed officials quoted; what really was done by the human resources staff?), *then* you would have a knowledge management problem.
    There is no way of coding the memo to make it important enough to distinguish this one piece of information out of the many others in someone's personnel file. And, whatever coding was assigned could be wrong, leaving the subject black-balled for life. We need to be careful in contemplating knowledge management systems, as our collection of information is always imperfect. All coding schemes hide ambiguities, and this is all too readily ascribed to flawed systems and inadequate processes.
    Knowledge management is not decision making, and vice versa.

  • VMaryAbraham

    Doug -

    Having the information available to the decision maker is one thing. Having
    a decision maker capable of understanding that information and taking
    appropriate action is another thing altogether. All that knowledge
    management can to is improve the information flows, organize it in such a
    way as to facilitate retrieval, and augment training through lessons
    learned. The nature and consequences of the decisions are the
    responsibility of those decision makers.

    - Mary

  • VMaryAbraham

    Tony –

    You're right that knowledge management is not decision making. However, KM has an important role to play in supporting decision making. Many knowledge managers believe that one of their functions to help decision makers obtain the information they need to take action. If the official investigations reveal that the decision makers at Fort Hood made decisions without the benefit of important information, this should lead to questions about their decision making process and about the KM systems that were in place to support them. We used to think about coding content to facilitate information retrieval. But with the advent of better technology, more organizations are turning to increasingly effective enterprise search engines, in some cases augmented by automated data extraction or document profiling tools. While these systems are far from perfect, they are able to handle more information than manual coders and thus tend to allow more information to surface.

    As to whether or not the critical memo was “transferred” from Walter Reed to Fort Hood, the news reports today indicated that it was. But perhaps we should wait until the inevitable official investigations have taken place before we speak categorically about this.

    - Mary

  • http://info-architecure.blogspot.com driessen

    Nice post, Mary. I agree picking up weak signals and making sense of them is an important task of KM(ers). That's why I read an article in MIT Sloan about “picking up weak signals” with interest. I blogged about it here.

  • VMaryAbraham

    Thanks so much, Samuel. There's a real art to picking up weak signals and interpreting them correctly. In fact, I'm not sure many of us know when background “noise” actually contains important information. Your post provides a good starting point for a person or organization that wants to improve its sense making of weak signals.

    - Mary

  • VMaryAbraham

    Thanks so much, Samuel. There's a real art to picking up weak signals and interpreting them correctly. In fact, I'm not sure many of us know when background “noise” actually contains important information. Your post provides a good starting point for a person or organization that wants to improve its sense making of weak signals.

    - Mary