What’s Different After 9/11?

Twin Towers, New York It’s raining in New York City. In fact it’s been raining for days and days with no end in sight. The net result is a subdued, gloomy, sodden town.

Although I’d much prefer blue skies and sunny weather, I must admit that the weather is strangely appropriate this week as we prepare for the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. All around us are signs of that anniversary:  notices of solemn remembrance services, TV and radio shows recounting the events and their aftermath, and a heightened police presence.  This week of all weeks we are reminded that things have not been the same since 9/11.

In a post I wrote in 2008, 9/11 and Knowledge Management, I noted that investigations after the attacks revealed that the government had had much of the information that it needed to identify and counteract the 9/11 plot. However, some of that information was located in silos and protected by departmental rivalries. According to the 9/11 Commission’s Report:

The FBI did not have the capability to link the collective knowledge of agents in the field to national priorities.

The missed opportunities to thwart the 9/ 11 plot were also symptoms of a broader inability to adapt the way government manages problems to the new challenges of the twenty-first century. Action officers should have been able to draw on all available knowledge about al Qaeda in the government. Management should have ensured that information was shared and duties were clearly assigned across agencies, and across the foreign-domestic divide. … The U. S. government did not find a way of pooling intelligence and using it to guide the planning and assignment of responsibilities for joint operations involving entities as disparate as the CIA, the FBI, the State Department, the military, and the agencies involved in homeland security.

Last week, John Moore published an article entitled How knowledge management helps keep the US attack free in which he describes how much has changed since 9/11:

Although the attack and its aftermath affected broad swaths of IT, it also helped transform one area of particular importance to the homeland security community: the collection of tools, technologies and practices, known as knowledge management.

Originally considered a means of preserving the institutional memory of longtime workers as they moved from one job to another or retired, the 2001 terrorist attacks brought an urgency to the uses of KM as a tool for intelligence collaboration and coordination, according to experts in the government IT community.

…knowledge management practices expanded to accommodate more ways to aggregate and share critical information. From an architectural point of view, installations are less monolithic. Single knowledge repositories are giving way to multiple databases. Agencies may wield a number of collaboration tools to curate intelligence insights as opposed to a single, specifically designated knowledge management system. [emphasis added]

In that article Moore gives some interesting details regarding how government agencies have used the experience of 9/11, coupled with the availability of new tools, to change the way they handle their information:

  • Widespread use of tools such as portals (e.g., Microsoft’s SharePoint), unified communications and social media “have pulled knowledge management in new directions.”
  • “Defense Knowledge Online, which had been a critical DOD knowledge management system, is giving way to file sharing among the rank and file using Microsoft SharePoint.”
  • “DISA’s Defense Connect Online, a 380,000-user network … lets personnel exchange unclassified and secret information with authorized mission partners” using conferencing and chat tools.
  • The Army is emphasizing communities of practice, in which personnel with longtime professional interests in common share information. Its Army Professional Forums include more than 200,000 members. These forums use collaboration tools such as wikis, Google Docs and online conferences.
  • Rather than acquiring a single monolithic purpose-built KM system, agencies are working to harness the various resources they already have and then to share those resources across agencies.
  • Key elements of this new approach are portals, collaboration products, unified communications systems and social media tools (including effective search engines).

As a taxpayer, I’m relieved to learn that our public servants have been improving how our government works.  But I must admit that I’m curious to know the extent to which private organizations have improved the way they handle information.

  • How widespread is the use of collaboration tools and social media within your organization?
  • Do you have a portal or other significant knowledge repository that is central to your business and widely used?
  • Do your personnel operate in a vacuum within their own information silos or is there widespread sharing of critical information across functional groups?
  • Do you have an effective search engine that can help surface information hidden in silos?
  • Have you created communities of practice that actively share useful information?

If you don’t have positive responses to these questions, what has your knowledge management group been doing these last 10 years? Paul Romer once famously quipped that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” If the most significant result of 9/11 is enhanced security in your office building, you have wasted a wonderful opportunity to change things for the better.

[Photo Credit: Guillaume Cattiaux]


2 thoughts on “What’s Different After 9/11?

  1. Nice post, Mary! And thanks for pointing me to Moore’s post. Hadn’t seen that one yet.
    I’m happy to see we are learning to. On the other hand I too see many companies and institutions still not getting knowledge management and the role internal (and external) social media can play in that context. We have work to do…

    1. Thanks, Samuel! You’re right there’s lots of work left to do. If only more organizations felt as compelled as these government agencies to improve their information sharing. What a difference it would make!

      – Mary

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