by Stephanie Overby

Knowledge Management: Building a Better Battleship

May 01, 200210 mins
Enterprise Applications

The Naval Sea Systems Command finds the best approach to knowledge management is one step at a time.

Think you’ve got procurement problems? Try buying battleships. The Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), which engineers, builds and supports the entire U.S. Navy fleet, manages more than 130 acquisition programs worth about $20 billion a year for everything from solid waste shredders to next-generation nuclear aircraft carriers. Yet NAVSEA historically had no established rules for running those hundreds of programs. And during the years it takes to build, say, a ship or a submarine, NAVSEA invariably lost many of its employees to retirement or new tours of duty. Out went the experience those employees gained about the acquisition process and in came increased time and costs to re-create that knowledge.

In 1999, NAVSEA began to look for a solution to its problems and found an answer in the form of a knowledge management database of acquisition best practices. But getting the database was only one challenge for NAVSEA, headquartered in Washington, D.C. NAVSEA had to get its 45,000 team members working around the country to participate in the new KM system. Given that the Navy’s culture emphasizes internal competition rather than cooperation, instilling the need to share information was a tough roadblock.

But NAVSEA did eventually win over many of its workers with the benefits of the acquisition knowledge database. And in the process, NAVSEA developed its own best practices for knowledge management implementation: Take it slow and show people why it pays to share.

Shape Up or Ship Out

The origins of the acquisition knowledge database go back to the Clinton administration. Tom Eden, then-director of NAVSEA’s Acquisition Reform Office, and others in the armed forces were charged by the former president to improve the way they bought things. Acquisition at NAVSEA is a protracted process — building a ship or a high-tech warfare system takes several years. And once a ship or system is delivered, the cost to operate it is roughly 80 percent determined. So in an effort to cut costs and reduce the number of sailors required to operate a ship or system, the Navy wanted to focus on the way its products were made much earlier in the process. “We wanted to make sure we were getting what we wanted along the way, rather than waiting until we get the product years later,” Eden says.

Eden oversaw the acquisition reform process that aimed to reduce the money and time spent to get a product to the fleet. As part of that effort, Eden sought to introduce a set of best practices for NAVSEA acquisitions. In the past, if one of NAVSEA’s buyers in Rhode Island wanted to learn about the purchasing process, Eden would fly in an expert to conduct a workshop in person. Wouldn’t it be better, Eden thought, to instead provide continuous access to expert knowledge?

At the same time, NAVSEA’s leadership was concerned about the maturing workforce. The average age of department employees was late 40s, which in Navy terms is near retirement. There was concern about all that knowledge walking out the door, even in the civilian ranks, according to Eden. “We needed to make sure that the knowledge that supported the NAVSEA structure was preserved,” he says.

Not Another Data Dump

Previously, knowledge management at NAVSEA and elsewhere in the Navy consisted of throwing together websites, an approach Eden knew didn’t work. “They were a place to dump data, but they didn’t preserve any knowledge,” he says.

So Eden and his team began to work with consultants at AMS, a Fairfax, Va., consultancy, to figure out a better KM battle plan. First they defined the processes within NAVSEA that needed to be captured in a virtual knowledge management environment. “We sat people down and said, ’We’re going to look at where information comes from and start mapping how it flows at a gross level so we can get an idea of how the entire acquisition process works,’” says Eden. He met with individual practitioners in NAVSEA to come up with a list of 16 best practices they wanted to safeguard, including the total ownership cost process (the means of determining the life cycle costs of a ship and methods for reducing those costs), the commercial acquisition process (defining the policies and procedures for buying off-the-shelf items) and the acquisition reform process itself.

The list complete, Eden then met once a week with six or seven employees involved with a particular business process and potential best practice in order to figure out how to translate that process for inclusion in the acquisition knowledge database. He and his team began with the best practices that NAVSEA management determined would have the greatest potential to improve the acquisition process. The first to go live in the knowledge database was Eden’s own community of practice, acquisition reform.

The process to identify the best practices, prioritize them and take them online lasted from December 1999 until April 2001. The ultimate goal of the KM effort was to develop a library of best practices based on NAVSEA’s acquisition life cycles — from setting standards, creating RFPs and awarding contracts to product delivery, deployment and decommissioning — that promoted an integrated approach to capturing, organizing, sharing and using acquisition knowledge throughout the organization.

Getting Their Sea Legs

Throughout the KM implementation process, Eden met with a lot of resistance. It was particularly difficult to get NAVSEA employees to change their view of knowledge from that of a personal asset to an organizational one. “When we started asking for the numbers and assumptions associated with a particular process, people would say, ’That’s confidential,’” Eden says. “Because of the culture of the Navy and the culture of bureaucracy, people were reluctant to take something out of their desk drawer and put it where other people could access it.” After all, NAVSEA and the Navy’s other commands were set up with creative tension in mind. If the executive program office for aircraft carriers seeks money for the new USS Ronald Reagan, it’s in competition with the executive program office for submarines looking to requisition a new Sea Wolf. As a result, both sailors and civilians working at NAVSEA associated privately held knowledge with influence. “It’s not any different than many corporate environments where closely held knowledge is associated with personal power,” says Ray Bjorkland, vice president of consulting services for Federal Sources in McLean, Va. “People think that knowledge is power, and if they share it, nobody will value them.”

So Eden had to figure out a way to create a reward system for sharing knowledge. “We’re very limited when it comes to doing that,” he says. “The only big benefit we can offer is greater efficiency. We can make your work easier for you.” Although that’s often the only benefit that ultimately matters, it’s tricky to convey. “When you’re trying to introduce a knowledge management system, it’s not just a matter of how you get people into the mode of sharing information,” says Bjorkland. “It’s how you demonstrate to them that sharing information will make their life better. You have to show people who are holding information that if they begin to share it, it will relieve them so that they can do even grander things.”

In order to exhibit those benefits right away, NAVSEA went about its KM program one best practice at a time. “Our main objective was to give immediate value to what our team members were doing right then?immediate value to the business process,” Eden says. “So we had to say, ’We’re going to take this one part of what you do and show you value very quickly.’” For example, members of one group working on total ownership costs concluded that an important monthly report was a good candidate for improvement. “They used the electronic environment we had prepared to request inputs for the report, comment on the data through discussion threads, and edit and issue the report. In the process, all that history was systematically stored so the next time the report would be even easier to create.” Before, the report was created laboriously via e-mails and in-person meetings, and it involved stacks of paper and mail. “What KM had wrought was a vastly improved, easier way of getting the business done. It was a great morale booster and the single greatest factor in marketing KM to employees,” says Eden. “Highly paid NAVSEA analysts were able to do what they were paid to do and wanted to do — analyze and think — versus doing secretarial work, running from one meeting to the next, trying to make sense of run-on conversations and constantly answering the same questions over the phone.”

For those still reluctant to climb aboard, Eden took a more hard-line approach. “Some people were still very closefisted and guarded about their knowledge. But in the end, they had to give it up because there was going to be no other way of doing business with everyone else,” Eden recalls. “We had to say, ’This is the way we’re doing things now, and if you want to accomplish what you have to do, you’re going to have to give that piece of information up.’”

Winning Battles, not the War

So far, NAVSEA has been able to implement about seven of 16 best practices in the acquisition knowledge database. NAVSEA leadership gave Eden and his team money in phases, based on how the project was progressing. But last spring, when then-CIO Jill Garcia made the case for more money to complete and expand the project to the executive steering committee and NAVSEA’s commander, Vice Admiral G.P. Nanos, she met with resistance. NAVSEA had spent about $65,000 on each best practice that went into the database. After spending nearly half a million dollars, executives began to squawk. It’s an issue that plagues KM efforts at any organization that doesn’t have a bottom line. “It’s hard to justify and quantify IT investments in a top-line organization like the Navy where funds are appropriated by Congress,” says Bjorkland. “And in the military, you can’t necessarily see benefits for months, years, even decades.”

Although NAVSEA continues to work on getting the remaining nine best practices into the acquisition knowledge database, the executive committee has frozen any further expansion for now. “It’s too bad because it’s a great way to do business,” says Eden, who has moved on to become director of NAVSEA’s acquisition logistics division. Although Eden says the benefits were clear in terms of time saved, e-mail reductions and meetings avoided, they were never quantified. “We were at a point that the savings were evident to the community members and to leadership, and that seemed to suffice,” he says. “In hindsight, perhaps we should have methodically captured the savings in the interest of gaining a firmer commitment to doing the things at the corporate level to grow KM.”

But Bjorkland thinks the knowledge management movement at NAVSEA and elsewhere in the armed forces will continue to advance, if only little by little. “Even if you start with baby steps, unless you can figure out a way to leverage it at the highest levels of the organization, it will be a slow process,” says Bjorkland.

Even though the acquisitions knowledge database hasn’t progressed as hoped, Eden is certain that it represents the future for NAVSEA. “It’s the path our business must take, and I think there’s a tacit acknowledgement of that by top management,” says Eden. “I believe it will be given renewed emphasis eventually, maybe by a new generation who knows that a virtual environment is just as real as a plane trip to see the customer or a packet of papers you can hold in your hand.”