Demystifying Knowledge Management in the Federal Government

Does your agency have a knowledge management (KM) strategy? What is your agency doing to protect mission-critical knowledge from walking out of the door when subject matter experts retire or leave? How does your organization encourage corporate knowledge sharing?

The biggest challenge I’ve faced with implementing a corporate KM strategy is defining and simplifying its use.

The Facts

It is estimated that 35% of the current Federal workforce will be eligible to retire by September 2017, compared to 14% at the same time in 2012. With the economy improving, more retirement eligibles are projected to leave in large

numbers. According to GAO, the large numbers of retirements may cause mission-critical skill gaps, which have a direct impact on continuity of business operations for all federal agencies.

What does this mean?

Based on the facts, federal agencies have to take action now to avoid the “brain drain” that has been predicted for years. Agencies have to strategize ways to maintain continuity of operations by capturing mission-critical knowledge from those subject matter experts and retirement-eligibles. Senior federal leaders have to put efforts in place to ensure that mission-critical knowledge and skills doesn’t walk out of the door.

It’s time for federal agencies to change the culture of their organizations to embrace corporate knowledge sharing for the purpose of collective learning and continuous improvement. Innovation is key to addressing the potential “brain drain.” We have to do things differently than we’ve done in the past. We can’t continue to hoard information and key knowledge for the sake of job security. Senior leaders have to shift the paradigm by making it an expectation to share knowledge. This means that knowledge management (KM) can no longer by this mystery term that only the IT employees understand and can communicate. KM has to become the new way of doing business.

What is it?

KM is providing the right information, to the right people, at the right time to increase learning and performance. We need a simplified approach to KM, so that, anyone can do it and see the benefits of doing it.

Why is it important?

Historically, the federal government has not done a good job with connecting the right people with the right information. Examples of such failures include Hurricane Katrina, Space Shuttle Challenger crash, and 9/11 — and they all have KM implications. In each example, the federal government did not have systems in place to connect the right people with the right information. When people have the right knowledge at the right time, organizational performance improves. Is it possible that we could have prevented these disasters or at least mitigated their impact, if we would have had an effective KM strategy in place?

How to effectively implement KM in your agency.

Here are nine simple steps that provide a practical way to implement KM within your agency.

1. Assess organizational performance.

2. Identify organizational needs.

3. Establish metrics for success.

4. Identify gaps.

5. Create a KM strategy.

6. Establish KM governance.

7. Develop KM incentives.

8. Implement the KM strategy.

9. Evaluate the KM strategy.

What are agencies doing?

I am leading a team for the Knowledge Capture & Transfer Program (KCTP) at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The KCTP’s goals are to address the potential of losing key knowledge which could seriously impact mission-critical operations and develop a corporate strategy to capture and share knowledge throughout the Department. Our strategy includes several programs like the Leaders as Teachers Program, Continual Learning Program, and Communities of Practice. We are piloting the nine-step process mentioned above with one organization.

In addition to sharing knowledge within DOE, we are collaborating with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to leverage their KM best practices and lessons learned. Susan Camerena, FTA’s Chief Learning and Knowledge Officer, and her staff have provided advice on getting started and multiple resources to assist us in our KM efforts. FTA has been successful in implementing a comprehensive and effective KM strategy that is focused on learning. FTA’s strategy includes mentoring, after action reviews, and facilitating effective meetings which are basics to any KM strategy. We will continue to partner and collaborate with FTA as we reach higher levels of KM maturity.

Something is Better than Nothing

Whether you are in Level 1 of the KM maturity model or Level 5, it’s important that the agencies do something to manage the tacit, explicit, and cultural organizational knowledge. It’s not enough to just talk about the need to prevent the a loss of critical knowledge. Agencies have to take immediate action to preserve knowledge assets and change organizational culture to embrace knowledge sharing. It doesn’t make sense to allow stovepipes, operate at less than optimal levels of effectiveness and efficiency, nor does it make sense to allow key knowledge and skills to walk out of the door. It does make sense to create a culture that encourages employees to share their expertise and use that expertise to improve organizational performance.

What are you or your agency doing to create a culture of learning and knowledge sharing?

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Mark Hammer

As critical as a knowledge-management plan is, knowledge resides in the heads of the knowers who, in turn, have to be willing to share it. I recommend this excellent paper from Husted and Michailova in Organizational Dynamics, from 2002 (Vol. 31, no. 1, pp 60-73), entitled “Diagnosing and Fighting Knowledge-Sharing Hostility”. It provides an exquisite enumeration of all the factors that stand in the way of knowers providing what they know to knowledge-seekers. Just a great check-list for anyone trying to develop a KM plan.


Hi Mark, this is an excellent resource! Before implementing the KM strategy, there are several key considerations to be addressed. One of the considerations is to prepare for possible resistance to sharing knowledge. Identifying KM incentives is one way to overcome resistance as well as create strategies to change the culture. I appreciate the additional resource.