September 11, 2008

9/11 and Knowledge Management

It's cloudy today here in New York City. Even though the sky is not the bright, sparkling, optimistic blue it was early in the morning of September 11, 2001, there are plenty of other reminders of the events of that day.

In the aftermath of 9/11, we learned that the government in fact had much of the information that it needed to be aware of 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.
If there was ever an instance in which knowledge sharing and collaboration could have made a difference, that's the one.

If we are fortunate, we'll never again have to face so grave a test of our government's knowledge management capabilities. If we are wise, we'll take the lessons to heart and do something to increase the culture of collaboration and knowledge sharing within the government and within our own enterprises.

Since 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, some have spent time thinking about how to improve knowledge sharing and thereby improve our ability to respond to disasters and emergencies. David Bray, a doctoral candidate at Emory's business school, is one such person. On 9/11, he was the information technology chief for Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In that role, he saw first-hand the KM failures within the government. This experience deeply informs his research. Here is a glimpse at what he is studying, as reported in Knowledge @ Emory:

“I saw several instances where this workforce of 1.2 million government workers, not counting contractors—which is probably another 800,000—had significant disconnects. In fact that’s what the 9/11 report specifically comes out as saying: the United States did not connect the dots across multiple agencies,” explains Bray, currently a doctoral candidate at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “There were times with our program where we knew something at the trench level, tried to pass it up the hierarchy, but unfortunately it never got anywhere. Events like Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, anthrax, occur in part because organizational structures in which we trust, particularly for government—but also for most large businesses—aren’t built to respond quickly to turbulent environments,” contends Bray. “And now, in part because of globalization and also because of technology, things can change so quickly half a world away.”

In his paper “Exploration and Exploitation: Managing Knowledge in Turbulent Environments,” Bray, along with Goizueta co-author Michael J. Prietula, a professor of information systems and operations management who also researches responses to disasters, develop a theoretical model about knowledge management in organizational hierarchies. Bray extends an existing model of exploration and exploitation to consider the context of multi-tier hierarchical firms faced with environmental turbulence, and then considers whether a knowledge management system that enhances knowledge exchanges across the organization alters the ability of the organization to match the conditions of a turbulent environment. Bray’s model considers different management approaches, such as a bottom-up cultivation strategy or a top-down command-and-control strategy.

“We wanted to explore whether having a top-down or bottom-up strategy would help or hurt organizational hierarchies when faced with environmental turbulence” says Bray. “We specifically were testing the idea that while top-down hierarchies may be great at command and control and maintaining internal control and reality, they’re bad at addressing a changing outside environment; a change in the marketplace, a change in competition, or an emerging national security threat.”

Bray’s research finds strong evidence that top-down hierarchies that stress command and control are ineffective in managing knowledge in turbulent environments because they decrease a hierarchical organization’s ability to maintain accuracy with its outside environment. [Emphasis added]
The work of David Bray and Michael Prietula suggests that bottom-up collaboration and knowledge sharing is the most effective way of keeping knowledge silos and human rivalries from hoarding critical information in times of change. And, because of the culture of collaboration, this sharing allows us to make better decisions and respond more effectively to the unexpected.

On the anniversary of September 11, 2001, it's good to know that we've actually learned something and are headed, albeit slowly and fitfully, in the right direction.

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