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Public Roads - Nov/Dec 1999

Knowledge Management: Everyone Benefits By Sharing Information

by Mike Burk


Large organizations know a lot of things, but they don't always know what they know. Consider this scenario: You're a specialist in construction technology, and you work in a field office of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). A civil engineer at a state department of transportation calls you, requesting information about SuperpaveT asphalt mixture design. You know FHWA has plenty of information about Superpave. But where is it? How do you find it? Whom do you call?

The situation is complicated by the fact that knowledge about Superpave exists in a number of forms. Some pavement experts at FHWA have been following Superpave developments ever since the technology was introduced. A good-practices paper was written to document one state's experience. Several university researchers have written journal articles about the effects of the environment on Superpave asphalt mixtures. How can you be sure, even if you identify one or two sources of expertise, that you've done more than scratch the surface of the available information?

That's the kind of problem faced by thousands of organizations - thousands of times a day - and it's the reason for the development of a concept known as knowledge management.

Defining Knowledge Management

Knowledge management can be described many ways, but the definition that seems best suited to FHWA is "the process of capturing and sharing a community's collective expertise to fulfill its mission." Knowledge management takes advantage of an organization's most valuable asset - the collective expertise of its employees and partners.

Knowledge management acts something like a library in that it provides a repository for written information on a given subject, but it also tries to make available to the organization as a whole the knowledge that is in people's heads. This knowledge may be the most valuable of all because it is put in context and it is frequently more extensive and up-to-date and, therefore, more useful for decision-making. In short, knowledge management helps ensure that the right information gets to the right people at the right time to make the right decisions.

Knowledge management is not the latest trendy business idea. It's a concept that has been used for the past several years by a variety of organizations in both the public and private sectors. These organizations found that they had outgrown such traditional - though still highly effective - information-sharing methods as conversations around the office coffee machine. International consulting firms, for example, value knowledge management as a highly effective tool to ensure that far-flung project teams can communicate effectively and share essential information. In the public sector, agencies have found that knowledge management helps capture the collective knowledge that ensures institutional continuity and the continued achievement of their strategic objectives.

At FHWA, the implementation of knowledge management is particularly timely in light of the agency's recent reorganization. The agency's new matrix organization is significantly flatter and less hierarchical, as well as more geographically dispersed. The new structure also calls for the creation of cross-cutting product teams that have the potential to be "virtual" teams of employees. Knowledge management - with its ability to share information, experiences, and ideas; speed technology transfer; and identify the location of expertise on a given issue - will greatly facilitate the transformation of FHWA into an organization primed to meet the transportation challenges of the 21st century.

The transportation community has always placed a great value on the sharing of knowledge. Cooperation among federal agencies, states, localities, academia, and the private sector has resulted in some of the most notable advances in transportation technology. Also, a real emphasis of the community has been the continuous gathering and sharing of information through informal, person-to-person contacts; professional conferences; cooperative projects; and committees and task forces of all types, including those of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Knowledge management offers the opportunity to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and timeliness of this sharing process.

The Knowledge Cycle

In traditional organizations, knowledge tends to flow along organizational lines, from the top down. But that pattern seldom results in making knowledge available in a timely fashion and where it's needed the most. In organizations with managed knowledge, information can flow across organizational lines, reaching the people who can use it in ways that best promote the organization's goals and that enhance service to the customer at the same time.

How this happens can be understood by examining the four basic elements of the knowledge management cycle: find/create, organize, share, and use/reuse. Under "find/create," especially as it operates in a transportation organization, knowledge is gained through a variety of means, including publications, conferences and meetings, project experiences, research, and industry expertise. In the next step in the cycle, "organize," the knowledge is filtered and catalogued, and links to the outside are created. Then the information is shared for wide availability, making use of high-tech computer tools such as the Internet and other techniques such as conferences, journal articles, and the natural communication channels created in a collaborative work environment.

To help carry out the "organize" and "share" functions in a specific community of people having a common interest, many experts recommend a knowledge manager. This person has the task of soliciting good practices, indexing and cataloguing new information as it comes in, and serving as an information broker by assisting people to obtain the information they need. The knowledge manager can also serve as an advocate for knowledge-sharing practices within and beyond his or her specific community of practice.

The final stage of the knowledge management cycle, "use/reuse," involves both informal contacts and access to reports, good practices, success stories, and other forms of communication, including exhibits, demonstrations, and training sessions. Much of this knowledge can be made available to a wide audience through the Internet. This is the step in which knowledge is applied and reapplied to solve real-world issues, such as building better bridges, operating roadways more efficiently, and improving highway safety. Of course, these results are then captured as part of the lessons learned for use as the knowledge cycle begins again.

A Collaborative Culture

It's clear that technology like the World Wide Web can greatly enhance the sharing of knowledge both within and outside organizations. But knowledge management means more than databases and networks. Companies that have undertaken such initiatives have found that only 20 percent of their efforts involve technical issues; the remaining 80 percent of their time is taken up with institutional matters to create an environment for sharing and open exchange.

Knowledge management gives the transportation community an opportunity to continue to build a collaborative, innovative, and knowledge-sharing culture that is always engaged in the activity of learning. In this way, competency-building will be a natural evolution within participating organizations.

A central principle of knowledge management is that organizations can best foster the capture and exchange of knowledge through communities of practice - professional networks that identify issues, share approaches, and make the results available to others. A community of practice is a virtual community connected by interest and expertise in a specific discipline. In addition to contributing research papers, technical briefings, product evaluations, and other reports, the members of the community make an effort to share experiences, locate people with expertise, identify good practices, and pinpoint the gaps in knowledge in their field. The information is recorded in the knowledge repository for the particular community of practice. Because it is electronic, accessible anytime, and available to many, improved customer service will be a natural outcome.

The community of practice is not a new idea in the highway community. A number of formal and informal networks of transportation professionals exchange information and assist each other on a regular basis. These networks will form the foundation of FHWA's knowledge management activities.

Fostering and supporting these communities with improved tools is the first step in creating a knowledge network. The idea is to support customers by recording the important information the community already knows, identifying where more knowledge is needed, and using the collective wisdom of the group to create and disseminate new knowledge. As they participate in communities of practice, customers become both users and producers of information. A knowledge network facilitates and accelerates this process.

If all this seems a bit abstract, you can make a direct connection with the concepts of knowledge management and communities of practice by visiting FHWA's Web site on rumble strips at

The site's home page describes the project as "a prototype of how members of an electronic community of practice can share information, resolve technical issues, and publish results."

The Web site was created and maintained through a collaborative effort of Jim Growney, the knowledge manager for FHWA's New York Division; FHWA headquarters' marketing specialist Ann Walls, who pulled together much technical content with the help of several energetic safety staffers; and contractor Avalon Integrated Services Corp., which brought functionality and realism to the content. The site is divided into sections labeled "Knowledge," "Resources," and "Communication" - a common framework to depict what we know about a subject, what resources are available, and who is the contact for more information.

The knowledge area includes reports from states on the effectiveness of rumble strips, including a summary from the California Department of Transportation of a 1985 study that indicated a 49-percent reduction in run-off-road crashes after shoulder rumble strips were installed along sections of Interstates 15 and 40 in San Bernardino County. Also in this section of the Web site are descriptions of the types of rumble strips - milled, rolled, formed, and raised - and a Quick Time movie of John Watson of the New York State Department of Transportation explaining the types of rumble strips and how they are installed. Finally, there's an examination of some of the drawbacks of rumble strips, including the difficulty they pose for bicyclists.

The resources section of the Web site includes a library that features research papers, state rumble strip policies and specifications, and video clips; a directory, provided by the American Traffic Safety Services Association, of rumble strip providers; and a page of links to other sites featuring rumble strip information. The introductory page to this section says, "OK. You know about rumble strips, but you have specific questions. You'd like to talk to somebody or send an e-mail. Who you gonna call? Just visit Resources."

The communication section contains three key elements of community-of-practice interaction: an "ask the expert" page, a mailing list, and a discussion group. The "ask the expert" page allows Web site visitors to identify and communicate with the top practitioners at FHWA and in the state departments of transportation. The mailing list page allows them to receive noteworthy developments from the electronic rumble strip community. (The list is managed by Growney and Avalon to ensure that members aren't swamped with off-topic messages or junk mail.) The discussion group recently featured 17 subject threads, including portable rumble strips, rumble strips in freezing conditions, rumble strips and bicycles, and raised rumble strips. Successful examples, such as this, demonstrate to others the benefits of adopting knowledge-sharing principles.

Implementing Knowledge Management

To implement knowledge management, how much does an organization need to change its culture? Some people believe that a wholesale transformation is required in the way people work and act, but this is largely a myth. The fact is that successful knowledge management programs work with organizational cultures and behaviors, not against them. That's one reason Mark Youman of American Management Systems, a firm helping FHWA in its early knowledge management efforts, prefers the term "knowledge-sharing."

"I try to emphasize that this is not an end in itself, but a set of tools and practices that can be used to further the organization's goals. Knowledge-sharing is not a new goal for FHWA, but a way the agency can achieve the goals it has laid out in its corporate management strategy," Youman said.

There's no question that human nature and certain aspects of the corporate culture of organizations, including federal government agencies, can interfere with the smooth operation of a knowledge management program. Some individuals are proprietary about the knowledge they possess, believing that their advancement and status depend on their demonstration of unique or exceptional knowledge. Some managers fear a loss of control if their departments' knowledge is made available to others. Some staff members feel, at least initially, that they are required to make an extra effort to share knowledge without deriving any benefit from the process. And some supervisors are uncomfortable with the idea of staff members spending time on knowledge-sharing rather than completing traditional tasks.

To a certain extent, these problems are addressed through open communication about knowledge management and its benefits. Nevertheless, there's also a need to take a new look at how people achieve recognition and rewards in organizations that practice knowledge management. Often, this cultural change occurs as a direct result of the process of implementing knowledge management.

"People begin to realize that by sharing knowledge, they become recognized as people who have expertise in particular areas," says Youman. This can be formalized through official recognition of people who have made outstanding contributions to knowledge-sharing.

People frequently ask how long it will take to implement knowledge management at FHWA. Knowledge management is not a project that begins and ends, but an ongoing and evolving change in the way an organization operates. Additionally, knowledge-sharing can grow across organizational boundaries and could encompass cooperating organizations, including AASHTO, TRB, and state and local transportation agencies. For another, there's really no way to predict what technological advances will empower us to do, and we will continually find new directions to explore.

What's most exciting about our effort is that it puts FHWA in a position to be a major beneficiary of what has been termed the "knowledge boom." Organizations of all kinds in all sectors of the economy are waking up to the fact that what they know - more accurately, what individuals within these organizations know - is not only of immense value, but it is crucial to their success in this era in which information is a primary product.

The transportation community is made up of people of outstanding ability, experience, and professionalism. By improving the way we create, share, and gain access to these experiences and the accompanying knowledge, knowledge management will enable us to raise the level of expertise throughout the community to the mutual benefit of all participants.

Mike Burk is FHWA's senior knowledge officer. He is assigned to the Corporate Management Service Business Unit. He has more than 25 years of experience with FHWA, and he has served in several headquarters' and field offices. He has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and he is a registered professional engineer in Virginia.