Some thoughts – and a mind map – on Army Knolwedge Management

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of my discharge (honorable, in case you’re wondering) from active duty as a US Army officer.  It was while serving in the Army, both on active duty and later in the Army Reserves, that I was first exposed to and practiced knowledge management so it seemed fitting that I mark the date with a reflection on Army Knowledge Management.

In the early days of Army Knowledge Management – or AKM – the focus was very technology focused, as evidenced in AKM Guidance Memoranda #1 (August 2001) and #2 (June 2002).  Then, as now, AKM was primarily the responsibility of the Army’s CIO.

In some ways, this reflected the “state of the art” at the time, where KM was the pitch phrase of all sorts of software vendors hawking the latest and greatest KM tools.  The main early focus was the capturing and conversion of “tacit” knowledge into “explicit” knowledge that could be stored in a vast “knowledge repository” that could be shared across the Army enterprise, and the consolidation of the technology infrastructure to support that repository.  In many ways a necessary evil; the downside was that it reinforced the idea that KM was solely the domain of IT.

Over the years the broader scope of KM has come to be realized, as can be seen in the most recent Army Knowledge Management Principles, published in August 2008. The principles are broken down into three main categories: People/Culture; Process; and Technology. For all you visual thinkers out there, and for myself, I’ve taken the principles, and the supporting Rationale and Implications, and put them into a mind map using Mind Manager.


Back when the paper was published, Jack Vinson posted some thoughts about the principles. Having seen the early tech focus of AKM, I share Jack’s appreciation of the Army’s stated goal for AKM:

Implementing these principles will create a culture of collaboration and knowledge sharing in the Army where key information and knowledge is “pushed and pulled” within the global enterprise to meet mission objectives — an Army where good ideas are valued regardless of the source, knowledge sharing is recognized and rewarded and the knowledge base is accessible without technological or structural barriers.

Though it is safe to say that AKM is still very heavily IT centric, KM has steadily infiltrated further and further into the Army culture.  This can be seen in one of the latest offerings from the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Ft. Leavenworth, KS, the soon to begin Knowledge Management Qualification Course for KM sections:

The KM section supports the commander and staff in achieving situational awareness and situational understanding to enhance and speed decision making. The section does this by developing a plan that includes the “how-to” in displaying the common operational picture. That plan details the process on how a unit accesses and filters new information internally and externally, and provides a working KM system that can route content while keeping commanders and staff from being overwhelmed.

A long way indeed from knowledge repositories.

UPDATE:  For those of you who don’t have Mind Manager, here are two things to help you get the most out of the whole map:

1) a .gif image of the entire Mind Manager map;


2) a public version of the map at Mind Meister;

If you update the Mind Meister map, I’d appreciate a quick note back so I can go back and check it out.

Technology makes it easy to ‘remember,’ the trick is learning how to forget

As a follow up to my last post, The importance of forgetting, it seemed appropriate to republish the following, which I originally posted in March 2007.

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A blog post I wrote a year ago. Playing around with David Allen’s Getting Things Done. A recent article in Fast Company. Reading Steven Johnson’s book Mind Wide Open over Thanksgiving. Autism.

All of these things came together in my mind over the past few days. (If the internet is a global cocktail party, and blogs are its conversations, I’m the guy who takes it all in and thinks of something to say as he’s driving home from the party. At least that’s how it feels sometimes, especially with topics such as this one.)

Just over a year ago, I wrote the following:

My early days in Knowledge Management included a lot of time developing, deploying, and getting people to use “knowledge repositories.” (At least trying to get people to use them.) A worthwhile endeavor in some regards, I’ve always had misgivings about the whole idea, at least how it has been implemented in most cases. The cheapness of mass storage these days, and the way we just keep everything, has nagged at this misgiving over the past couple of years.

I finally realized one day that the problem has become not, “How do we remember all this knowledge that we’ve learned?” but rather, “How do forget all this knowledge we’ve accumulated that we no longer need so we can focus on what we do need?”

This same question has come up, albeit in a different context, in that other domain in which I blog: autism autism.

MOM – Not Otherwise Specified recently posted a very interesting piece about the role of memory, and the inability to purge it, in autistic behaviors. In her post, she quotes Paul Collins’ book The trouble with Tom:

Memory is a toxin, and its overretention – the constant replaying of the past – is the hallmark of stress disorders and clinical depression. The elimination of memory is a bodily function, like the elimination of urine. Stop urinating and you have renal failure: stop forgetting and you go mad.

This also plays on my long-held dislike of best practices, at least how most people implement them. If you are so caught up in what has happened before, it is hard to get caught up in what is to come.

In the context of mastery, especially of something new, it is sometimes hard to know when to forget what you’ve learned. You have to build up a solid foundation of basic knowledge, the things that have to be done. And at some point you start to build up tacit knowledge of what you are trying to master. And this, the tacit knowledge that goes into learning and mastery, is probably the hardest thing to learn how to forget.

Sometimes, though, it is critical to forget what you know so you can continue to improve. Witness Tiger Wood’s reinvention of his swing, twice, and Neil Peart’s reinvention of his drumming.

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The importance of forgetting

Yesterday I mentioned that one of my key mind mapping tools is Personal Brain.  If you’ve ever used the Brain, you know that “mind map” is a bit of an understatement of its capabilities and how easy it is to accumulate a lot of knowledge and interconnected information.  Over the past couple of years my work project brain has proven invaluable for me and my team as a way to collect important information, documents, and – best of all – connections between the disparate parts of the project.

I’m at a point now, though, where the project is going through significant changes, almost to the point of being a “new” project. My dilemma: How to “forget” the parts of the old project that are no longer important and start with an “empty mind” to build up the new project without the baggage of the old.

In his book Brain Rules, author John Medina writes, “It’s easy to remember, and easy to forget, but figuring out what to remember and what to forget is not nearly so easy.” Later in the book, Medina describes why forgetting is so important:

The last step in declarative processing is forgetting.  The reason forgetting plays a vital role in our ability to function is deceptively simple. Forgetting allows us to prioritize events.  Those events that are irrelevant to our survival will take up wasteful cognitive space if we assign them the same priority as events critical to our survival.

This is no less true in the context of knowledge/concept work.

Fortunately, the Brain allows you to forget “thoughts” without deleting them altogether.  Unfortunately (for some), the Brain doesn’t offer any help on which thoughts to forget and which to remember.

That’s completely up to me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lessons from mind mapping the cars of the world

A mind map is a great tool, and mind maps should be a key part of any knowledge/concept worker’s tool kit.  To supplement the hand drawn maps that are scattered throughout my notebooks and across whiteboards, I primarily use two pieces of mind mapping software:  MindManager (Pro 6) and Personal Brain (5).  (In the interest of completeness, Inspiration also has a home here in the Miller household, used by the boys for their school work.)

Recently I’ve been working on a mind map of the Cars of the World (personal, not work related). When I first started the map, in Mind Manager, it seemed like it would be a pretty straightforward exercise. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this might not be as straightforward as I originally thought.

My original intent was to simply provide a kind of “quick reference guide” for my son to the makes and models of cars typically seen in the US. I envisioned what would essentially amount to a big poster of cars, and chose MindManager to execute.  My first thought was to have countries as the first sub-topic level, but a quick hand-sketched map convinced me that I should have the continents as the first level with the countries at the second level, and the car make/model falling under that.

Here’s a snapshot of part of that map so far (it is, to put it mildly, a work in progress). Click on the map for full-size image, or here for the MindManager .mmap file:


As seen in the snapshot above, I started out by simply listing the various brands of cars associated with a given country. For the European brands, this worked out OK since no one country has an excessive number of unique car brands.  This is not the case, however, in the United States or Japan where there are many (many) different car brands. Subsequently, the list of brands shown on the map under the U.S. and Japan were quite lengthy. Having lived in the U.S. all my life, it was easy for me to further divide the various U.S. brands into parent companies, I’m sure the same can be done for the Japanese brands.

The snapshots below give an idea of how the two options look on the map.


Of course, once you start bringing the actual car companies into the discussion the question of how to represent takes a whole new turn.  For example, Chrysler is indeed a US company, but as a result of recent events is now owned by Fiat, and Italian company.  Obviously it doesn’t make sense in the context of this map to move Chrysler and its brands under Italy on the map, any more than moving the Opel (Germany) or Holden (Australia) brands to the U.S. because they are owned by GM (at least, I think GM still owns them).

Mind Manager does have some tools that allow you to connect and establish relationships between individual topics, but I found that to really track and display a large number of relationships and groupings of topics The Personal Brain is a more useful tool.  I threw together a quick brain showing some of the relationships I’ve mentioned, unfortunately my Brain 5 trial has expired and it looks like I’ll have to either reinstall v4.5 or buy 5 before I can export to HTML and post it here.

Like I said at the beginning, mind maps are an effective tool.  As this “simple” project shows, though, you still need to put a little bit of thought into exactly which type of mind map tool you use and how you actually use the tool to come up with your desired product.

Too much “information”, or not enough – thoughts on telecommuting

A few days ago while re-reading some parts of The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size I tweeted the following:

Is it possible that the problem isn’t too much information, but not enough info going into our subconscious to help us maintain context?

When I wrote that, I was thinking of the lack of in-person human contact that comes with a heavy reliance on social media and other technology based communications.  With those tools, all you get is the message; you are limited, for the most part, to the throughput capability of language and your ability to consciously process it.  Compare this to all of the information your brain receives, and processes, unconsciously when you communicate face-to-face.

Earlier today, Aaron DeVries (@adevries) tweeted a story on titled Why telecommuting doesn’t work.  Author Jonathan Weber’s reasoning for saying this echoes some of what I had in mind in terms of “not enough info”:

The reasons for this have nothing to do with checking that people are actually working. It’s about efficient communications, building company culture and camaraderie, and sharing the daily bits of work and personal experiences that create a shared sense of purpose.

For starters, all the telecommunications tools and document-sharing systems in the world are no substitute for the simple act of walking over to someone’s desk and pointing to something on a screen or asking a question. It’s almost always quicker than any technological alternative, and there’s little room for confusion.

This issue increases when more people participate in a task. Coordinating input from three or four or five people via e-mail is a recipe for errors and misunderstanding. And conference calls are so far inferior to face-to-face meetings that I barely bother with them at all. Rather than the collective engagement of a good meeting, you end up with people half-listening while they catch up on e-mail. Plus lots of awkward silences.

When telecommuting, it is easy to miss out on the dynamics inherent in an office.  (This is where the “not enough info” thoughts come in.) You can’t really judge what kind of mood individuals are in, or the overall feeling in an office in a time of stress or excitement, from e-mail, IM, or tweets. Easy to miss out, but not inevitable.  Just because you aren’t physically located with someone, doesn’t mean it is not possible to keep up.  Of course, this does require a whole different set of skills than you might need to work in an office.

As someone who telecommutes on occasion, I can attest to some of the challenges.   But not all of them are exclusive to telecommuting.  (How many meetings have you been in where most of the people’s attention is on their Blackberry and not the meeting?) And I don’t think these challenges mean that telecommuting doesn’t work.

Telecommuting doesn’t work for some people, in some industries?  Sure. But in general, it is like anything else – appropriate for some, not for others.  As long as you understand the limitations and challenges, and are willing to overcome them, telecommuting can be an effective tool for any business or worker.  At least that’s my opinion.

What do you think?

The starting gun

With high school and college graduation season in full swing, and as my son’s 18th birthday quickly approaches, it seems a fitting time to repost this blog entry I wrote for Left Brain/Right Brain back in October 2007.  There was quite a bit of discussion when I first posted this, so visit the original post to read the comments too.

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One of my high school philosophy teachers (at a Jesuit high school here in St. Louis) used popular music of the time (70’s and early 80’s) as a tool in classes. I mostly remember using Supertramp (Crime of the Century) and some Pink Floyd (”Welcome to the Machine” was a favorite). No surprise, then, that this habit continues to today. Check out the pop-culture label at 29 Marbles for some of my earlier posts using pop-culture as the starting point.

I’ve been a Pink Floyd fan for a long time, and like any true Pink Floyd fan count The Dark Side of the Moon among my favorite albums, by anyone, of all time. The song “Time” is an excellent reflection of the fleeting nature of our time in this world. The second verse includes the following lyrics:

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

These lyrics are quite literal, and it is not too difficult to catch the meaning. But I gained a bit more insight into these words, especially the last line, while watching a documentary of the making of the album (told 30 years after the fact).

In the documentary, Roger Waters talks about a teenage conversation with his mother and the realization that it was time for him to start living his own life, that the “starting gun” had fired. One of the most important jobs a parent has is preparing kids for life on their own (however you may define that), a life that they are in control of (to the extent that anyone is control of their own lives).

There is a somewhat well defined path that we typically, though not always, can follow with our normal (in the statistical sense) kids. And many of us have come up with our own ways of preparing our kids for what lies beyond childhood.

But how do we let our kids, especially our autistic kids, know that the starting gun has fired?

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Another just as important question; how do we as parents accept that the starting gun has fired and let our kids run their own race?  With regret? Excitement? Fear? Joy?

Cynefin, concept work, and the role of deliberate practice

Over the past week or so there have been several blogs that have helped me pull together a bunch of things I’ve been trying to connect in my mind for a while.

First was Harold Jarche’s post Working Together, in which he looked at Shawn Callahan’s ideas on group work against the backdrop of Tom Haskins discussion of the Cynefin and TIMN frameworks. Next was Tony Karrer and Ken Allan‘s discussion of the role of deliberate practice in the development of skills less than that of an expert, based on Tony’s question:

Any thoughts on how deliberative practice relates to becoming something less than an expert.  It seems it should be applicable to all levels of achievement, but everything I’m reading is the study of becoming an expert.  Is that just aspirational, or is deliberative practice also studied for quick attainment of proficiency?

Read Tony and Ken’s posts, along with the comments, for all the discussion including my comment:

…the application of deliberate practice is not the most efficient way to achieve basic proficiency, even though it would be effective. As proficiency turns into literacy and then mastery, I think that deliberate practice becomes not just the most effective way but the most efficient as well.

After some thought, and several pages of scribbles, scratches, and doodles in my notebook, I put together the following table that pulls together several different topics using Cynefin as a guide.


The first two columns come directly from the definition of the Cynefin framework. I had just a bit of trouble in the third column, primarily in trying to figure out what the best term would be to carry out “simple” work tasks.  I’m not completely happy with the term “assembly line”, but I think it gets the idea across. I am open to any suggestions to improve this.

I was also not quite sure about the use of the terms in the “Skill Level” column, specifically the order of “fluency” and “literacy”.  Again, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this.

The heart of the table, especially as it applies to the original question that Tony asked, is the column “How to Achieve”.  Various levels of deliberate practice could have been included in each row, but in looking at each level of complexity as a stand-alone level it seems to me for the “simple” and “complicated” tasks that deliberate practice, at least as defined by Geoff Colvin in “Secrets of Greatness” and the more in-depth Talent is Overrated, is overkill. And probably an unreasonable expectation to have of people who just want to do their job and go home, which is more typical of those performing this type of work.

It is once you move into the area of complex and chaotic work that the benefits gained from deliberate practice are needed, in fact necessary.  Not only must you be able to apply what is already known in ways that have already been identified, you need to be able to learn new things and figure out how to apply them in new ways. That is the nature of mastery, and the ultimate result of deliberate practice.