Managing knowledge in the military: Interview with John Fay

When I was considering a job in Europe as a knowledge management consultant in the Department of Defense (DoD), I called a senior colleague who has worked closely with the organization I would be working for, the knowledge management team at the European Command (EUCOM). “They have one of the most solid programs of KM in the DoD,” he said. The reason for this, he added, was John Fay. At the time, Fay had been the leading the development of this program for over ten years.

In case you are wondering, Knowledge Management (KM) is a concept developed in the early 90s. It usually refers to the improvement of how an organization manages its information: think all the info produced and shared on a daily basis via meetings, emails, presentations, etc. KM does this primarily through the creation of technical tools and systems; but it also addresses improving process efficiency and focus on creating a company culture of sharing and collaborating.  Knowledge Management is used in the commercial world, and in the DoD, it has been used to address the amount of information the staff provides its leaders to make decisions and deal with the high turnover rate: a person can spend from one to three years in a place before they have to be reassigned.

Fay has been advocating and practicing this discipline for over 15 years. He is now heading for a couple of years to the National War College as he has been selected with other senior leaders for a program on Strategic Studies. Before he left Germany, where EUCOM is based, we talked about his career in KM.

Why did you choose military service?

I think I am a patriotic kind of person who appreciates what our country has blessed me with so I wanted to give something back. It was also a means to an end: I was lost as a high school student and I needed to find direction professionally. It was a way for me to live out some of my aspirations and buy some time, so I joined the Navy.

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 How would you describe what you have been doing in the past ten years?

After I came back from the Navy and was a contractor, I spent time in a number of different knowledge management fields. I was doing something that was KM like in the military, so I looked for something like that. I found a real affinity in helping make an organization better, to build stronger teams to enable them to perform better. I did this for the Air Force, then I did it for a joint agency, then I moved on to the Marines.

In all of those different jobs they all had a common thread of just trying to make on an organization better, to improve their performance, and empower them to accomplish the mission.  I find that very compelling. It’s great thrill to see an organization go from hurting or dysfunctional to healthy and functional.

I have been able to see a lot of that occur here at EUCOM: I came on board when knowledge management was just an idea. That is what I have been doing for 14 years — to implement the objectives, the principles of knowledge management, and infuse them into the DNA of EUCOM.  To make it a knowledge-enabled organization.

What makes a successful KM program?

What I tell people when asked this question is that it is two-fold. First, you must make yourself relevant, your Knowledge Management program has to be relevant. I think this is key in any new area if you are investing in something new, if it’s not satisfying the requirements of the organization you are serving, then it won’t be deemed valuable. We were intimately plugged into exercises and operations at the time and we had high-level DoD leadership backing.

What we omitted doing was establishing or institutionalizing the practice of KM. We did not develop any kind of KM doctrine or policy for EUCOM until many years later. Our program, while relevant and offering resources, grew quickly and to a large size. The KM branch was about 30-35 people at its peak. But we did not have a direction, we could not say this what we are here to do.  The direction of the organization was personality-driven. As a result we did not get done what we wanted and the things that we did get done were abandoned when other people who were the personality-drivers left. Therefore, the second thing you need to do is to work on the policy to establish the culture that accepts the new initiatives.

How would describe what is KM to people outside DoD?

I think the definition we adopted is perfect. It is a small part of the Army’s definition, so we don’t claim that we created it. It is “to enable the flow of knowledge to enhance shared understanding, learning, and decision making (or performance).” What I like about that is that if you get right at the movement of information and that learning enables action. You cannot take effective action without learning. Once you become aware, you learn; after learning then you can take action.

If anybody wanted to practice km in the DoD, what do you recommend they should do. What skills they should learn?

If you are in a different field and you see an opportunity to improve things, you can be a knowledge manager. In fact, aren’t we all knowledge workers? We need some kind of knowledge to perform our jobs.

That is a very entrepreneurial kind of thing, if you are willing to take a step and try it out, you can implement a KM initiative very easily in any organization. It does not require a great deal of expertise. I am exhibit A (laughs). We are out of the box thinkers. It does not need to be your chosen profession.

There are of course some things you can study, but I would say, in most cases, those that are hiring KM practitioners of any kind are looking for people who can solve a problem. So if you are open minded and creative, whether or not you have the certifications, which always help, I think you can contribute to a KM organization.

Is there any failure you had which tuned into something positive later on?

We wanted to automate the production of the morning update brief because the Joint Operations Center staff was investing thousands of hours over the course of the year to produce it. A lot of the content can be derived automatically, not everything, but a substantial percentage. Why spend so much time producing it when we can have machines gather it and put it up on a screen?

So we thought there was a great opportunity for time saving and furthermore, we wanted to help people stop spending so much time on the presentation, on the medium in which they present. We instituted a technical solution to implement it, and we thought we had the right endorsement: from the joint operations center team chief all the way up to the deputy commander (3 star level) — we had support. But in the end, it failed. It was not accepted because of the people that were below our sponsors.

We had endeavored to effect too much change too fast and not appreciate the risk: the risk to those people who were going to be the conveyors of the information.

When the Battle Watch Captain, who was not one of our sponsors, stands in front of the Deputy Commander, and essentially recites the script, he and his team are responsible for that information. If they do not control that information, they are not comfortable with that, so there was a visceral resistance to an automatically generated brief. Because we did not appreciate the risk, there was reluctance and stalling and eventually they convinced our sponsors that the risk was reasonable and our solution failed.

What we learned from that is that we must understand all the dynamics of the problem set when you try to address it. If you do not tackle such a problem with complete partnerships with the parties involved there is no reason to expect you will succeed.

What books, websites or resources do you recommend?

One reads to be challenged or stretched. When I want to develop my KM skills, I read relevant works like Knowledge Management in Theory and Practice(Dalkir) and Unlocking Knowledge Assets(Conway). Unfortunately there are few very practical guides to KM, so I turn to what I can find from leading practitioners like David Snowden or one of my communities of interest/practice like the Joint KM forum in MilBook.  My current reading falls into three areas:  personal development, leadership development, and academic.  The currently open and recently closed books on my “nightstand” are the Bible, Freakonomics (Levitt and Dubner), What Got You Here Won’t Get You There(Goldsmith), Brief(McCormack), and a pile of national strategy documents and articles for a class I’m finishing.  I’m also reading aloud Eldest (Paolini) with my son just for fun.

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me!

Breaking stereotypes and talking techie: Interview with Nicole Gilbride

Nicole Gilbride hates BBQs. I am not referring to the food (which is very popular in her home state of Tennessee), but to the awkward social gatherings around a friend’s grill or fire pit where new acquaintances, in an effort to break the ice, ask “What do you do?” She has great pride in her job as Strategic Planning and Communication Specialist at the Department of Veteran Affairs’ Office of Information and Technology; however, the problem lies in the reactions she gets when she replies: from sneering looks of people who think she is another lazy federal employee to questions about status of personal VA claims.

Fortunately, I did not meet Nicole at a BBQ but at a training summit for generation X and Y federal employees where she gave a talk and mentoring sessions to young people on how to thrive in the workplace. I was curious to know more about her role as a Washington insider and how she is able to bridge the communication and technology worlds.

Note: The interview has been edited for content and space.

Can you describe what you do?

I am the lead for the business planning operations in our Project Management division under our Product Development organization, which is VA’s software development organization. We handle VA IT software requests, like creating software solutions to help veterans schedule appointments online or schedule them on an iPad, or we develop systems to track prescription drug iterations to make sure people are not abusing substances. Those type of business solutions allow VA’s healthcare and benefit staff to provide world class engagement with Veterans, and they need IT solutions to effectively manage care for Veterans.

Admittedly, I am not a techie. I am in a very technical organization and in a lot of a ways I serve as a translator. I work to help translate to people who are on the ground building code and overseeing the IT projects, I help to translate the functions that they are developing and the services we are providing into words that normal people can understand. I make sure that I can explain what we do in a way that my grandma can understand… I do a multitude of other things: working strategic plans, prioritizing the assignment of our IT resources, but the communications part is probably 50 percent of my job, and it involves all kinds of comms… We do internal messaging within our organization and within VA and we do external messaging with the media, collaborating with Veteran Service Organizations, congressional engagements, video interviews, blog posts… There are very few briefings or memos that come out of Project Management that I have not seen or impacted. That’s sort of what I do.

You have a lot of responsibilities.

Yes (laughs). It’s a full day, it’s very impactful and it’s important. It’s challenging because I think communications is part of everyone’s job but we do have a lot of very technical subject matter experts that are not naturally communicators. One of the challenges in my job is “do I give them a fish or do I teach them how to fish?” “Do I do things for them or do I show them how they can do it better?” It’s a challenge.

Getting into the specifics of the technology part, as you mention you are a technology translator. From translating the user needs to the techies, how difficult is it not having a technical background? How do you learn to address that?

For me personally how did I learn to become savvy enough to be active in conversations about technology, honestly was just with time… I’m constantly researching what I need to research and when in doubt, I am constantly reminding my team “have you Googled this first?” because they’ll come to me with questions like “what is DevOps,” “what is the Internet of Things,” “what’s Scrum,” “what’s Agile?” When they do that I ask “did you consult Google?” There are so many resources available online that can at least help you… I either consult the Internet or I ask my peers, and part of that is overcoming your fear of asking people.

(…) The other part that you are talking about is what I would say is the requirements side, when the customer comes in and says “we want a shelter” but most of the time they don’t say “we want a shelter,” they say “we want a house and we want it to have tin roof, we want to have 38 windows, this is exactly what we want” and not realizing that maybe there is a better solution… I personally think its one of the most challenging areas for IT systems. Requirements are usually the thing that kills you. It manifests itself by either schedule delays or cost overruns… There has to be a line, you have to have things that go above and below the line. If you keep to your schedule or keep to your budget, it will help you decide where that line is.

In that part of the requirements, do you think the problem is the customer does not know what they want and they are having trouble communicating it? Or do you think is the problem is on whoever capturing those requirements?

I think it’s all of those things and it’s more things. If you ask two people what they want to get from point A to point B, what you would get as a response, even if they are the same business customer, is different… What the business customer wants is constantly evolving… It’s a challenge and I don’t think it’s a just communications challenge either.

In the other part of your job, the combination if internal and external communications, what are some of the challenges you have?

Our biggest problem internally with communications is really that people want a customized solution for them which is inherently impossible. The challenge is finding something that makes the most people happy and figuring out that each organization is so different… If you’ve got nurses and doctors running around with other clinicians, sending them an email twice a week with your message is not a good way to tell them that there is a new system coming out, that there is an employee survey coming out. Most doctors spend more (time) on their charts than they do on their email inbox…For every doctor out there they also have a lot of admin staff who do spend time on their computer. An all hands message in an email may work for those folks but it’s not going to reach the doctors and nurses. Finding ways to customize solutions for different audiences is a challenge.

On the IT realm (the challenge) is the level of technical detail in the messaging. We have a lot of very tech savvy people but for every one of them we have another person who is an admin staff, who does not have a technical background, a budget person, an HR person, whatever the case may be. Finding ways to balance, simplify our messaging for a general audience and keep it engaging enough that technical folks are not bored or dismissive of the messaging is a challenge.

Why did you decide to go into government work?

As a young person I went through the “I want to be a ballerina” phase. Then around 10 or so I entered the “I want to be President phase.” As a young child, I always had strong verbal skills. I could sit at the table with adults and negotiate with them. I could take on a debate. Eventually as I got to be an adult I started to get more into politics and that sort of led me to where I am today I’d say. In college I pursued an internship on the Hill which ended up being a communications internship with the former Speaker of the House. When I did that communications internship it opened a door for me.

(…) I wanted to help improve our country and so I recognized that communications is sort of the glue that holds everything together. I see a lot of great ideas don’t take root, don’t spread, don’t get shared, and communication could help spread and share great ideas. I think I kind of had an epiphany of “I really want to do communications for a job”… And I have a family that has a legacy of public (service), one of my grandmothers worked for the VA 50 years ago. My aunt works for the VA, I’ve got a lot of family members who have worked for various state, local government organizations; military service is throughout my family. I was always raised to believe that I could have a positive impact and that lead me to public service as a career.

For those people who insist on working in government because, as yourself, they feel they can make a difference, what skills in the communications field they should have or learn from?

Accolades for being committed to joining, I would tell you it took me probably close to seven years to finally get in. Navigating USAJobs is not for the faint of heart (laughs).

On the skill standpoint, I think the biggest communication skill is actually networking. Having someone who can actually write effectively is wonderful. Having someone who knows abut graphics and visuals and branding is great. Having somebody who has experience on camera or presenting to large audiences, all these things are great, they are important skill sets and by all means, put them on a resume, but the one thing that you can’t really put on a resume and will make or break a communications employee from my standpoint, is the ability to make connections with people and network. I’m not talking about networking in the sense we normally think of with LinkedIn networking or speed networking, but creating and cultivating really meaningful connections.

(…) For most people (in communications positions) it’s a multi-hat situation where you are doing various forms of communications and having those connections within your department, within your agency, with various staff offices, and with your peer group will make or break you.

I would also say an important thing for the future of communicators will be the ability to communicate by leveraging technology…Twenty years ago if you could write you could write. Today you need to be able to write to different sources. How do you turn a two page blog article into a Tweet? It’s a skill. You have to learn to transform something that is so content heavy into something so short and impactful. Being able to not only use current technology, but to be on the cutting edge and to show willingness to continue to learn and stay ahead of the curve. That is very critical I think.

Follow Nicole Gilbride on Twitter @NicoleGilbride

Follow the author @yadicarocaro

Government Communications in the Magic City: Interview with Nannette Rodriguez

‘There is always breaking news on Friday after 3 o clock”’ said Nanette Rodriguez, half jokingly, half serious, during a Friday interview at her office in the City of Miami Beach where she has been leading communication efforts for almost two decades. As the now Director of Communications prepped for a day of possible issues ahead, she chatted enthusiastically with me, a Miami Beach resident, about the lessons she had learned to ensure the city can communicate effectively and its citizens and its employees, while earning the city several recognitions along the way: in 2011 the Miami Beach Twitter account was named by Code for America as one of the top three city accounts to follow just behind New York 311 and Minneapolis Snow Emergency. The City of Miami Beach products include MB magazine, MBTV (including online channel), and use of existing platforms with their YouTube channel, Flickr and Facebook page.

The passion of this native Floridian for her job is contagious as well as her interest for learning the latest trends in social media and ways to communicate.
Note: Interview has been edited for space.

How did you started in communications?
Let me go back in my childhood: when I was very young I used to write stories, and illustrate books. I was also very in tune with the news, current events and my favorite show was 60 Minutes. Here I was this child in second, third grade, watching 60 Minutes and writing fictitious stories and illustrating. I’ve always had a knack for the written word… Historically in our family, my father, my grandmother, my great grandfather, they were all photographers… All of those interests kind of intertwined in my interests, so when I went to college I first studied Art… I was an Art and Business major.

So you thought about that early on, to make money from your art? 
(Laughs) Early on I thought ‘you have to make money on what you like.’ I did go into Communications and graduated from the University of Miami and did a degree of Communications and Marketing. From there, while I was still in school, I was working for a cable company, working for the family business in the photos industry, then finally got a job on TV. I worked on WPBT, public television, for 10 years and got to get my hand on many different very creative jobs, did advertising campaigns, we did publicity with other media, doing national campaigns across the country on new programs, also working with the local news at the station… (That experience) actually became the perfect fit when I was asked to work in the city of Miami Beach.

So you’ve been with the City for about 20 years?
It will be 20 years in November.

What was your plan or vision then and how has it changed throughout the years?
Miami Beach was in the Madonna phase of Miami Beach, I guess you can say. The international film stars were here, Bird Cage had just premiered, it was the post Miami Vice (era), star studded, the clubs were coming of age, it was that type of Miami Beach. Government wise things were changing, things were moving forward… In my career in communications we started with the type writer (laughs)… Actually when I came to the city of Miami Beach I was used to using higher level tools (in my previous job)… When I got here we got a computer, but we did not have email! I was used to having email prior to that, I was like ‘oh my gosh, we are going back to the dark ages, but its ok, I’ve been there’ (laughs)… One of the first initiatives that I brought to the city was develop a website. Of course that took a couple of years in the coming, there were not a lot of people that actually knew how to develop websites at the time.
(…) We were actually one of the first few government stations that were doing original programming… We were also the first station to go live on the web via live web streaming. We were also the first station to do close captioning and do close captioning in Spanish.

Miami Beach has been a pioneer in many of these things. The city has also won awards such as the Savvy awards. Are there any other examples of awards the city has won?
As far of communications, there is a slew of awards that we have been awarded or recognized as top 10 of something: awards for our Florida Government Communicators Association, 3CMA which is the City-County Communications and Marketing Association awards, our magazine is finalist for an award again this year, some of our videos have won awards, we actually have submitted this year for the Emmys… It’s not just about the awards, it’s great to be recognized… If we are communicating the message effectively, if we have people talking about the result of that message… that to me is more of a result than someone giving you a gold star here, your trophy. No, I want to see results of our effort. To me, that is the award.

What is some advice you can share in terms of what governments may be doing wrong or share simple practices they can start doing?
I would not say they are doing it wrong. First of all they need to start using (social media); you need to be where the conversation is… How I explain it to many other government agencies is to remember the town square back in the 1700s when our pioneers would try to get information from town to town about American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, whatever important documentation needed to go out there. There was somebody on a horse that would ride from town to town and post something in the town square. Now everybody has a town square because everyone, well not everybody, but most people have a Facebook page. And your Facebook page has posts, it’s your bulletin board, it’s also your bulleting board where you can talk to other people and post on theirs but everybody sees it.
(…) Older generations, yeah, they still tune in to the 6 o’clock news because they know at 6 o clock they are going to receive that information. But even the older generation is now on social media. We see our demographics that are following us on social media. We had My Space before had Facebook, that’s how long we’ve been on social media (laughs)… Of course the followers on there were very young. But when we went to Facebook and more people were clinging on to that, our demographics pretty much evened out.
Anybody on social media will tell you the older generation is the largest growing group on social media and that that is a reason why any government agency needs to be on there. It’s not a thing for the young anymore, its cross generational, and cross cultural as well because you can speak in many different languages on social media. We’ll put Spanish messages up as well and electronic news list serve which we have been doing since 1999 doing e-blasts and emails… I want to know what the next means of communicating is because we need to be there.

How does that translate to internal communications? Is there a similar approach to that?
On internal we do a lot of email plus internally we have our quarterly publication which actually we tried to do away with because we had our intranet, an internal website. Like we do with our community, we did an internal survey and it showed that the majority of our employees are not at a desk or an office. We have public works employees that are out on the street, we have parks and recreation employees that are out in our parks, we have firemen and firewomen and police officers that are all out on the streets. The majority of our work force, I would say only about 300, are on an office out of close to over 2500 employees. Although some of them were getting the printed version, we did away with it. (We thought) ‘now we have an internal website, we don’t need to print this anymore.’ Oh my goodness, everybody was like ‘what do you mean?’ We don’t have access to a computer and we love to see the pictures!
We had to totally reevaluate how we were doing things. Again, you can’t just depend on one type of communication because people not just receive but comprehend information in different ways.

I wanted to ask you about the branding of the city. It seems it has a pretty clear use and approach. Was it difficult to shape that branding?
Boy that was fun! We did that about 12, 13 years ago. After 99, we did the general obligation bond and with that bond we were going to be doing a lot of infrastructure work in our neighborhoods and public facilities. Between our Planning department and our City Manager’s office they thought ‘while we are doing that, maybe we should come up with a way finding, a signage branding for the city.’
(…) As part of that way finding signage identity, came our identity Miami Beach, the Beach being the book bold, the more emphasis on it and not separated, together, but the emphasis is on the Beach, not in Miami, because if you see them separate you may think ‘oh its Miami,’ ‘oh it’s the beach. ’ No, we are Miami BEACH. And on the celebration of our Art Deco and our MiMo (art style), the firm (we hired) came with a whole graphic identity package for the city.

Being a native Floridian, what do you think is the biggest misconception of the city?
We are not your typical beach city, although that’s the first thing a lot of people think of: South Beach, the nightclubs, the nightlife. But we are more than that…We are really a trendsetting community not just in the tourism industry and what you see in entertainment but in technology. A lot of the things that we do in our city as far as infrastructure, policing, fire; people from other communities, actually cities from around the world, come and visit us to see how we are starting to do things. It’s not just that glitz and glam that you see that everybody thinks of us as Miami Beach.

For professionals in communications, what do you think they should learn more about to further their careers?
Keep yourself relevant, don’t become a dinosaur. Communications is a constant learning profession, as many professions are. You always have to be on top of what the latest is and know it, learn it, become it, be in the know… If you don’t keep yourself relevant you are going to keep as old as a transistor radio.

Or a typewriter.
Or a typewriter (laughs).

Follow the City of Miami Beach on Twitter @MiamiBeachNews

Follow the author @yadicarocaro