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.

FAY-DA Photo 2

 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.