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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Freeing Ideas from Their Silos

Culture. Some Army leaders were initially reluctant to allow CALL analysts to post information about their own snafus because they didn’t want such failures broadcast and didn’t want to be penalized for errors. But analysts worked around these ingrained anxieties by assuming that if team X is having a particular difficulty, it likely reflects a systemic problem. The analysts will check around the network to see if others are experiencing a similar challenge. And when they get confirmation, they post the problem on CALL in a generic fashion, specifically describing the issues, mistakes, and lessons learned without identifying who, what, when, or where.

Traditionally, Army doctrine has been slow to change, in part because information about new procedures has traveled slowly throughout the organization. But the success of CALL’s rapid feedback system is changing minds. Army leaders, for example, found an item on CALL detailing a new approach to managing the overwhelming number of informants approaching soldiers one on one in Iraq. Traditionally, informants were dealt with by specialists operating through an intelligence network. This new approach deviated from the approved doctrine, so the leaders asked the network to take down the post. But analysts investigated further and proved that the post in question was in fact how commanders on the ground were dealing successfully with the situation and identified areas of the doctrine that required updating. The post went back up, offering the entire Army immediate access to a set of helpful ideas that many hadn’t known were routine in certain quarters. Army leaders expect that the next generation of military leaders, raised on the Internet, will spearhead an increased acceptance of knowledge collaboration.

Of course, taking a leaf from the military’s book isn’t easy for most private-sector organizations. The Army runs on discipline and hierarchy, so new initiatives are vastly easier to enforce than they would be in corporations. Still, companies can begin to tap the benefits of knowledge collaboration by building on what they already have — specifically, by establishing a CALL-like business intelligence “competency center.” Many organizations have already developed such an operation to collect best practices and standards. In addition, companies can use their Intranet listservs to post new ideas and questions in real time. These components can form the core of a true knowledge collaboration system, through which ideas that work are shared across business units, and ideas that fall flat become lessons about what to avoid.

Although the private sector does not mirror the Army’s strict command-and-control discipline, regulators are demanding that companies become more responsible and accountable. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which overhauled corporate governance in the aftermath of scandals at companies like Enron and WorldCom, and, more recently, the 2006 amendments to the Federal Rules for Civil Procedure, which address the discovery of electronically stored information, call for information audit trails to make certain that numerous departments within a company are aware of the organization’s activities, starting at the board level and touching on everything from finance to research and development. A CALL-like system would encourage openness among the various business units. By setting up a formalized process for sharing ideas company-wide — the success stories and the failures — executives could introduce greater accountability to their company’s culture. As the first generation to grow up networked and collaborative in their social and educational lives moves into the work stream, sharing lessons learned across organizations — public or private — will become all the more plausible and necessary.

Author Profiles:

Colonel Steven Mains ([email protected]) runs the Center for Army Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He has served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and India, and has been developing and implementing collaborative information systems for the military since 2001. He is a West Point graduate and holds a Ph.D. from the College of William and Mary in computer science.
Laura W. Geller ([email protected]) is deputy managing editor of strategy+business.
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  1. Karl Albrecht, The Power of Minds at Work: Organizational Intelligence in Action (American Management Association, 2002): How to use information to make organizations smarter. Click here.
  2. Thomas H. Davenport and Laurence Prusack, Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know (Harvard Business School Press, 1997): How to build a system (and a culture) that captures and shares information routinely to enable better decision making at all levels as the organization matures and grows. Click here.
  3. Art Fritzson, Lloyd W. Howell Jr., and Dov S. Zakheim, “Military of Millennials,” s+b, Winter 2007: The next generation of soldier: tech savvy, open-minded, multitasking, and perhaps unprepared for command-and-control. Click here.
  4. Center for Army Lessons Learned Web site: Provides unclassified information for other governmental agencies and military family members and serves as a means for authorized people to request access to more sensitive data. Click here.
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