Sea Change: On Location With the Navy

Back home, four active and retired U.S. Navy personnel are engaged in an administrative battle to change the way sailors learn to handle these new threats, with training and collaborative

November 22, 2003

17 Min Read
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In this 'On Location' documentary-style case study we take to the high seas to explore the U.S. Navy's Knowledge Online project. NKO is driven by the business of the Navy--making a lean, mean, sea-borne fighting machine. It was built in just four months on a shoestring budget in the face of naysayers who predicted that such a project would take years and billions of dollars. We find out why its creators chose a low-profile vendor, Appian Corp., and allow enlisted personnel to sound off in the NKO discussion boards. Clearly, they're doing something right: NKO is growing at a rate of 1,000 users per day, and was approaching 200,000 at press time.

Under constant threat from an invisible enemy, the U.S. forces in the Middle East are relearning the rules of engagement almost daily. They face what has been described as the new enemy: stealthy, unpredictable and asynchronous, but every bit as deadly as the adversaries who preceded them.

Back home, four active and retired U.S. Navy personnel are engaged in an administrative battle to change the way sailors learn to handle these new threats, with training and collaborative learning delivered by computer on land and at sea. In just nine months and on a shoestring budget, these men have built one of the biggest knowledge management (KM) portals around.

Navy Knowledge Online (NKO), as the portal is called, is part of a broader effort, named Sea Warrior, to re-evaluate every job function in the Navy and quickly match sailors' credentials with the skills needed to fight a decentralized and mobile enemy, according to Rear Admiral Kevin Moran, who is in charge of enlisted naval training.

What's striking is not so much the size of the NKO portal--165,000 users and adding 1,000 more per day--but how hands-off the ever-authoritarian naval leadership has been in managing the collaboration network. Enlisted personnel are free to express their opinions and can even voice dissent.Lt. Eric Morris, who along with retired Capt. Fred Bertsch sketched out the concept of NKO in February 2002 and now manages the portal's operations, likes to say that NKO "tilts the Navy's vertical structure just a little bit. It lets our leadership see what the sailors think."

It's precisely that concept that had forced Morris and Bertsch into the shadows of the Norfolk, Va., naval base. Their idea was and may still be a threat to some Navy brass. In this culture, the more budget dollars an admiral controls and the more data a unit CIO manages, the more powerful they are. Flatter and more open organizations don't work in their favor, some observers point out. Besides, in the private sector, knowledge management has been known to expose business units that are overmanaged. What if it revealed that the Navy could get by with fewer admirals and commanders?


When Morris and Bertsch presented a white paper describing NKO less than a month after their initial brainstorming session, they were met with skepticism and even defiance. They were told that a project like that would require a decade of planning and billions of dollars.

No one would be cutting them a big check to launch a KM portal. Instead, they would have to find any funds they could and produce a prototype. "We decided we have to show them something," Bertsch says. "We have to show them what we mean, because if Jiffy Lube can do this, if the gas station down the street can do this, why can't the United States Navy do this?"The result was an 18-minute CD-ROM that Morris presented to Admiral Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, at the Pentagon. "At the end of the briefing, he said, 'That's exactly what I want. Go out and make it happen,'" Bertsch says.

It was a limited victory. The naval chief gave his blessing but no dollars. The training unit that Morris and Bertsch are assigned to, the Naval Personnel Development Command (NPDC), would have to fund the portal launch using existing budget lines. Morris and Bertsch scraped together $4.5 million from various training and education budgets over six months, during which time they prepared RFPs and reviewed vendor bids. They also assembled a small group that included Chris Piereman, a retired master chief electronic technician with the Navy and now a contractor, and Capt. James Kantner, a Navy reservist on active duty.

Perhaps the most notable, and surprising, selection was a little-known company called Appian Corp., which would act as the collaboration-software vendor and integrator. (A few Appian developers are always on site in Norfolk; two more are assigned to Saufley Field, the naval education and training center in Pensacola, Fla.; and one is assigned to the Center for Naval Intelligence in Damneck, Va.)

Appian beat out IBM by, among other things, agreeing to buy the hardware--a Sun Microsystems server to run the Oracle database and four Sun Fire 280R systems to run the application servers--on behalf of the Navy. Because there was no money left in this Navy unit's budget for hardware, Appian bundled that cost into the service agreement and will transfer ownership of the systems to the Navy after one year.

As you would expect from a Web portal, NKO organizes a variety of data stores that existed in one form or another. Sailors can access training materials, a white pages directory of military personnel and third-party research tools. But the portal also provides new services, including instant messaging, discussion boards and scheduled chats that are replayable. Collaborative whiteboarding and workflow controls are on the way.Interactive career management is a highlight of NKO. Using a visual map called the 5 Vector Model--a career matrix that shows education and training qualifications--a sailor can compare his skills with the job requirements of a more senior position, and then sign up for the appropriate training. Supervisors can use the graphs to gauge the readiness of their squads in aggregate. Morris calls it "a Dow Jones for the work force, a human capital index."

Unlike a similar portal operated by the Army, the Navy rank and file aren't ordered to use NKO. They're motivated to do so to help their careers. On NKO, sailors can find experts to answer a single question or to tutor them for long periods, even if either or both party is at sea. It's a new concept for sailors, who effectively compete with their peers for promotions.

As a cold start, Morris tapped the coordinators of NPDC's 14 centers of training, covering combat systems, nuclear engineering, submarine operations, leadership and other topics. They were tasked with starting discussion boards and inviting people to join. Word of mouth quickly spread, and by June, five months after launch, 100,000 sailors were registered.


NKO's developers made a conscious effort to keep the portal open and unregulated at the beginning, so as not to scare people off. Of course, some military discussions will inevitably set off security alarms. One time a user asked a public discussion board for a password to a tactical combat system. No one answered, and users flamed the author for asking.Morris describes the discussion boards as self-correcting in this way, but he says he also thinks it's important for administrators who police the boards to provide an explanation. As soon as this user's message was deleted, Morris posted a message that explained why and directed the discussion to the Secure Internet Protocol Network, a version of NKO and devoted to classified information. It's accessible only by sailors with high security clearance and from terminals in restricted sections of a naval bases or ships. A few thousand Navy personnel began using it early this summer.

Even everyday conversations that don't involve classified material are self-policing, thanks to a system that prohibits anonymous postings. When a user registers, his or her identity is validated against the Defense Department's personnel directory, and every posting includes a name and a link to the poster's contact information, says Myles Weber, an Appian program manager who works on site with the NKO team.

"It's amazing when you assign an identity, a valid identity, not an alias," Piereman says. "Now I'm Seaman Johnny talking to Capt. Smith, and Capt. Smith is going to know that it's coming from Seaman Johnny. Therefore, I'm going to start my letter with 'Sir.'"

Dissent from the ranks isn't invited, but it also isn't censored, and many officers say they can gain valuable insight from online debates.

"I don't think it topples the chain of command. It reinforces it," says Lt. Mark Preissler, who runs the area of the portal devoted to IT personnel. "Officers can see what is really going on. What are the issues that sailors on the deck plates are really talking about? And sailors come to realize they aren't the only ones with a particular concern. If you see a thread that has 50 people on it, maybe it's something to address."Besides, the junior enlisted personnel are the ones driving adoption of NKO, Bertsch says. They are young, computer-savvy and comfortable in chat rooms and discussion boards. Before they even reach boot camp, recruits are given an NKO account so they can log on from home.

Morris and Piereman do see most postings in preproduction, not so much to police content but to test for broken links and other quality problems. They also monitor usage patterns to see which sections of the site are getting the most hits and which user groups are most active.

In addition, Morris and Piereman make sure that questions, particularly from enlisted men and women, are answered quickly. If no one answers initially, they will pose the question directly to someone who ought to know the answer. All new pages are pushed out at 1800 hours every day, though there is a further delay when a new community is formed because new menus and links must be generated.

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Experts point out that the best private sector KM practices are in many ways rooted in process methodologies pioneered by the U.S. military. "The Army and the Navy practically invented the way that most enterprises collaborate today, and it's in full view in the current conflict in Iraq," says Carla O'Dell, president of the American Productivity and Quality Center, a nonprofit research organization whose members include the Army and Navy.

There's a structured process at the end of each engagement: Squads compare what was supposed to happen with what actually happened, and from there they recommend new tactics. Reports from dozens of squads are uploaded to the Center for Army Lessons Learned in Levenworth, Kan., and new rules of engagement are drafted.O'Dell sees a role for both open debate and authoritarianism within the armed forces' KM efforts. "The process to reach the decision is collaborative. Once it's reached, it's hierarchically enforced," she says. "That's what I want my armed forces to do."

Morris admits that at some point he needs to impose more rules and policies on NKO, not only to protect classified information but also to improve the quality of postings. As many early adopters in the private sector have learned, information without quality controls is just noise.

Most private-sector KM adopters assign gatekeepers, who verify the technical accuracy of messages before they are posted, O'Dell says. A second option is to put quality control in the hands of users by letting them rate tips that are exchanged on the portal. Better placement goes to highly rated tips. Even without a weighting system, users ultimately create their own filter by discounting the opinions of users whose posts have been wrong before, Kantner says.


In a way, NKO is a technology project that de-emphasizes technology. Sure, the NKO team must worry about making NKO easy to use and always available, or no one would rely on it. But those involved in the project describe NKO as 1 percent about technology and 99 percent about people.And it's more than rhetoric. On a function-by-function basis, IBM would have beat Appian as the portal vendor hands down, Morris says. But feature richness wasn't the priority--speed of implementation was, because the NKO team had a point to make to those who might try to abort the portal's launch. The tight budget was also a factor--KM software from IBM's Lotus division would have been much more expensive, though Morris wouldn't specify the price difference.

The Navy also gets to influence future revisions of the Appian portal software. In addition to the teams of Appian staffers assigned to Navy bases, the Navy has access to developers at the vendor's Vienna, Va., headquarters. They respond to feedback and make changes on request, and they even recommend their own enhancements.

For example, when users complained that they didn't want to log on separately to legacy training portals that predated NKO, Appian developed an auto login that signs users on to all systems. The next revision of Appian's portal software, version 3.0, will incorporate several Navy-inspired functions, including grouping users based on more specific attributes for better personalization and creating private, invitation-only communities.

Such partnerships are becoming commonplace among collaboration-software vendors, particularly those focused on expertise location, such as AskMe Corp. and Tacit Knowledge Systems, O'Dell says. In return for low prices and personal attention, the vendors gain experience in how people use their products.

Indeed, in the end even the vendor choice came down not to technology but to the responsiveness of its people. "Ninety percent of the complaints I get, if Appian can fix it, they're all over it," says Preissler, who heads NKO's "IT community" of 400 personnel. "It's like they have a group of folks sitting there, waiting for us to give them something to do. I'll say, I wish NKO could do this, and a few weeks later, boom, it works."Preissler, who trolls NKO at least four hours per day and always has it running in the background, has seen heated discussions on his boards, with Navy IT personnel pointing out that there are better collaboration tools out there. They may be right, Preissler says, but they miss the point. "My objective isn't to find the best tool. It's to reach out to the communities," he says. "If we were to chase the best technology all the time, we would be constantly changing tools."

Long term, the vision for NKO is grander than training. The goal is to get the right information to the right sailor at the right time. As early as next year, a technician tasked with repairing a wing on a fighter jet will be able to call up the precise portion of the 12-inch-thick repair manual that he needs and view detailed multimedia tutorials on how to make the repair, complete with video streaming. It could even be delivered to a wearable computer so the technician's hands remain free.

The presentation will combine information from the wing manufacturer as well as tacit knowledge from Navy experts who have made the same repair before, says Rear Admiral Moran. Accuracy of data is vital: One wrong move and that plane falls out of the sky.

"Even I can change the flap on an EA60 Prowler Airplane now if we had that tool," Moran says. "The thing that makes this so dynamic is that is not one product. It's in a metadata library in reusable information chunks of knowledge that you bring together to make this product."

NKO may also link with systems used to design and order new materials, including ships and aircraft. This way, sailors might be trained in advance of new systems entering the field. And in reverse, system designs might be adjusted to address known sailor skill sets. Today, the process is much more linear, Bertsch says. Systems are designed, and then sailors are trained on those systems once they are in production. Systems designers make certain assumptions about what sailors can do, and those assumptions had better be true, because some naval vessels stay in commission for decades.

"This is where KM has been moving for the past four or five years," says Sara Radicati, president of research firm Radicati Group. "A good KM solution will be able to connect manuals online to people that may be online and available quickly."SCALABLE KM

No matter how these separate portals are integrated, they mark the biggest test yet of the KM concept. Most KM projects are limited to fewer than 5,000 users, says analyst Radicati. Even in big companies like Ford, the emphasis typically is on KM at the workgroup, not enterprisewide, she says. Yet interest in knowledge management has waned lately because of the amount of time and money these projects consume. "To most people, it seems like a frill," Radicati says.

Still, private businesses can learn a lot from the Navy, particularly about navigating around resistance from higher-ups, Bertsch says. "When obstacles get in the way and when somebody refuses to change, or they are dragging their feet and are hurting the organization, then you must move them out of the way," he says.

But his biggest lesson is to put up something, anything, that will produce early returns and make an impact quickly. Don't insist on making it perfect. "It's ready, aim, fire. Not ready, aim, aim, aim," Bertsch says.

ON THE HORIZONLooking forward, the NKO team faces challenges. They'll have to fight what Bertsch calls a "guerrilla war" to secure permanent funding and attain legitimacy among the Navy's senior ranks. (Morris assures that next year's NKO budget will be significantly higher than this year's, though he wouldn't say by how much because of pending negotiations with Appian.)

Usability also is an issue. Some users call for better categorization and grouping of content. They say it's hard to find your way through NKO's mostly text navigation system. Also, the Enterprise Collaboration Center, where documents are uploaded and shared and whose interface resembles Windows Explorer's files and folders, doesn't integrate well enough with the channels that sailors use to customize the look of their pages, Preissler says. And links to documents that relate to topical channels have to be entered manually.

On the technical side, the storage infrastructure will have to become more distributed as a more geographically dispersed work force signs onto NKO. The problem is acute aboard naval vessels, which have low-bandwidth network connections. Caching alone won't solve the problem, because information is so specialized that it's nearly impossible to anticipate what to cache locally.

NKO also has to prove it can do more than sign up a lot of users and host chats. Admiral Moran and others say the ultimate goal is to improve fleet readiness. How exactly that will be measured and whether NKO can even accomplish its mission in any demonstrable way remains an open question Short-term metrics include better retention of users, lower training costs and the ability to train sailors while they're aboard ships rather than bringing them back to the classroom.

"The Navy is pretty good at measuring short-term goals," O'Dell says. "But I don't see how they will measure fleet readiness."In her recent study of 29 organizations using knowledge management, the major difference between those organizations that achieved high returns on their KM investments and those that didn't was how clear they were about the way in which the ultimate goal would be measured. (The median annual expense was $6.4 million, and O'Dell estimates the 12-month ROI to be $15 million among this group, with no ROI difference between the first year and subsequent years.)

"Clarity about where you are going helps you get there," O'Dell says. "It's easy to get caught up in the activity measures. They need to keep their eye on the ball."

For more on how the Navy build NKO and why it choose to partner with Appian, see "Do It Cheap, Do It Now".

David Joachim is Network Computing's editor/business technology. Write to him at [email protected].

A CLOSER LOOK500,000 -- Total Navy personnel (active/reserve)

2 million -- Potential user base for NKO (including civilians, family members, retirees)

165,000 -- Personnel registered

5,000 -- Peak concurrent users

100+ -- Number of user communities28 -- Number of additional communities established

400 -- Number of administrators assigned to communities

4 -- Navy KM staff

10 -- Appian staff devoted to NKO

0 -- Helpdesk staff for NKO750,000 -- NKO logins

1.5 million -- Instant messages

5,000 -- Message board posts

500,000 -- Document downloads

42,000 -- Document uploads43 GB -- Amount of storage space these uploads currently take

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