Bill Kaplan, CPCM is a retired US Air Force colonel who after a lifetime of successful implementations for other companies founded his own knowledge management consulting group last year: Working KnowledgeCSP. His path is a textbook example of success -- always the most difficult kind.

Mimi Dionne: First, a bit of background.

Bill Kaplan: Early in my career, I was the Director of Contracts for a major satellite program office in the Air Force. When I look back, I realize the work I implemented in team operations and sharing across the organization is what’s known as knowledge management (KM) today. We formally exchanged information on a daily basis and once per year, much to their dismay, my contracting officers changed roles and positions to help ensure that they each knew what the other one was doing (and this is the early years of email and online sharing).

I retired in 1998 and went to work for SAIC. While there I wandered into a presentation one day. Kent Greenes, SAIC’s Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO), was explaining to the audience what I understood inherently. I joined his group and along with some others, built an internal and external Knowledge Management practice for our clients. I was there for seven years until Acquisitions Solutions (an entirely virtual organization specializing in government only acquisition and program management consulting) took advantage of my background in contracting and program management and brought me onboard as their CKO. I served this organization for five years, managing intellectual capital, working with other C-level execs to set up a robust and sustainable knowledge management framework.

MD: What was singular about the knowledge management framework you developed at Acquisition Solutions?

BK: I had two roles: internally I was charged to develop a strategy and the right implementing practices to transition the company into a high performing knowledge enabled consulting organization.  At the same time I was hired, the company was hiring other C-level executives to support the company’s growth and success.

We worked to transform the company from the top down and the bottom up. The Chief Financial Officer handled financial assets, the Corporate Development Officer was responsible for financial assets; Human Capital managed people assets; I was the Chief Knowledge Officer in charge of managing and leveraging the intellectual assets of the company. To continue to foster and sustain the collaborative behavior that had been the foundation of this virtual company for ten years, they charged me to build a KM framework -- the right kind, implementing practices, capture, adapt and reuse knowledge, along with mechanisms, both personal and technical across the organization.

I worked closely with the Chief Technology Officer who was responsible for the technical assets of the company…it was a perfect relationship. I was able to provide guidance to the technical side of the house to support implementation of KM using relevant supporting technology. However, I’m from the camp that says KM is not only about the technology. The main focus is about people and processes. KM is about improving performance of the individual, the team, and the corporate level.

My external role was to develop a consulting practice based on lessons learned from our practices within the company. Customers found value in the fact that we were offering solutions developed from concepts and practices that we were using internally. The practitioner status helped a lot with our credibility. 

The KM Team applied the same knowledge management approach developed internally with our external clients: the framework included knowledge assets (a web-based dynamic group knowledge repository) highlighting reuseable information and experience, communities of practice to help move knowledge across the company, enabling technology to support connection, collection and collaboration, and Fast Learning processes to learn before, during and after process execution to make sense of it for reuse.

MD: The definition of knowledge for you?

BK: I’m a practitioner first, not an academic. There’s a lot of theory and discussion about what is knowledge. I have a very simple definition. If you’re a business person, you’re interested in leveraging knowledge to drive business results and improved performance. It’s straightforward. I think of it like the letter ‘V’. On the left side of the ‘V’ you have information, things you can search for and see…it’s codified. On the right side is tacit knowledge. Some will argue it’s hard to capture tacit knowledge; I disagree. We do it all the time as a matter of course, as part of the way we work.

MD: Sure, but what if there is resistance?

BK: When people hear ‘KM,’ it’s like hearing the word ‘transformation’ -- overused and general in nature, it loses its meaning.  Also, remember when we talked about TQM -- Total Quality Management -- that had its run but quickly became viewed in many organizations as ‘one of those management initiatives.’ Same for KM. If not carefully introduced into the organization and why it has value for workforce and the leadership. Because it can be viewed as another initiative from management, people want to know, ‘what’s in it for me?’ 

As a member of the workforce, I want access to the tools and knowledge that will make me successful on the job. Turnover is much lower in organizations where leadership enables the workforce to find the knowledge I need to be successful when I need it. As a worker, if I find what I’m looking for using a KM tool or technology, then I’m likely to go back there to use the tool or technique that enabled me to find it. I automatically make sure my content’s organized and I can find what I need to find. I won’t take the time to do anything that won’t provide me with value with all the work that I have to do.

MD: Since the market crash in 2007, have organizations taken to KM, or not? Are financially vulnerable organizations more knowledge management vulnerable?

BK: It depends. People don’t go out looking for KM, but for a solution to the business or operational challenge or problems they face. For example, take the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) process which concerns decreasing federal budgets and unit and base relocation to drive savings. Say a private sector client supports a DOD program which is moving a couple of states away. When a significant part of their workforce leaves, their knowledge goes with them unless they have done something to capture and retain this knowledge. Very often, these people have been with the organization for a long time and have grown and evolved with the organization as its grown -- they know who, what, when, where and how -- and very often none of this is written down.

When they leave, these departing employees take the knowledge with them.  For example, very likely, there aren’t any process maps to support on boarding and training at the new location. How is the transition managed so the same expertise can be provided and a new group of government employees trained to carry out the mission? Organizations find themselves in some tough positions when the knowledge they need is no longer available. In this case, BRAC can make doing the mission tougher.

MD: How do you demonstrate that there is real value in sharing knowledge?

BK: If you’re looking for a common example, take any completed project in an organization. How many times do you complete a survey or fill out as questionnaire for getting at the lessons learned? It is inevitably done after everyone has left the project rather than right at the end of the project before the team disperses. Often the team delays completing lessons learned until later, but in truth it sometimes doesn’t get done, so how do you address this?

From a leadership perspective, I know this is how my organization behaves. So I build milestones for learning before, during and after the work I do on the project, so capturing knowledge is not viewed as extra but more as part of the way work is done.

In the beginning, it’s about learning before to improve probability of success. During and after it’s about capturing the lessons, then sharing that knowledge with others who may be taking on the same work so that their chance of success is increased.

It becomes particularly challenging when projects don’t go well -- then who wants to share what happened and why? If you change the environment from one of inquisition to one of inquiry, you will be more successful at getting at the challenges that impede projects than if you look for who did it. The message is inquiry -- NOT inquisition.

MD: It seems obvious to share. So why don’t organizations share?

BK: Reciprocity and trust must be the cornerstones of how you work -- your business. You only share with people you trust and since all knowledge is personal it becomes difficult to share if you don’t trust. You will have folks that are speed bumps, or roadblocks. They fear they will lose power, influence -- their jobs.

MD: So where does Records Management fit?

BK: I think Records Management belongs on the left hand side of the ‘V’ I mentioned earlier -- codified, accessible and searchable. Connection and collection is necessary. Tagged content and a relevant taxonomy based on what the business does and how it does it is critical. Tools like SharePoint can become really valuable though it’s not the only way; what technology like this does is provide a means or a pathway to help ensure that knowledge that is out there gets used and reused. That’s the collaboration piece. ‘Content is king’ and it must be accessible and visible. 

Bill’s website can be found at He has a new book, “Losing Your Minds: Capturing and Retaining Organizational Knowledge” to be released soon by Ark Publishing Group.