Why DOTs Need Knowledge Management

What Is Knowledge Management?

“Knowledge Management” (KM) is an umbrella term for a variety of techniques for building, leveraging and sustaining the know-how and experience of an organization’s employees. The goal of KM is to make the organization act in an intelligent manner. KM emerged as a recognized discipline in the 1980’s, and is now a well-established field with documented successes in both the private and public sectors. Fundamental to KM is the recognition that the intellectual capital (or collective knowledge) of an organization is an essential asset that should be recognized and managed to ensure organizational efficiency and effectiveness.

KM has been embraced by a diverse group of organizations, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the World Bank, State Farm Insurance and Kraft Foods, to name a few. KM programs or initiatives are also in place at several USDOT administrations (Highways, Transit and Aviation) and state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) including Caltrans, Georgia DOT, Virginia DOT, and Wisconsin DOT. Private companies use KM to build competitive advantage over other companies; public sector organizations use KM to manage risk, improve operational effectiveness, and make maximum use of employee talents.

Why Should DOTs Be Interested in KM?

State DOTs rely on the skills and experience of their workforces to plan, fund, design, construct and maintain multi-modal transportation systems. Knowledge about what to do, when and how to do it, AND what not to do is critical to success – and much of this knowledge resides only in the heads of employees, especially the most experienced employees.

Maintaining a strong knowledge base agency-wide is not easy: “baby boomers” are retiring and taking knowledge with them; mid-career employees at the peak of their productivity are looking to leave for higher salaries, and the millennial generation has less interest in learning from and staying with one agency than did their parents’ generation. Without a conscious strategy for replacing critical employees, building bench strength, (possible successors for a given position), getting new staff up to speed and growing expertise and experience in the right areas, DOTs face a steady decline in their resilience – and an increased risk of poor performance and public criticism.

There is no such thing as a “corporate brain” in a DOT, but there is such a thing as a corporate brain trust. When a DOT faces an emergency situation, it is primarily the agency’s people and their ability to act that make the difference between public appreciation for a job well done and an embarrassing disaster. Success depends less on the DOT’s physical assets than it does on employees’ knowledge and how they are able to apply this knowledge in a given situation.

The DOT landscape is changing – dollars for transportation are declining yet public expectations for service remain very high. Knowledge and performance are inextricably linked. And a strong knowledge base for DOTs is too precious a resource to leave to chance. KM offers an effective set of strategies not only to maintain the knowledge required to meet today’s needs, but also to expand agency knowledge resources in order to meet tomorrow’s new challenges.

What Is the Payoff from KM?

In the current environment of declining revenues and shrinking workforces, where every agency is challenged to “do more with less,” DOTs need new approaches for operating in a more streamlined manner. KM is an important piece of the puzzle for agency executives seeking to shore up their organization’s capabilities to deliver projects and services more effectively and efficiently, on time and within budget. KM practices can:

  • Provide opportunities for experienced employees to get newer employees up to speed, increasing productivity and reducing the need to “reinvent the wheel.”
  • Minimize impacts of workforce transitions - if not carefully managed, these transitions can result in loss of important institutional knowledge, which increases risks of ill-informed decisions and repeated mistakes.
  • Ensure that DOTs can retain and build essential expertise “in-house” as they make increased use of outsourcing and public-private partnerships for delivery of projects and services.

Increasingly, DOTs operate in a fishbowl. Inefficiency or poor decisions on the part of inexperienced staff leave the agency open to a loss of public confidence. In this environment, the importance of the knowledge possessed by each and every employee is magnified. Proactive steps to strengthen and leverage available employee expertise are more important than ever.

Knowledge: A Limiting Factor for DOTs

Knowledge – the ability of staff to take effective action and make good decisions – is becoming a key limiting factor in a DOT’s ability to make progress and adapt to changing requirements.

DOT CEO Perspectives on KM

"As the CEO of a DOT you wake up one day and realize that every hand you shake is connected to a head full of knowledge. Knowledge management collects, shares and puts that knowledge to work over and over again across the entire agency—saving money, saving time, delivering quality projects, and reducing risk."

– Philip Shucet, former CEO of the Virginia Department of Transportation

"We are not just Departments of Transportation. We are knowledge organizations that specialize in transportation."

– John S. Halikowsi, Director, Arizona Department of Transportation

KM in Practice

What Does It Mean to Implement KM?

KM includes a range of simple and relatively low cost actions that DOT executives can consider to reduce risks, leverage available opportunities for innovation, and ensure that what employees have learned in the course of their careers is shared with newer employees and contemporaries in other organizational units. Techniques include:

  • Workforce planning to identify and close gaps between needed skills and existing capabilities;
  • Communities of practice that enable less experienced employees to learn from their peers;
  • Expertise directories that employees can use to identify who to contact if they have a question;
  • Capture of specialized knowledge from employees before they leave the organization;
  • Project management methodologies that ensure project teams learn from prior experience and document lessons learned for future efforts; and
  • Use of information management methods to ensure that employees can quickly find the information they need to be effective.

Aren't We Already Doing KM?

It can be argued that many organizations – including DOTs - are already managing knowledge to some extent: through employee training, mentoring, team meetings, business process documentation, updates to manuals, etc. Nevertheless, such activities are often carried out by individual organizational units with a narrowly defined perspective. The effectiveness of these activities can be greatly enhanced through a more strategic, agency-wide and organized approach to KM – drawing upon the rich base of KM experience from both public- and private-sector organizations.

How Do We Get Started?

There are many practical steps that can be taken to ensure that existing employee know-how is well-utilized and to grow the agency’s knowledge base to meet anticipated future needs.

Key activities include: (1) Assessing the organization’s strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities with respect to knowledge for critical business functions; (2) developing a strategy that involves people, process and information management/technology elements for leveraging existing expertise and mitigating anticipated knowledge losses; (3) implementing a set of KM techniques; and (4) tracking results and adjust techniques as needed, while allowing room for flexibility and experimentation.

Aligning KM activities with the agency’s established objectives and strategic initiatives provides DOT leaders with an opportunity to ramp up support for what they are trying to achieve within their limited tenures. KM techniques can be focused in priority areas (e.g. safety, asset management, or innovative finance) to get some easy short term wins, while creating a sustainable longer-term foundation. Agencies can start small with a pilot effort, track costs and results and expand as appropriate based on the payoff they are seeing.

Purpose of the Guide

This Guide was developed because KM offers promising solutions to DOT challenges, yet relatively few DOTs have implemented agency-wide approaches to KM.

The Guide is intended to help DOT leaders examine the business case for undertaking or strengthening KM in their agencies. It introduces a variety of KM tools and techniques that a DOT could apply, and provides a roadmap for DOTs wishing to experiment or get started with implementing an agency-wide approach to KM. Finally, it provides links to resources that agencies can use to develop and strengthen their KM activities over time.

Throughout the Guide, key points and quick tips are highlighted with this light bulb symbol.

Using KM to Reduce Risk

As DOTs cut costs and downsize workforces, this often leads to a loss of expertise and experience in key functions. The erosion of staff capabilities can take its toll on organizational effectiveness and the track record of the chief executive.

Using this Guide

The Guide can be used to get an overview of:

  • The fundamentals of KM,
  • How KM can be applied at a DOT, and
  • How to track KM results.