Diamond in the rough

In a room in Kingston, Ont., with blinds drawn to better view visual presentations, about eight professionals work intently with one common purpose. Most of those present are wearing Canadian Forces combat uniforms. DMR Consulting director Dr. Pierrette Champoux guides the group but the discussion is very democratic, with all participants fully engaged. A writer takes detailed notes as words gradually fill three large whiteboards and poster-sized papers on the walls, reflecting the progress being made.

This is the second tiring day of the group’s first two-day workshop. Two more such marathon sessions will occur over the next few months before they accomplish their goal: creating a quick response ‘Lessons Learned Knowledge Warehouse’ for the Canadian Department of National Defence. The LLKW allows military personnel to tap into lessons learned from prior experiences, enabling troops to respond faster to sometimes dangerous situations.

Fast forward two years to November 2, 2004, where hundreds of guests are gathered at the Weston Harbour Castle conference centre in Toronto for the 12th annual Canadian Information Productivity Awards (CIPA) gala, showcasing Canadian IT innovation. The moment arrives when the highest honour is announced. The recipient of the Diamond Award of Excellence is the Department of National Defence’s Land Command & Information – the Canadian Army’s CIO organization. What’s more, Lt. Col. Jacques Hamel, the organization’s director, is honoured as the CIPA 2004 and CIO Canada CIO of the Year.

Some of the people from that small room in Kingston, now in full-dress uniform, come to the CIPA stage to receive the honours. Joining them is Champoux, now with Fujitsu Consulting since DMR was renamed. Unfortunately Lt. Col. Hamel’s duties as project manager of Intelligence Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) do not allow him to join the group, but at that moment his influence is felt and respected. And rightly so, because it was Hamel’s change management and user participation approaches that went a long way in ensuring the project’s success.

Beginnings of the project

Hamel’s involvement in the award-winning project began about three years ago, when he was in effect the Canadian Army’s CIO. At that time he was given what he calls “a series of information challenges”. One of these was to create a place where the army, from soldier to general, can find the observations of other people conducting previous operations so that the knowledge gained from experience can be passed on in a timely, convenient and potentially life-saving manner.

The result is the online Lessons Learned Knowledge Warehouse, which Hamel describes as a knowledge portal for best practices and problem solutions. “You can look at it from the perspective of ‘I’m about to go to Afghanistan; what did the people who were there for the last six months learn?’ or ‘Is there any observation on footwear that we should take into account because we’re looking at replacing footwear?’ It gives people different lenses to look at the organization.”

Basically, the LLKW is a Web application that allows Canadian military personnel to access knowledge in real-time, to share observations gathered during peacekeeping missions, to react more quickly on the basis of that information, and to benefit from online training. The knowledge warehouse falls under the aegis of the Army Lessons Learned Centre (ALLC), which helps to improve the army’s operational capability by collecting and analysing Canadian and Allied operational and training experiences for dissemination as lessons.

Previously, the knowledge capture and transfer process relating to a particular mission could take six to 12 months. Considering that leadership changes frequently in the military and units at a particular location may regroup and be redeployed after six months, it was easy to miss the opportunity to learn from experience. Further, the reports that were captured were filed to a cumbersome CD-based system that made accessing and analyzing that information a time-consuming process. As a result, people on a mission might be lacking the latest information that could better equip them to respond to dangerous situations or simply be more effective.

Creating the prototype

The Army decided not to continue producing CDs and budgeted one year and $1.2 million to incorporate the existing knowledge base into an improved information-sharing vehicle.

There are three types of users of such an information system: military personnel contributing reports, viewers searching the data to prepare for operations, and knowledge analysts responding to research queries.

Lt. Col. Hamel initiated the project by instructing DMR to create a prototype for the second type of user, viewers searching the data to prepare for operations, to show how they could look at, search, and drill down all the knowledge from a lessons-learned perspective. Beginning with Java-based knowledge management software from Montreal-based Teximus Technologies Inc., DMR created a prototype deploying a dynamic HTML-based SQL 2000 server database.

“When I presented the system to Lt. Col. Hamel,” Champoux recalls, “he told me ‘you hit 85 per cent of what they need already.’ That 85 per cent was the way of viewing the knowledge.”

Changing the business process

“One of my major roles as a CIO was to get the organization to agree to change its legacy business process,” Lt. Col. Hamel recalls. “I was not the one doing the changing because I was on the CIO side of the table, but I had to show them the benefit of doing the change. Once they had the benefit, they could take it on themselves and move with it.”

The first step was building a business model, then an application that met the business model. Samples of some of the lessons learned ensured the model made sense. After getting users’ feedback, DMR built a complete model and loaded a fair amount of the history.

Lt. Col. Hamel drove home the benefit message by having DMR show practical examples that were related to users’ work. To do that, the existing knowledge base – primarily copious CDs of mostly Microsoft Word documents – was transferred into a data warehouse, loaded into the product, and then mined to create a ready-made example.

“I could have delivered the product as an empty shell but we data-mined the last 10 years of our operational experience and the users were able to find lessons from the past and make deductions about current operations,” Hamel explains.

“The lesson I’ve learned as an experienced CIO is that if you deliver a system that doesn’t immediately show added value, users will not necessarily reject it but they will ignore it. You have to ensure that as part of your project you [put enough information in the system that] the user will see at least the beginning of a benefit and will be attracted by the transformation. In our case I think it worked because we provided users with everything they originally had plus some value-added ability to do a fairly complex search and find information they could not find before.”

Lt. Col. Hamel admits that getting the organization to agree to this transformation was the biggest challenge of this project. “You have to convince the organization that it is worth it to write observations down. Once they are convinced and they have a use for it, the observations come in.”

Even though the system has been operational since 2003, he views the transformation of the organization as still ongoing. “It’s not something you turn on and people will immediately see all the benefits,” he says. “It takes a little while.”

Getting the users on board

With nearly 20 years’ experience in the operational use of IT, Hamel describes himself as “a user who has technology knowledge”. He has been involved in the design and architecting of systems at the user level and the detailed implementation and project management of systems. The latter range from operational systems used in places like Afghanistan to business systems like the LLKW.

Hamel’s experience has taught him the value of involving those who will be using the systems. “I haven’t in the past been able to deliver a system without user involvement. Otherwise you end up with a technology solution for technologists.”

So, in spite of a tight schedule, after the prototyping came the series of three two-day design and validation sessions that Champoux agrees were “the best way of designing the system in the time frame we had.”

The workshops addressed the process of managing the knowledge, structuring the questionnaire, and ensuring historical or version control. The latter enables army personnel to look at earlier responses to the same or similar questions. So, for example, a current response that equipment was not received in the field in time could be compared to previous responses relating to equipment deployment.

Champoux says that it took three DMR people two weeks to prepare a two-day workshop, “making sure we had all the materials, questions, prototypes and presentations done to have the answers that we needed to do the development. We brought a lot of material to make people see, listen and address different ways people can express themselves in communication. We used PowerPoints for the prototypes and a lot of visual aids to ensure we had a common understanding of the process, the tools to be designed and how it would be easy to use.

“It was very intense,” Hamel admits. “You cannot do [a project of this nature] if the people are not willing volunteers. Yes, we’re the army, but we’re not completely autocratic. You have to have people that do believe [in what you’re doing]. Once they believe, they will put in the hours to get to the end, because they know it has value for them. The people involved did not have a problem with that intensity because it was going to help them with their operational problems.”

Users were already prepared and accepting of the changes the new system would bring to their work because they were involved in the design which replaced the familiar Word format questionnaire, says Champoux. “The users approved it and participated in the system testing to ensure that all the tools were there to help them do their job. So, they knew the system before starting to depend on it.

“The ALLC users took a week to make sure the knowledge analyst users were all comfortable with it,” she continues. “One task of the ALLC is to brief a new rotation of the military personnel that will contribute reports. At the same time, they are saying ‘you’re going to add your report and here’s your user log-in and here’s the one-page checklist.”

The new system is run on the existing secure Army intranet. Authorized users simply go into their Internet Explorer to access the knowledge warehouse. “What is really terrific is they can manage objects and manage links to an object,” Champoux enthuses. An object may be described by a name, an abstract, a starting date, an ending date, or a participating organization, for example.

An operation with multiple personnel rotations can be related to documents and issues, and relationships between objects can be managed without duplicating objects or creating new documents.

“It is possible for a [user] to look at the question and see all current and previous observations from the questionnaire, even without navigating too much, if the sense of the question has not changed or the question has not been replaced,” she adds.

An integrated team approach

“Working as an integrated team with the consulting firm was critical to meeting the one-year time frame for the project,” Hamel continues. “When the consultant came to a meeting, I always had somebody able to deal with some of the day-to-day questions. By having a quick feedback loop we were able to get to where we went.”

The consulting firm was working on-site at the Defence Research and Development Canada facility at Valcartier, Que. Based in Ottawa, Lt. Col. Hamel had someone on-site with DMR day-to-day who could track the issues, identify any issues outstanding on the government side requiring input, or flag whenever it was time for the two parties to get together to resolve where they were going.

“For the most part, we found we were moving together as a team even though it was distributed across Ottawa, Kingston and Quebec City. We got together for those user interaction sessions but after that we had regular meetings and regular discussions to make sure that we stayed on track.”

Clearly the team did indeed stay on track, meeting their objectives on time and within budget. Subsequent additional funding has been used to enhance the system’s search capabilities.

In addition to winning the top CIPA accolades, the LLKW project also won the Quebec IT Octas 2004 award for the best project in the category of E-learning and knowledge management. But Lt. Col. Hamel is fully aware that the ultimate measure of the success of the system is in the users’ court.

“The CIO’s role, from my perspective, is to enable the user. But only the user will decide whether or not to exploit what the CIO delivers,” he concludes. “The CIO cannot force people to change. They have to be willing and wanting to change. The user has to be involved and the user has to care about the change.”

Nevertheless, by fully engaging users throughout the process, Lt. Col. Hamel ensured that the Lessons Learned Knowledge Warehouse would have every chance of being a valuable tool in helping keep our peacekeepers safe.

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Susan Maclean is a freelance writer based in Guelph, Ont. She can be reached at maclean@sumac.net.

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