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Why Logisticians Fail at Knowledge Management

Ensuring that knowledge products are relevant, accurate, timely, and usable to commanders and decisionmakers will lead to unit success.

You are the senior logistician in the command post this morning. It is 0800, and you are about
to brief the commander in his battle update brief. You have been preparing for the brief since 0600 because the slides were due to the battle captain by 0700. You get up to brief the commander and start spouting out numbers and figures. “We have 100,000 gallons of JP8 and 50 pallets of bottled water. Ammo is green. We are expecting a push from the sustainment brigade later tonight. Our operational readiness rate is 87 percent,” and on, and on, and on.

You wrap up your briefing, and you feel pretty good about what you told the boss; after all, you pulled the data from the Battle Command Sustainment Support System and verified it in the logistics status report. Surely it was good data, but therein lies the problem: It was just a bunch of data.

Your commander sits back in his chair and says, “So what?” You have just failed your commander. If a staff officer briefs the commander and the commander must ask a question either for clarification or relevance, the staff officer has failed in his job.

Making Knowledge Relevant

Logisticians notoriously neglect knowledge management (KM), and the situation described above is just one example of why. We sustainers are faced with more raw data than any other staff officer, and because of that, we often break the most basic principle of KM: ensuring that knowledge products are relevant, accurate, timely, and usable to commanders and decisionmakers.

Before briefing commanders or providing logistics data to the decisionmakers, logisticians must analyze and filter the data and information and turn it into knowledge for the commander. I Corps personnel recently addressed this issue in their KM plan. They recommended analyzing information based on seven information characteristics before briefing commanders or decisionmakers. Those seven characteristics are accuracy, relevance, timeliness, usability, completeness, brevity, and security.

Sustainers must take the infinite amount of data they receive and filter it using these seven characteristics. Only after the data are filtered, analyzed, and packaged correctly should the information be processed and presented to the commander.

One might argue that sustainers do not have time to analyze all of the logistics data they are faced with and that their commander wants information as soon as it is available. I recommend asking the commander or decisionmaker, “Which do you prefer: information now or knowledge later?”

During the 5th annual Army Operational Knowledge Management Conference, Dr. Mark Nissen put it another way. He used a pizza analogy: Does the commander want a bad pizza delivered fast or a better pizza that takes a little longer to prepare and deliver? Most commanders will want both. Commanders want information now, and they want it to be right. This makes our job even more difficult, but through the use of effective KM processes, sustainers can meet the commander’s requirements.

Sustainers can start by speaking the commander’s language. Logisticians tend to speak differently than their commanders, especially in maneuver and functional brigades. While we tend to talk of gallons, days of supply, and percentages, the maneuver and functional brigade commanders speak of offensive and defensive operations and the number of missions.

Sustainers must take their logistics data and information and put it in terms that the commander can apply immediately. For example, instead of saying, “Sir, we are green on ammunition, and we have 89 percent on hand,” the sustainer should say, “Sir, with the current amount of ammunition on hand, we can sustain 30 missions.” It is the same data and information, but it is spoken in the commander’s language—how the commodity affects missions. This may seem simple, but the way you present the information is almost as important as the information itself.

Sharing Knowledge

One of the seven principles of KM is to focus on sharing knowledge. Field Manual (FM) 6–01.1, Knowledge Management Section, says that “knowledge shared is power.” Sustainers do a relatively good job of sharing information and knowledge within the logistics community. Where sustainers fail to share information and knowledge is across the other warfighting functions.

The brigade S–4 is synchronized with the brigade support battalion’s (BSB’s) support operations officer (SPO), and the BSB SPO is synchronized with the sustainment brigade SPO. But the brigade’s logisticians are seldom fully integrated and synchronized with the movement and maneuver cell or other staff sections. By using several KM tools, sustainers can better synchronize logistics across all warfighting functions.

Running estimates.
Sustainers must have simple but dynamic running estimates. Using a Microsoft PowerPoint slide with an imbedded Excel spreadsheet is common practice, but that slide is hardly dynamic, and quite frankly, it is not a running estimate. Now, I am not saying that running estimates need to be real time, but according to FM 3–0, Operations, they need to be a continuous assessment. As soon as data are taken from the Excel spreadsheet and pasted into a slide, the information is static.

Sustainers should leverage technology to make their running estimates more relevant. The Command Post of the Future (CPOF) and SharePoint offer technology solutions for running estimates. When assessing running estimates, analyze the time and effort it takes to prepare, update, and share those estimates. If you or your subordinates are spending excessive time and effort maintaining these, you should look for more efficient and effective solutions. Furthermore, if it is difficult or impossible to share your information, then it is of little use.

Logistics synchronization meeting. Once you have developed your running estimates, those estimates become the foundation for your logistics synchronization (log sync) meeting or your sustainment working group. Few maneuver and functional brigades effectively use the log sync meeting. Most brigades either conduct their meeting with only logisticians (excluding the other staff sections or warfighting functions), or they do not conduct a log sync meeting at all.

The log sync meeting is the key to integrating sustainment and sharing logistics information and knowledge. In a deployed theater, time, distance, and location may make it difficult to conduct a log sync meeting, but once again, sustainers can leverage technology to help facilitate the meeting. Virtual meetings are common and very effective. Regardless of how the meeting is held, its contents are most important.

When developing your log sync meeting, start with the “7-minute drill” to justify the need for the meeting. It is called the 7-minute drill because you have 7 minutes or less to justify to your boss the need for the meeting. By focusing on the outputs of the meeting, you can show the command the value of the log sync meeting. Once you have completed the 7-minute drill and added the log sync meeting to the battle rhythm, develop the content and structure of the meeting.

Quad charts. A quad chart is an excellent tool to ensure that your log sync meeting and other meetings, working groups, and boards are efficient. The quad chart is not a new product, but it works well. Operations Group Foxtrot and the Battle Command Training Program recognize the quad chart as a best practice when developing the content, structure, and composition of your meetings and working groups.

The quad chart clearly displays the purpose, frequency, duration, and location in one quadrant. The inputs and outputs are displayed in another quadrant and, equally important, the attendees are listed in a third quadrant. In the log sync quad chart below, the attendees include representatives from the operations and intelligence sections. The attendance of these people is critical to integrating sustainers into the operations. The last quadrant simply shows the agenda for the log sync meeting. Notice that various staff sections are involved and facilitate the sharing of information across the brigade.

Improving KM Practices

Perhaps the single most important means of sharing information and gaining situational understanding is the common operational picture (COP), which sustainers sometimes neglect. Logisticians feel that they need to have their own logistics COP (LCOP). FM 3–0 says that the COP is a single display of relevant information that is shared by more than one command. LCOP is never mentioned in Army doctrine, and sustainers must recognize that there is only one COP.

We must incorporate logistics information into the unit’s COP, which is easy to do with CPOF and SharePoint. Sustainers must take the information from their “LCOP” and create views and displays within CPOF and SharePoint to display the relevant logistics information to the commander, other staff sections, and subordinate units. Doing this instantly gives commanders and decisionmakers the sustainment situational awareness they require.

Another key KM principle is to foster learning. Sustainers must continue to be a learning community. We do this by capturing lessons learned and passing them on to our replacements or other units. This is an area where we could all improve. All too often, units or individuals change something just for the sake of change.

For example, in a recent initial-impression report from III Corps, it was noted that the corps “made a conscious decision to not use several of the automated tools developed by the previous staff, based on the lack of predeployment training on the tools in use in theater. . . . In retrospect, several changes were reversed after learning that the previous unit’s methods worked best.” If we do not learn from previous units and individuals, we will continue to learn the same lessons over and over again.

It is absolutely critical that sustainers capture lessons learned and share them. The Army has numerous means to share these lessons. The Battle Command Knowledge System (BCKS) is one way to share your experiences and best practices, and every sustainer should be an active member of the SustainNet forum, which is an excellent place to find logistics information, products, and best practices.

But do not allow readily available lessons learned to replace individual innovation. You will find numerous standing operating procedures within BCKS, but do not fall into the trap of taking another unit’s product and assuming that it fits your organization perfectly. These products should be your foundation, but continue to adapt and improve them based on your tacit knowledge.

In the current operational environment, knowledge transfer is critical. Effective KM allows us to learn more, faster. For example, almost everyone has participated in some sort of relief in place/transfer of authority (RIP/TOA), whether it was in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, or somewhere else. Normally, the incoming sustainer has done some research before the RIP/TOA. This research is done by email, telephone calls, and maybe even a predeployment site survey.

Once an individual deploys, he has less than a month to learn everything he can from the outgoing officers and Soldiers. At the end of those short weeks, the incoming individual probably feels comfortable in his understanding of his duties and responsibilities.

As the new guy gets further into his tour and the last guy goes home, the new guy almost assuredly realizes that he has a lot more to do than the last guy showed him. Why is this? Was the last guy just in a hurry to go home? Probably, but I doubt he intentionally ignored questions. The breakdown most likely can be traced back to a lack of KM and, in particular, knowledge transfer, both tacit and explicit.

Retired General John W. Hendrix summed up the importance of KM. As he addressed a functional brigade at its battle command seminar, he said, “It [KM] is a laborious process, but if you don’t do it, it is an accident if this brigade works well . . . If you do not do this process, it is an accident if this brigade functions properly.” He continues, “We are not an institution that accepts accidental decisionmaking. Knowledge management is the process by which we make it [decisionmaking] logical.”

Sustainers provide critical information in this decisionmaking process. We cannot let ourselves get consumed by data and neglect our KM responsibilities. By analyzing our data and information, speaking the commander’s language, sharing our knowledge, and capturing and transferring our lessons learned, we can ensure that it is not an accident when our unit succeeds.

Major Jim Bunyak is currently a student at the Army Command and General Staff School. He was previously assigned to Operations Group Foxtrot, Battle Command Training Program, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He has a bachelor’s degree in international studies from Frostburg State University and a master of logistics management degree from Florida Institute of Technology. He is a graduate of the Logistics Executive Development Course and the Army Knowledge Management Qualification Course.

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