‘Information is not knowledge’,1 visionary scientist Albert Einstein once said. What did he mean by that? If someone who is not a doctor attempts to analyse blood test results, all he sees is a list of unintelligible data because of his lack of required skills and experience. Albert Einstein claimed that ‘Knowledge derives from experience’. Knowledge, in Einstein’s view, is the ability to understand information and turn it into something more functional. Information per se, therefore, is not itself knowledge, though it provides at least part of the basis for knowledge.
The difference between information and knowledge is not only a purely semantic one. Proof of this can been seen across the vast literature published in the 20th century on cognitive sciences and neuroscience. For example, scientist Ivan Pavlov provided a tangible example of how our brain transforms external inputs into knowledge and adaptive behaviours (‘Conditioned Reflexes’2) or, in other words, how the brain transforms information into knowledge. Knowledge therefore, may be viewed as a process.
This article will not focus on the scientific aspects of knowledge. It seeks to provide an overview of large organizations – primarily NATO – where Information Knowledge Management serves as the tool to organize information in a systemic way and facilitate the development of knowledge through an intelligent use of processes. Information Knowledge Management (IKM) implies that information is processed and used by managers and leaders in pursuing their goals. In this discipline, information ownership is never passed on to others. IKM stands on one main principle: information is a corporate asset that needs to be standardized, protected and ensured (especially in military environments).
In the 1990s, IKM became a non-transferable structural component of business strategies as well as a corporate asset, just like the Human Resources or the Legal departments. This trend is even clearer today as IKM principles are being applied to more areas / environments and have grown into a stronger empowerment tool – a well-defined enabling system, in other words.
According to Edward Waltz3, a Knowledge Management (KM) academic specializing in the intelligence domain, KM is an organizational discipline that processes, acquires, creates, reveals and delivers knowledge through information technology (IT). As such, it allows companies to reach their mission goals.
Within international organizations like NATO, which is both a political and a military organization, IKM is a mission-essential asset, the aim of which is to contribute to the achievement of Information Supremacy4. It does so primarily by using tools such as a computer-based collaborative environment to facilitate the creation, storage, and sharing of documents, policies, guidance, assessments, reports, memoranda, briefing, etc. Used properly, these tools allow for instantaneous access to a real-time information stream and drastically improve the capability to collectively and collaboratively contribute to discussions and / or products, from almost anywhere in the world.
Information Management and the processes it generates revolve around people and technologies. These two components are essential when it comes to sharing information in a manner that is both timely and in compliance with NATO security policies and standards. Taking the ‘need to know or need to share’ principle as its starting point, IKM uses software as an IT background to facilitate the generation, storage and sharing of documents. From an organizational perspective, IKM and IT combined can be referred to as the weapon system of Information Management: a system that avails itself of the best available technologies for organizational purposes.
In essence, the primary aim of IKM is to facilitate decision-making processes and mission fulfilment. As stated on the NATO official website5: ‘Each day, hundreds of civilians and military experts and officials come to NATO HQ to exchange information, share ideas and help prepare decisions …’
Information and Knowledge Management in NATO Civil and Military Bodies
IKM as Key Enabler for the Transformation and Assurance of Defence and Security
The 28 nations that comprise NATO have a common goal, but are very different from one another. For this reason, the Alliance promotes information and knowledge standardization through a consistent harmonization effort. A solid example of this is the large number of doctrines and policies used to regulate different domains. In this respect, IKM is a key enabler in streamlining the harmonization process.
IKM is well-rooted at many levels of the NATO environment. At NATO HQ, an IKM Office supports the International Military Staff (IMS)6 and the Military Committee (MC) in their mission. This Office provides support to the strategic military authorities of NATO member countries to develop strategic policies and concepts.
Of equal value and also at the top level is the NATO Information Management Authority (NIMA), a Working Group dealing with IM. NIMA is where information management strategies, policies and NATO-wide guidance are designed to meet mission requirements and ensure mission success.
Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that IKM has already contributed to several NATO Military Operations (Operation Unified Protector [OUP], from February–October 2011, is one example). No military operation would be successful without a smooth and effective flow of information. Based on the personal experiences of OUP IKM personnel, it is apparent that Information Knowledge Management was heavily used as an enabler of the planning process. IKM facilitated seamless transmission of requirements from OUP leadership, who were in multiple locations, to the various support and planning agencies that built the required infrastructure to enable command and control of the Operation.
IKM initiatives are also essential to core activities at NATO Centres of Excellence. IKM principles, coupled with IT infrastructures and processes, allow the best possible use of the most valuable resource of all: intellectual capital. ‘Centres of Excellence7 train and educate leaders and specialists from NATO member and partner countries, contribute to doctrine development, identify lessons learned, improve interoperability and capabilities and test and validate concepts through experimentation. Their recognised expertise and skills are beneficial to the Alliance as they support the transformation of NATO while avoiding the duplication of NATO Command Structure assets, resources and capabilities.’ By empowering defence and security, IKM becomes one of the main facilitators of Alliance transformation.
IKM as a Human Capital Tool Contributing to Alliance Transformation
The effective handling of information remains a top priority for organizations. In complex entities like NATO, where standardization, interoperability, common language, best practices and lessons learned all have their specific importance, information management takes on a major role in short, medium and long-term planning cycles, as well as in day-to-day operations.
The importance of Information Management to NATO in recent years is evident in the major investments NATO has been making in its effort to adapt IM structure to new challenges. As set forth in article 19 of the Lisbon Summit resolution, ‘(NATO must) … carry out the training, exercises, contingency planning and information sharing it takes to assure our defence against the full range of conventional and emergency security challenges, and provide appropriate visible assurance and reinforcement for all Allies’. Information sharing is seen as a fundamental principle of IKM as well as a contributing factor to defence reassurance and support and security.
Information Management: Key Factors for Success
Properly managing information helps to ensure that the right information is available to the right people at the right time and in the right form, enabling decision-making processes.8 During military exercises, accuracy and timeliness of information are considered to be mission-essential. Accuracy and timeliness are precisely what military commanders in charge of operations or exercises need to pursue in order to accomplish their mission. AS IKM supports these two mission-essential requirements, there are several factors that enable effective implementation of its principles.
Training is certainly a key factor of effective IKM. At the Chicago Summit in 2012, NATO leaders stressed the importance of expanding education and training. Training provided by NATO to its human capital comes in various forms. Examples are professional training in preparation for future operations (exercises) as well as individual and collective training or on-the-job training aimed at mitigating the loss of expertise as may occur upon staff reassignments. Nations, too, are aware of the importance of training and devote considerable resources to it. Italy, as an example, has recently stressed the importance of training in a high-level strategic defence document.9
When discussing training, there are some IKM-specific courses offered within NATO. One such course is taught at the NATO School in Oberammergau, Germany, and is aimed primarily at preparing students for their IKM planning and execution duties and services in a NATO environment. Using NATO IM policies as reference, students learn how to assess the compliance of their organizations with NATO’s IM principles. They are provided examples of suboptimal practices and are trained to identify the NATO IM policy used in each case. The course is aimed at end-users from across the organization, such as heads of NATO Military Bodies, IM Senior Officials, Information Managers, IKM Heads, IKM Support Officers, Originators, Information Owners and Information Custodians. This further confirms that, as mentioned in the introduction to this paper, the IKM ‘system’ impacts everyone everywhere in the organization.
Along with training, IKM initiatives owe their success to other factors, too: leadership, culture, organizational set-up (structure, roles and responsibilities, governance) and information technologies (IT).
Leadership plays a key role in ensuring almost any initiative taken by an organization has a successful outcome. Its impact on IKM is especially evident because IKM is a relatively new discipline. Nothing has greater impact on an organization than leaders promoting a discipline among their staff and making them aware of its importance. One of the worst enemies of IKM is the lack of interest in it among the leadership or the stakeholders.
Culture, in this context, relates to two different aspects. The first aspect addresses the necessity of broad commitment to the rules and mechanisms that IKM provides, i.e. the ways how to share information. The second aspect is about the willingness to share the information, i.e. the question what to share, especially when it comes to security classification issues. A recent shift can be observed in NATO information management as well as security policies, which is softening the often too strict ‘need-to-know’ principle10 that basically leads to the hoarding of critical information. The new emphasis is on the ‘responsibility to share’11, which involves avoiding over-classification as well as applying information release procedures to entities concerned. IKM provides a knowledge-sharing environment which puts both requirements in balance, where information shall be managed to facilitate access, optimize information sharing and re-use, and reduce duplication, all in accordance with security, legal and privacy obligations.12
Organization set up. In IKM-enabled organizations, roles, responsibilities and governance are clearly identified and provide fertile ground for performance improvement.
IT is the heart of IKM: there can be no benefits without IT / CIS. CIS and IKM combined are a weapon system and inadequate investments in IT may well jeopardize the IKM mission, which can subsequently cause overall mission failure.
The right combination of these components is the precondition for IKM success. The cost of doing it is nothing compared to the pain of not doing it!13
NATO offers a favourable environment for the development of IKM strategies. Since its establishment sixty-six years ago in the early days of the Cold War, NATO has needed to keep at pace with the changing world and be prepared for future challenges. There is no doubt NATO has been keen to introduce and develop IKM strategies in its recent history. Emphasizing transformation as a tool for tackling future challenges, NATO is increasingly acknowledging that more structural, conscious and proactive information management can bring significant benefits to organizations, especially when this means turning individual knowledge into collective knowledge. IKM is a unique vehicle to convert bright ideas into spendable capital. Making initial investments in the right resources leads to significant savings, facilitates decision-making and enhances the sharing of accurate information. To conclude, information creates knowledge, knowledge creates education, and education and training prepare and empower NATO allies and forces.