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Knowledge Management and Process Improvement: A Union of Two Disciplines

The experience at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shows that process improvement and knowledge management complement each other well. Process improvement helps the organization increase its effectiveness through continuous examination with a view to doing things better. Once processes are documented, roles and responsibilities are readily identified and associated activities are performed. Legacy processes are modified to reflect organizational changes. Knowledge management facilitates communication among organizations, increasing information sharing and utilizing process documentation. This information sharing promotes organizational unity and allows FAA headquarters and regional operations to function efficiently.

The challenge to our nation has never been greater. Threats to personal safety and economic well-being are in the forefront of everyday life. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the day-to-day management of the National Airspace System (NAS) is on the frontline facing these issues. A vibrant, healthy, efficient, and forward-looking FAA is vital to U.S. interests. Personal safety is not open to compromise, and the crippling effects of a stalemate in air transportation would be devastating to many elements of our economic structure, including a potential increase in ground transportation gridlock with accelerated deterioration of U.S. roadways and bridges.

Evolving from the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in 1958, the FAA has a long history of valuable service and importance in the success of our nation. This evolution continues even more rapidly today, with potentially greater difficulties. A similar evolution has taken place in private industry. For years, corporate knowledge and best practices could be found in two places within the organization: the seasoned employee?s mind and the company library. Employees spent many hours in that repository, looking for information such as the following:

A federal standard to use as a document guideline.

A well-written program plan.

An old proposal summarizing corporate accomplishments in the last 20 years.

The results of market research.

The outcome of some innovative idea or product.

With the computer and the growth of the Internet, walking to the company library for documents and journals, or finding a knowledgeable employee who would share experience has become passé. Instead we have a deluge of publications, databases, and general information on the widest array of subjects. That deluge has ushered in the newest buzzword of the 21st century ? knowledge management (KM).

What is Knowledge Management?

Knowledge is the third element in the normal progression of data-information-knowledge-wisdom. Data alone has little value unless it is properly structured or organized. Once appropriately organized, data becomes more useful as information. Information leads to knowledge and it has many definitions. An appropriate definition is one quoted by Firestone and McElroy, which states,

Knowledge, while made up of data and information, can be thought of as much greater understanding of a situation, relationship, causal phenomena, and the theories and rules that underlie a given domain or problem. 

Finally, wisdom comes from the ability to synthesize various streams of knowledge, enough to be able to make informed judgments about various ideas and propositions that may lie outside direct areas of expertise.

KM is a systematic approach to facilitate the flow of data, information, and knowledge to the right people at the right time so they can act more efficiently and effectively. KM requires an organizational effort to build, operate, maintain, and proliferate a knowledge-sharing environment. To create value and build a competitive edge, the organization needs to be able to do the following:

Retrieve and understand the structured and unstructured data.

Convert data into useful information.

Share the knowledge.

KM uses management strategy, methodology, and technology to leverage intellectual capital and know-how to achieve gains in performance and company competitiveness. It identifies, captures, retrieves, and shares information using technology tools that provide easy access to documents, policies, procedures, and corporate knowledge. KM is multidimensional. It includes the following:

Knowledge strategy.

Communities of practice.


Knowledge databases.

A quality assurance process.

Organizational procedures, budgets, and incentives.

For organizations that embrace the concept of knowledge management, the loud voice that once screamed knowledge is power has been reduced to a whisper. The notion that knowledge is power allows the one possessing the knowledge to assume a degree of control and develop a sense of job security. This tacit knowledge would then be lost to the organization upon transfer or retirement of the individual. On the other hand, explicit knowledge is that which can be shared throughout the organization. It consists of the documented experiences of those who have performed a given task for a time. Explicit knowledge is structured and available for use by the organization. Examples of explicit knowledge documents might be a procedures manual, a formal course text or outline, or best practice exchanges.

Why Knowledge Management?

Critical challenges  such as the threat of terrorism, siloed and bureaucratic organizational structures, and an aging work force  manifest a need for U.S. government agencies to embrace knowledge management solutions. Corporate America and government agencies alike face these types of challenges:

Marketplaces are increasingly competitive  organizations are now performance-based.

Reductions in staffing create a need to replace informal knowledge with formal methods.

Time available to experience and acquire knowledge has diminished.

Early retirements and increased mobility of the workforce have led to loss of corporate knowledge.

Organizations have limited success in capturing the tacit knowledge of exiting employees. Most frequently, instead of capturing their knowledge, only work products are maintained.

These challenges give rise to a need to develop a systematic approach to handling data and information. More importantly, the experience and knowledge of individuals within an organization have to be captured.

What is Process Improvement?

Process improvement (PI) is action taken to change processes to meet business needs and achieve business goals more effectively. As KM was developing as a way to improve corporate efficiency and to increase value added, PI was also becoming important in the corporate world. The Software Engineering Institute and its capability maturity models enabled organizations to rethink their processes and to begin adopting the Capability Maturity Model® (CMM®) guidelines and best practices. These models enabled the organizations to systematically achieve levels of proficiency that led them to increased efficiency and competitiveness.

The FAA is striving for ambitious goals related to organizational excellence. The FAA Flight Plan 2004-2008 states:

Ensure the success of the FAA?s mission through stronger leadership, a better trained workforce, enhanced cost control measures, and improved decision-making based on reliable data. 

The need to improve and share knowledge is implicit in this flight plan. PI seeks to baseline organizational practices, selecting the best, and tailoring those selected as appropriate, then judiciously implementing the resulting practices. Where practices do not exist, a review of best practices from government and industry is encouraged. Subsequent to the review, organizational practices are adjusted to reflect more efficient methods.

The accumulation of data along with explicit knowledge in numerous databases and other management tools must be organized, prioritized, and processed for more effective and dynamic use. Enter PI and KM  working together to wed knowledge with documented and repeatable processes. After years of practice, the two disciplines are now ripe to enter into that marriage made in heaven.

What Process to Use?

PI includes both the actions designed to improve the performance and maturity of processes, and the results of such actions. The first step in PI is to document existing processes, followed by objectively evaluating these processes to find areas for potential improvement. Several models exist that can be used to facilitate a PI effort. The CMM, which can be considered as a collection of industry and government best practices, is commonly used to measure an organization?s progress in its quest for PI.

The implementation of these practices generally results in PI and organizational effectiveness/excellence, with an overall increase in productivity. The FAA embraces this approach in support of organizational excellence and has developed the FAA integrated Capability Maturity Model ® (FAA-iCMM ® ), which integrates a total of 10 existing standards and capability maturity models in an effort to address the entire acquisition, development, deployment, and operation life cycle.

The FAA has achieved more effective and efficient processes and PI by using the FAA-iCMM ® to guide its improvement efforts. Version 1.0 of the FAA-iCMM ® integrates the capability maturity models for software, systems engineering, and software acquisition. Version 2.0 of the FAA-iCMM ® builds on the integration concept and provides a single model of best practice for enterprise-wide improvement. It integrates the following additional standards and models:

ISO 9001:2000 Quality Management Systems.

Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award and President?s Quality Award Criteria.

EIA/IS 731 ? System Engineering Capability.

CMMI-SE/SW/IPPD for Systems Engineering/ Software Engineering/ Integrated Product and Process Development.

ISO/IEC 12207 ? Software Life Cycle Processes.

ISO/IEC CD 15288 ? System Life Cycle Processes.

ISO/IEC TR 15504 ? Software Process Assessment.

Software Acquisition CMM.

CMM for Software.

System Engineering CMM.

How is Knowledge Management Implemented?

The FAA?s NAS is designed to move air traffic safely and efficiently throughout the entire aircraft flight. In February 2004, FAA created a performance-based organization, combining the former Research and Acquisition, Air Traffic Services and Free Flight organization into one large Air Traffic Organization. The owners of ATO are the citizens, the traveling public, and the taxpayers. The customers of the ATO are commercial and private aviation and the military. The employees of the ATO are the service providers  the 36,000 controllers, technicians, engineers, and support personnel whose daily efforts keep the airplanes moving.

The formation of this organization requires several former FAA directorates to work closely with each other, preserving knowledge gained while simultaneously working toward the common goal of increasing air traffic safety and efficiency. Embedded in this goal is the notion of a back-to-the-basics approach that starts with clearly defining customer needs and the services and products they deserve. Working together across service units is essential to creating a successful and efficient ATO. This approach requires organizations to share knowledge and break down communication barriers.

Using Web sites and portals is extremely helpful in keeping information up to date and readily available. While this approach is critical for knowledge sharing, it needs to be supplemented by employees? conscious effort to discuss and communicate issues that cut across several directorates. In support of this effort, several PI communities of practices had been established within the FAA. Examples include the integrated Process Group (iPG), the integrated Engineering Working Group (iEWG), the PI Action Team (PIAT), and the Process Planning and Definition (PPD) group. These groups were chartered to perform process improvement and develop mechanisms to share knowledge among the organizations. Specifically, these communities are held together by a common interest in a body of knowledge and are driven by a desire and need to share problems, experiences, insights, templates, tools, and best practices. These communities have the following objectives:

Identify processes that would improve cost, schedule, and technical performance within the FAA.

Identify and implement best practices.

Accelerate learning.

Share lessons learned.

Maintain and share expertise.

Facilitate team collaboration.

The iPG provides guidance for improving FAA processes in a systematic and integrated way. It supports the FAA process improvement goals of higher quality, more predictable cost and schedule and increased productivity. The iEWG was formed to help members perform process improvement and to help them implement the FAA-iCMM. The PIAT was formed to perform process improvement across several projects. This group captured a wealth of information that was shared among projects. Finally, the PPD group was formed to address needs associated with organizational change. Realizing that the reorganization brought organizations together that formerly competed for resources, the PPD was needed to define areas of common interest and define new processes. This is not a back-to-square-one approach, but a true community of practice where people with different backgrounds and experience begin to identify critical processes and lay the ground work for process improvement, drawing upon best practices from each member?s experience and predecessor organization.

These communities of practice are made up of people who have a common interest and who are committed to working toward a common goal. Team members bring various kinds of experiences and backgrounds to bear on the issues of PI. They have intimate knowledge of their particular organizations and are willing to share this knowledge with their peers in an effort to improve the organization as a whole. The teams meet regularly to develop plans and to define approaches to PI for projects and domains.

How Did This Approach Come About?

The FAA has been engaged in PI for several years. Following the recommendations of the General Accounting Office (GAO) 1 [7], the FAA initially required Air Traffic Control (ATC) modernization acquisition projects to have software acquisition processes that satisfy at least Software Acquisition CMM Level 2 requirements. However, realizing that the FAA acquires systems, not software, the FAA-iCMM ® was developed to address the needs of the agency.

From 1997 to present, 17 FAA organizations, most of which contain projects that impact the NAS, have achieved Maturity Level 2, and three achieved Maturity Level 3. In addition, several projects also reached Capability Level 2 or 3 in many of the process areas of the FAA-iCMM. These improvement activities reflect the FAA?s approach to addressing particular process areas of interest at a given life-cycle phase. This approach, as opposed to level chasing 2 allows proper focus on key issues at hand.

The FAA started its process improvement initiative as an organizational mandate. This approach was a good way to jump-start PI, but for the long-term, it did not meet the needs of individual product teams to customize the implementation of PI on their products and processes. Projects soon discovered that models are helpful, but they should not be the focus or the purpose of PI. To be successful, the FAA had to get away from the concept of level chasing and focus on what made most sense for individual projects. PI supports meeting or exceeding customer expectations through effective systems deployment and improving system performance. This, coupled with the recent organizational change, highlights the need to have documented processes and to break down communication barriers.

The FAA now realizes that PI is good for process planning and documentation, while knowledge management is essential to break down communication barriers and to remove stovepipes. Some FAA projects, after having achieved their mandated goals, did not fully sustain the improvement gained through PI. The knowledge gained from this initial approach along with the desire to tailor PI to meet the specific needs of product teams resulted in this new methodology. A knowledge management element is now a major part of the improvement effort.

Tools ? Are They Useful?

No discussion of KM and PI would be complete without the mention of tools - portals and Web sites. The teams use several tools and Web sites. Tool selection has been simply a matter of choice of the individual organizations. Tools are used to store, review, and comment on project documentation. They are also used to maintain historical data so that it is readily available to all project personnel and an immediate source of training for new personnel.

Currently, the ATO-En Route and Oceanic service unit uses two different collaborative software systems to store documentation and conduct network meetings. Using these tools has evolved into a virtual workspace that supports a community of about 8,000 government staff employees, contractors, and partners who are fundamentally altering the way knowledge work is done in their organization. The network is currently growing at over 500 users per month. Its success and growth is attributable to an adoption strategy that integrates people, processes, technology, and learning to gain business efficiencies, collaborative advantages, and virtual workspace expansion.

These collaborative software systems are simple to use in that practically anyone who knows how to use e-mail could learn how to use them in a matter of hours. Recently, the FAA employed one of these systems to facilitate a GAO CMM Integration SM (CMMI®) appraisal of several acquisition programs. Instead of going through a large volume of hardcopy documents typically required in a CMMI appraisal, the FAA made these documents available through the collaborative software system. The GAO appraisal team was given remote access to these documents. This method allowed the appraisers to review documents on line prior to printing the appropriate pages for more in-depth review. This approach expedited the on-site portion of the appraisal as well.

In another instance, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) performed an evaluation of the FAA Facilities and Equipment account using their Program Assessment Rating Tool. This review process lasted over two months and again, hundreds of documents were candidates for review. The FAA set up a collaborative software account for the OMB examiner so that support documentation could be posted in specific folders for review. The OMB examiner mentioned that this system greatly facilitated the review process and expedited the completion of the overall task.

How Do KM and PI Work Together?

The recent GAO CMMI appraisal of the FAA is evidence of the union of KM and PI. Four projects were chosen as subjects of the appraisal. After the GAO published the schedule, the first targeted project began preparation with the assistance of the FAA PI oversight group. This group developed a matrix to map existing processes to the CMMI and gave direction to the project based on experience with the model. The project personnel participated in training sessions and a series of mock interviews. The interviews were conducted with all project personnel representing the different process areas appraised. This allowed project personnel to share knowledge and to position themselves to present a unified front during the appraisal. When the initial project appraisal was complete, a lessons-learned package was developed. This package included all the training and preparatory material along with experience gained from the actual conduct of the appraisal. This information was shared with the three remaining projects in preparation for their appraisal. The shared information proved invaluable during both the preparation and the appraisal process. The information shared included the following:

Evidence data in an electronic repository.

A matrix mapping project processes to the CMMI.

A common outline for presenting the project brief to the GAO.

Feedback to the GAO draft report in a standard format.

The combination of process improvement events and shared knowledge led not only to a successful GAO appraisal, but a better understanding of project activities among project personnel. The process of sharing knowledge and adapting best practices is now becoming commonplace among FAA projects. Additionally, projects are more open to share their data and experiences with other projects, especially those that are new to the process improvement arena. Working together across organizational lines is leading to a change in culture at the FAA.

Cultural Change ? Is it Important?

To move to a performance-based organization, cultural change is not just important ? it is essential. Traditionally, the organizations of the FAA focused on the products they delivered. This is a long-standing culture that is deeply rooted in the formative years of ATAC in the FAA. While this was effective in releasing new products expeditiously, it did have the drawback that projects may not have communicated as frequently and thoroughly as they should. KM and PI are assisting the FAA in overcoming this communication barrier.

By embracing the concept of KM and PI simultaneously, the FAA is experiencing a cultural change. As the FAA strives to improve its internal processes, and as KM principles are employed, cultural change results as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: FAA Cultural Change Results

Are People Important?

KM and PI bring people together. People are the most valuable resource to an organization. As a process is performed, the need and desire to improve are never far from the surface. The combination of KM and PI supports this end:

Knowledge is required in order to improve.

PI, through its appraisal processes, helps the organization identify its weaknesses and areas that need improvement.

Like the typical marriage, if the mates recognize the responsibilities of each party and fulfill those responsibilities, they get the best out of the relationship.


With KM and PI, a union exists that results in positive interactions that benefit the organization. Within the FAA, communities of practice are bringing people together and the traditional barriers to organizational excellence are breaking down. This is just the beginning of a new era in the advancement of an agency vital to the well-being of this nation. The goal is to continue the union of KM and PI as the FAA moves to higher levels of effectiveness and efficiency.


Firestone, Joseph M., and Mark W. McElroy. Key Issues in the New Knowledge Management. Executive Information Systems, Inc., 2003.

Motsenigos, Alex, and Jacelyn Young. ?KM in the U.S. Government Sector.? KM World 11.9 (Oct. 2002).

Software Engineering Institute. Capability Maturity Model â Integrated (CMMI SM ). Pittsburgh, PA: SEI, Dec. 2001.

The Federal Aviation Administration. FAA Flight Plan 2004 ? 2008. Washington, DC: FAA, 2004.

Ibrahim, Linda, et al. The Federal Aviation Administration Integrated Capability Maturity Model (FAA-iCMM â ), Version 1.0. Washington, DC: The Federal Aviation Administration, Nov. 1997.

Ibrahim, Linda, et al. The Federal Aviation Administration Integrated Capability Maturity Model (FAA-iCMM â ), Version 2.0. Washington, DC: The Federal Aviation Administration, Sept. 2001.

General Accounting Office Air Traffic Control, Immature Software Process Increase FAA System Acquisition Risk. Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Transportation, Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives GAO/AIMD-97-47. Washington, DC: GAO, Mar. 1997.


Since July 7, 2004, the General Accounting Office has been changed to Government Accountability Office.

Most staged capability maturity models and capability maturity model integrations classify maturity into levels of 1 through 5. The eagerness of some organizations to achieve a certain CMMI level is sometimes referred to as level chasing.

About the Authors

Gregory Burke is the director of Finance and Planning, Air Traffic Organization ? En Route and Oceanic Services at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) where he leads the deployment of traffic flow management, National Airspace System enterprise management, oceanic and en route automation systems. He is responsible for the development of the annual operations and business plan for his directorate. Burke joined the FAA in July 1992. Previously he was at the National Weather Service. Burke has a Bachelor of Science in physics from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering from George Washington University.

William Howard is a systems engineer/senior manager at Northrop Grumman Information Technology. He currently supports the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in areas related to process improvement, process definition and planning, and knowledge management. Previously, he was Configuration Management and Quality Assurance manager supporting NASA projects for Northrop Grumman. He joined the U.S. Air Force in 1975, attained the rank of Captain, served as a Missile Launch officer and later became a Computer Systems Development officer. He has a Bachelor of Science in computer science and mathematics from Texas A&M University, Commerce, Texas. 


Gregory D. Burke, Federal Aviation Administration, William H. Howard, Northrop Grumman Mission Systems

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