Monday, 14 October 2013

Secure in the knowledge...

[Originally published on the Aspley Consultants website]

Last November, there was an interesting article on The Telegraph website, about plans for senior officials from the UK’s intelligence agencies to be questioned in public by the body currently given limited powers of oversight, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC).

Proposed innovative changes to the ISC’s powers include:
  • The ability to examine recent operations, rather than merely reviewing, “resources, policy and administration”;
  • The authority to send officials into intelligence agency properties in order to inspect files and choose material for further review;
  • The power to “require” the agencies to publish information unless they gain permission from the Prime Minister to refrain from so doing only on the grounds of possible compromise of national security;
These proposals, although somewhat limited in scope and reach, are nevertheless welcome to those with an interest in organisational learning and that believe that the sharing of knowledge is almost always the right thing to do.

On the one hand, organisations can improve performance through the harvesting and sharing of knowledge across traditional internal barriers. However, on the other hand, making more knowledge more easily accessible potentially exposes an organisation to reputational, commercial or security risks.

More inquiry and sharing leads to more learning but there should not be a blanket approach, whereby all restrictions on sharing knowledge are removed. It is a basic fact of life that some things are best left under wraps, only to be known and shared by the minimum of people.

However, this should be the exception, not the norm.

This is the approach taken by the US military in general and its learning centres (the Centre for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) and the Marine Corps Centre for Lessons Learned (MCCLL), in particular. Contrary to popular belief, the US military learned long ago that over-classification could be self-defeating.

For example, the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (for which the recently-resigned Director of the CIA (General David Petraeus) was largely responsible) can be bought on Amazon and has long been a popular read amongst both American and British officers deploying to Afghanistan, senior and junior alike.

However, the UK’s equivalent material remains classified at ‘Restricted’ level and whilst this in theory means it is slightly more difficult for the Taliban to acquire, it unfortunately also means that it cannot be shown to civilians for comment, critique, review or potential improvement unless under specific controlled conditions.

However, many people would challenge the idea of 'the enemy', competition, press or regulators being given free rein over everything ever written down, recorded or produced.

Nevertheless, every level of security further hampers any organisation's staff’s ability to find what they need to know and their enthusiasm for so doing is weakened that little bit more as well. In other words, organisations should consider starting from the position of seeking to share everything rather than nothing and security should be the exception, not the norm.

To make the point, this article about the NASA space programme explains how NASA came to identify a limited amount of knowledge as Mission Critical Information (MCI) and the criteria it used for so doing.  This requires a systematic approach to measuring the value of knowledge, such as a knowledge scan (for information about how Knoco runs these, please follow this link to the Knowledge Scan pages on the Knoco website).

Interestingly, like the US military, NASA remains relaxed about sharing information (that is not MCI) because it knows that this brings benefits, both for itself as an organisation that has learning at its heart but also for its employees. The article concludes, “Within the security and protection disciplines, one axiom always holds true: the best countermeasure to threats is an educated and engaged workforce.”

That sounds like something from which everyone could benefit.

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