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Back to Archives | Back to November 2003 Contents 

Overcoming Information Sharing Obstacles and Complexity

J├╝ris Kelley, President, Knowledge in Motion LLC, and Diana Abrials, Writer-Editor, Office of Training and Professional Development, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Washington

IInformation sharing-it sounds so easy. After all, information is at the heart of most criminal justice and law enforcement activities. Investigations are all about capturing facts, analyzing those facts, making conclusions, and documenting those conclusions and related actions.

A police officer on routine patrol relies extensively on information-from raw data to analyzed reports to the tacit knowledge that comes from street experience and an understanding of human behavior. The importance of sharing that information and leveraging one's knowledge through collaboration is obvious, yet it remains a significant challenge.

As we now know, the lack of information sharing was a contributing factor to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. A joint congressional committee concluded, "Information was not sufficiently shared, not only between different intelligence community agencies but also within individual agencies and between the intelligence and the law enforcement agencies."

This article will categorize the inhibitors of sharing information and offer solutions for each. Only when one understands these categories can one begin to overcome information sharing challenges effectively. Modern information technology (IT) and knowledge management (KM) principles, solutions, and tools are vital to enabling effective information sharing and team collaboration in today's information-rich society.

The Need to Share Information

The challenges of sharing information have been around for millennia. The political landscape of the Roman Empire rested on who knew what. The Allies' victory in World War II was in no small way a result of the code-breaking success of Herbert Yarkley and his Black Chamber. Congressman Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform, recently said, "If they [our databases] interacted, half the terrorists who flew those planes would have been arrested before 9/11."

Information, therefore, is just as vital to maintaining governments and winning wars as it is to counterterrorism initiatives and local criminal investigations. Let's examine the functional (that is, the nontechnical) issues that prevent us-all of us-from sharing information effectively with others.

Inhibitors to Sharing

Defined process - How do we share?

Lack of planning - How do we share effectively?

Undefined requirements - Do we need to share?

Lack of context - What information is this? How is it relevant?

Cultural resistance - It's my information.

Organizational conflicts and turf wars - We won't share.

Security classifications - Is this information classified?

Security clearances - Do you have the required clearance?

Need to know - Do they have an actual need for the information?

Protecting sources and methods - This information is too sensitive to share.

Paper format - The information is difficult to find.

Availability of the content - Can you access that information?

Content metadata - What is the context of that information?

Verifiable trust in a person - Who will use it?

Figure 1

Enabling Effective Information Sharing

Figure 2

Complexities of Sharing

Sharing law enforcement information is often daunting. There are issues of jurisdiction, protecting confidential informants, and need-to-know requirements. There are also cultural issues and our tendency to protect what we consider important, which includes our knowledge and specific information.

These challenges are very much the same as those the intelligence community has faced for decades. The need to protect sources and methods at virtually any cost, as well as the need to minimize any risk of leaks, is critical to the community's very existence. That same need to protect information is also a restraint to sharing.

A surprising amount of information was known about the 19 terrorists of September 11, some of whom were on official watch lists. But that information was not shared or collected and analyzed so that it could have prevented those acts of terrorism.

The information was not shared for many reasons, including cultural issues and the lack of integrated databases. Although databases must be integrated, as Davis stated, those databases can only contain one form of one category of information-that of structured data. An example of structured data is a watch list, which contains fixed data such as last name, first name, last known address, and so on.

Although important, databases and the structured data that reside within them do not tap the vast majority of information that exists throughout the law enforcement and the intelligence communities. That information exists in unstructured form-often as paper records.

Records, whether they are paper forms or an investigator's notes, are slow to process and usually reside in boxes, making it difficult to search and retrieve them.

The challenges of sharing information are all the same, whether it be counterterrorism information, complex criminal investigations, or data collected by a local gang task force. Figure 1 lists common inhibitors to information sharing. Some of these may seem obvious, but even the obvious often become significant inhibitors to effective information sharing.

The inhibitors to sharing are both literal and figurative. Some information is classified and cannot easily be shared. Everyone must also have trust in the system, whether the system is an IT/KM system or manually processed paper records.

For real, justifiable issues, one should define the requirements and the impact of not having certain information. For example, do you really have a need for it and, if so, what is the tangible cost and intangible impact of not having it? If the information is classified, do you have the personnel who are cleared and do you have appropriate safe storage for it?

Access to information is one of the three categories of inhibitors to sharing. Figure 2 shows the three key solutions that enable effective information sharing.

Enabling Effective Information Sharing Overcoming Cultural Constraints

We have all heard the reasons for not sharing information, not working collaboratively, or otherwise not being willing to change. "The information will not be kept confidential," or "I don't know who will use my information," or "I don't have time to document that." Statements like these are the biggest impediment to information sharing.

The good news-and the bad news-is that we are the problem. We all have an inherent tendency to hoard information, to protect it, and to guard its use. It is human nature, especially in today's information-centered society.

We consider information valuable, and thus we assign an intangible value to it. Understanding these inherent issues will allow us to develop an effective strategy to overcome this fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Overcoming cultural constraints requires us to both tackle the issues head-on and build an architecture that supports the organizational change and changed behavior. A cultural change management program along with a collaborative, secure information technology infrastructure can accomplish this.

Cultural change management is all about changing the culture with a defined, managed, and quantifiable program.

The program starts by objectively defining the current state of employees and their work environment, and what the desired outcome is to be. A gap analysis is performed, with the key issues, constraints, and other relevant facts identified. A plan is then developed to overcome each key issue. That plan is often multifaceted and may include formal briefings, "reminder" posters in the hallways, and prize drawings that reward people for changing their behavior. It is surprising how effectively a drawing for a pair of tickets to a baseball game, for example, can entice a reluctant group to perform some desired task such as submitting typed instead of handwritten reports.

Cultural change management programs need to stress the importance of the desired outcome and often include developing and executing a progressive managerial environment that stresses the need to change the way people look at what they do. All employees in law enforcement must understand that what they do has a huge part in national security; they are simply no longer limited to their jurisdiction.

Cultural change management programs work. They work when one takes a scientific view of the problem, identifies each constraint and targets each of the issues in a comprehensive manner.

Ensuring effective information sharing, however, requires both the cultural change management program and an information technology infrastructure that is secure, easy to use and promotes collaboration. That infrastructure can and should be focused on an advanced knowledge management system.

Knowledge Management

An information technology (IT) infrastructure provides the foundation for overcoming many of the security and control issues to which users so often object. The IT infrastructure, along with such applications as electronic case management, offers significant security controls and improved business continuity.

Taking the typical electronic case management system one step further, however, brings us into the realm of modern knowledge management (KM) systems, which should be the goal of any organization that demands effective information sharing and efficient operations.

KM promotes a holistic perspective to information sharing and team collaboration. It is more of a philosophy, or approach to IT, than a technology itself.

KM is composed of effective content management (data and information), business process automation, and team collaboration. If you think about what information is and how it is used, it all comes down to managing that content (content management), transmitting the content through daily business processes (process automation, also called workflow), and discussing and collaborating about content (team collaboration). An effective KM system enables all this, providing the IT infrastructure and operations support necessary to promote information sharing.

Changes at ATF

At a recent IACP conference in Washington, the biggest concern expressed by state and local police chiefs was that the federal government is not sharing information with them. In this age of terrorist threats against domestic targets and U.S. interests abroad, partnerships among federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies are especially important. Sharing information should occur not only during a critical situation; it should be an ongoing and cultural aspect of every law enforcement organization regardless of their affiliation or mission. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) recognized the need to change its organizational culture to one that is proactive, predictive, and preventive while still maintaining its historical and traditional areas of expertise.

Marguerite Moccia, ATF's assistant director for science and technology and chief information officer, said, "Recognizing that a key ingredient needed for information sharing is integrated technology, ATF set the stage by investing in the key IT ingredients needed for information sharing by enforcing the tenants of enterprise architecture, standardizing its desktops and systems and instituting a robust information security program that protects ATF's infrastructure. The processes ATF put in place have allowed us to build common databases so we can share information internally first. The infrastructure has allowed us to integrate our systems in such a manner that we can standardize that information to partner with external organizations. Federal agencies must also make this investment in addition to the change management necessary to get beyond traditional cultural barriers. ATF's proactive management has ensured the agency is fully prepared to share information now."

ATF has various stages of IT and KM initiatives that will allow federal, state and local enforcement agencies to electronically exchange information. ATF is currently sharing its criminal ballistics data with over 200 state and local law enforcement agencies and is working with the Department of Justice on an enterprise solution to leverage information sharing across department components. The agency has also piloted a KM program and is developing a strategy to implement various KM systems throughout its enterprise.

There is now a seamless relationship between ATF's Office of Science and Technology and ATF's Office of Strategic Intelligence and Information (OSII). OSII is headed by Dr. Kathleen Kiernan, an assistant director who has 28 years of federal law enforcement service and is a member of the IACP Terrorism Committee. As Kiernan commented, every law enforcement officer swears an oath to serve and protect their nation when they receive their shield. She suggested that the construct be expanded to serve, protect, and collect, because that is indeed what every law enforcement officer does; in fact, it is at the cornerstone of community policing efforts throughout the country.

As the chair of the Law Enforcement Working Group, a consortium of law enforcement and intelligence community agencies established in 1999 to develop relationships that transcend organizational and jurisdictional lines, Kiernan maintains regular, frank dialogue across jurisdictional lines to change the culture of information sharing, such as through the use of technology, in many cases developed for war fighting and intelligence efforts in the international arena. "It is critical," she says, "to share best practices as we all continue to change our organizational structures to be more competitive against the terrorist threat instead of one another."

Kiernan stresses the need for law enforcement agencies to share information: "The most precious commodity we have in law enforcement is information, and when it is not shared across jurisdictional lines, it is rendered valueless. In addition to being connected to technology, we must also connect to visionaries who can help us see beyond their own organization's constraints and fundamentally understand that we're in a new world with new rules."

Pulling It All Together

Let's face it, effective information sharing is easier said than done.
This article outlined the issues and the two key approaches to overcoming the typical resistance to sharing information-a cultural change management program and a knowledge management infrastructure. Overcoming this resistance is important to achieving an effective environment and efficient operations. Both approaches must be performed in parallel.

In today's post-September 11 environment, we all understand the importance of connecting the dots of the information we have. It is no longer acceptable to store information-even information that may seem irrelevant-in a file folder in someone's desk drawer.

Ensuring that the information is in a form that is easily searchable, reusable, and shared is critical to modern law enforcement. Only a knowledge management infrastructure, along with the personnel who are willing and able to use it, will permit successful information sharing partnerships. ♦



From The Police Chief, vol. 70, no. 11, November 2003. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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