Knowledge Management @ State: It’s not the technology. It’s the people.

Speaking Out


Speaking Out is the Journal’s opinion forum, a place for lively discussion of issues affecting the U.S. Foreign Service and American diplomacy. The views expressed are those of the author; their publication here does not imply endorsement by the American Foreign Service Association. Responses are welcome; send them to

How common is this story? You arrive at a new post or walk into a new job, only to find yourself reinventing the wheel day in and day out because you have no handover notes, two shoeboxes full of business cards and no record of your predecessor’s activities and experiences.

This affects all of us—whether Foreign Service, Civil Service or locally employed staff. One colleague arriving at a high-threat post experienced this knowledge vacuum in dramatic fashion, because it directly contributed to a delay in the recovery of hundreds of thousands of dollars of sensitive equipment that could have endangered the lives of U.S. citizens. Our estimate is that at least $10-20 million is wasted each year in time and resources, not to mention lost productivity, during transitions.

On an individual level, State Department employees must feel a bit like Sisyphus—diligently advancing their knowledge and skills in an assignment, only to have the boulder roll back downhill when they move to a new assignment and start all over again with no transfer notes, contacts or knowledge to build on.

Indeed, our organization struggles to preserve the institutional knowledge lost when employees transfer, retire or separate from the department. What to do?

As part of the inaugural cohort of the Secretary’s Leadership Seminar at Harvard Business School, we were tasked with finding knowledge management solutions for transferring officers. Initially, some in our group were dismayed. Did we just get tasked with fixing handover notes? In 2020, with all the challenges facing our institution, were we really still talking about Fourth of July contact lists?

Knowledge management—or KM—informs decision-making and enables the seamless transfer of knowledge from one person to the next in a timely and accessible manner. It affects everything we do, from our relationships on the Hill to how effectively we improve the diversity of our workforce. Imagine a world where officers arrive at a new assignment and can immediately “get to work” on behalf of the American people.

Effective knowledge management across our entire organization—literally, across the world—is a monumental task, but it is not a new problem. In 2007 the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Transformational Diplomacy recognized the centrality of knowledge to State’s mission and recommended the department “undertake an aggressive plan to become a world-class knowledge management organization.”

In 2021 we are still working toward that goal. It is tempting to fall back on the idea that technology is the problem. However, knowledge management is about behavior.

Change the Culture

We need to change our culture from one that is about “need to know” to a mindset that is about “responsibility to share.” Instead of rushing to reinvent the wheel in each new position, let us take the time to preserve and build on colleagues’ past efforts. Without a doubt, part of our work requires sensitivity to classified, personally identifiable information and otherwise sensitive information, but this has nothing to do with our overall culture of silos and information hoarding.

As transferring officers, we simply do not prioritize fostering the continuity of plans and projects and, most importantly, the continuity of relationships. The 2015 Forrester study of the problem concluded that transforming KM behavior requires two key drivers: leadership and technology.

Our team argues that we have all the tools: It’s not about technology, and the pandemic showed that in the alacrity with which we embraced new technologies we thought were out of reach.

We believe it’s about leadership: To achieve effective knowledge management in the department we need to change the narrative, the incentives and the strategy. First, we need to appeal to the values and mission of the department as part of our communications effort: KM is about the success of our mission.

We start to do this by creating awareness of the importance of KM among all department staff. We need to be more proactive about promoting existing IT platforms where officers can go to find and access common KM tools and guidance. We need to identify senior-level champions to create momentum behind communicating such a culture change. This visibility is needed to ensure buy-in from every bureau and post.

We need to incentivize all staff on KM. If officers, and supervisors, know they will be evaluated on their KM performance, they will see it as a higher priority, and it will counterbalance the culture many have noted at State—one of competing instead of collaborating and building on our predecessors’ efforts.

In addition, as job descriptions are updated, we must make KM a basic responsibility for all officers, especially office management specialists. As one stakeholder we interviewed told us: “If it’s not in anyone’s job description, it’s not anyone’s job.”

A Steering Committee

We need champions. We need leadership. The department must establish a Knowledge Management Steering Committee consisting of senior representatives from various bureaus and posts, representing both the business and the management sides of the enterprise, who can collectively make recommendations, not just for their own shops but for the good of the whole service.

The steering committee would be a deliberative body, convened by the Deputy Secretary for Resources and Management or the under secretary for management, and would consist of major stakeholders from across the department, including the bureaus of Information Resources Management, Global Talent Management, Administration, the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions, and the Foreign Service Institute, as well as regional and functional bureaus.

The steering committee would be the conduit for developing the policies and processes that can catalyze organizational cultural change. Its approach would be agile and iterative. We recommend that committee efforts begin with a baseline assessment of the department’s capabilities, benchmarking against comparables and industry leaders. The Knowledge Leadership Division (KLD) in IRM has already launched such an effort and could complete it and report back.

Armed with this information, the steering committee would be well placed to make some important organizational decisions about how to best leverage the expertise and skills of those currently charged with the department’s KM responsibilities—the chief knowledge officer (CKO), a role ascribed in the Foreign Affairs Manual to the deputy chief information officer, and KLD.

We also need knowledge management representatives at each bureau and post. These individuals would act as champions, working closely with bureau and post leadership and with a steering committee to hold employees and offices accountable in implementing the common KM tools and standards.

The Knowledge Leadership Division is currently buried far down in the organization and does not directly report to the Chief Knowledge Officer. Fourteen years ago, the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Transformational Diplomacy recommended that the CKO report directly to the Deputy Secretary or the under secretary for management. Implementing that would be a good start.

On the policy front, the steering committee would also update the FAM or the Foreign Affairs Handbook to codify language that better reflects the critical role of knowledge to the department’s mission and enshrine KM principles that would help create the shared understanding of KM that is currently lacking. The steering committee would look for systemic and structural solutions, even as the implementing bureaus and offices look for simple ones.

A revamped, rebranded Office of Knowledge Leadership would start small, with products that are already familiar to the organization. For example, we would recommend producing a series of handover note “templates” that could be deployed overseas and domestically, available on Infolink, and then evaluating user adoption.

1CA in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the office that promotes leadership, management and innovation excellence across the bureau’s global operations, already has customizable templates available.

“User adoption” is itself a process. It took nothing short of a pandemic for employees to adopt a platform as straightforward as Microsoft Teams. The exponential increase in use was driven by the urgent need for virtual collaboration. Strengthening our policies and processes now will help lay the foundation for future seismic events and easy adoption of disruptive technology.

User adoption requires user-focused design, which can then generate feedback that informs systems decisions. Creating innovative new products that are accepted by the organization requires significant engagement between designers, programmers and users. GTM’s TalentMap and IRM’s eDiplomacy are initiatives that have put the user at the center of design efforts. We need more.

Addressing the Problem

To begin this process for a product that benefits transferring officers, we recommend starting with something familiar that begins a conversation and creates a feedback loop. Creation of a suite of transfer-note templates would immediately start to inform what knowledge is important to capture in a personnel transfer.

Storing those documents in the cloud would provide information that the Knowledge Leadership Division could then leverage to begin basic machine learning to automatically produce a package of transfer information that is then curated by the employee, for their successor.

To take this to the next level, we recommend that the department tailor existing software, including Microsoft Teams and Salesforce’s CRM, and introduce machine learning capabilities that would tag, compile and expedite the production of these packages for our transferring officers. It is one more step toward a “world-class knowledge management organization.”

This is an old problem for the department, and fixing it should be a top priority. We believe very little needs to be spent to fix the problem. We have all the tools at our disposal now to make for smooth and seamless transitions. Implementing even some of the recommendations will improve performance and morale, particularly in hardship posts that suffer from frequent rotations.

Further, our menu of solutions does not just address knowledge management for transferring officers. It is a step toward addressing the department’s broader KM problems.

The authors are Team 3 of the Secretary’s Leadership Seminar inaugural cohort in the Harvard Business School Executive Education Program, a pilot to develop a diverse group of leaders to address enterprisewide challenges at State: Lourdes Cue, deputy director (GTM’s Strategic Communications Unit); Timothy Haynes, economic officer (U.S. Embassy Paris); Yomaris Macdonald, deputy consul general (U.S. Embassy Santo Domingo); Jennifer L. Smith, overseas section chief (PRM’s office of Admissions); and Benjamin A. Tietz, post management officer (EUR-IO).