Proposal: Knowledge Management

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Knowledge Management and Strategic Intelligence in Naval Engineering


In my work with Dr. Cherie Trumbach I have learned about an important toolset in Knowledge Management, and the use of this toolset in strategic planning.

It began when I was pondering the question “Where is the greatest R&D need in Naval Engineering?” From Dr. Trumbach I learned that there are well-defined tools that can be used to answer exactly this question. I believe that this is a field of great opportunity for naval engineering.

This is admittedly a new area for naval engineers, but as a result it has the potential to give remarkably high pay-offs: A so called high-risk/high-payoff opportunity. Whereas in the past our ‘tools’ investment has been principally in traditional ship design disciplines, we are now in a situation where a much larger gain – say 5- or 10-x – would result from an investment in tools in that discipline known as “knowledge management.”

Our Toolbox

As ship designers we carry with us tool boxes containing a variety of skills. One of our most important tools is Mathematics, and we use this tool – in its various forms – frequently. We also use tools from Applied Physics, in areas such as structures or hydrodynamics. We have fairly mature tools in these areas. Sure, continued investment in these areas would be welcome, and will pay benefits for handling problems that are currently intractable in these disciplines. But I contend that an investment in Knowledge Management tools would fill a section of our toolbox that is currently empty, and in doing so would pay benefits several times greater than investments in the traditional disciplines.

Knowledge Management in Naval Engineering

Now, even as I warm to my subject I can hear the greybeards saying “oh Pshaw, that’s just another new buzzword.” But as I replay what these greybeards have asked for in recent papers and workshops, I find that in fact they too long for improved knowledge management, they just don’t use that label for it:

Let’s recall what some greybeards have said needs to change in naval ship design. They ask questions like “But is there One Man in charge of the project?” I argue that the reason they want to see ‘the buck stop here’ is because One Man can usually integrate his own knowledge…something that is much harder to do with a team.

And, in bygone days, this was all the Knowledge Management that a ship design team needed, because One Man could reasonably keep all the needed knowledge within his One Skull. Today’s situation is different. Today’s ship is more complex – much more complex. Today’s design process is more complex, with more stakeholders espousing opinions more loudly. One Man cannot design a modern warship, even assisted by a large team of subordinates.

Knowledge Management is common in fields such as computer engineering or biotech, where the pool of information is growing at such rapidity that it is humanly impossible to keep abreast of it: No man could read all the new literature on biotech. More new papers are written in a day than can be read in a week. We in naval architecture have been relatively free from this type of onslaught, but no more. It would be humanly impossible to attend all the conferences, read all the technical publications, and stay abreast of all facets of ship design. What I think I know about, say, electric drive, is probably being made obsolete by a presentation this very week at an ASNE event somewher. This sounds like a problem in Library Management, but it isn’t. It is a problem in data inundation. Should every SDM read every Design History in the DTIC archives? - probably. Can they? - certainly not.

Faced with this problem we should do the same thing we do with other technical problems: Deploy tools to manage it. Faced with an impossible hydrodynamic problem we deploy tools of Mathematics. Faced with an information problem we deploy tools of…oops, my toolbox is empty in that area.

I do not at present know what aspects of Knowledge Management are most needed – indeed I may even being using the term incorrectly. What part of Mathematics is most important – is it Geometry? Calculus? Trigonometry? Surely each has a role, and none can be claimed to be ‘better’ than the others. In the same way I believe that there is a spectrum of knowledge engineering tools that are needed. And I, as a practicing engineer, have come to realize that there is an entire toolset missing from my tool box. I have done a pretty good job of working without these tools, but “boy if only I had them!”

What are the tools of knowledge management? Well, like the tools of mathematics there are many, and they can be used in many ways. In the paragraph above I painted a picture of using knowledge tools to capture design history information, and this can be performed using such techniques as citation mapping. But I also recently learned that Intel – the chip maker – has an in-house “futurist”, whose job is to imagine what people will do with computers in 5 – 10 – 15 years, so that Intel can start thinking about chips that support those uses.

(link: http://www.nature.com/scientificamerican/journal/v306/n5/full/scientificamerican0512-80.html )

The futurist in this sense uses knowledge management tools for strategic insight. I recently ran a COMPENDEX search using the key phrase “ship design” and found 1720 papers stored. Of these 240 were from China, 180 from the United States, 151 from the UK, and 65 from Korea. 1398 of them were written in Chinese.

The picture painted is interesting: The most common keywords used were Computer Simulation, Mathematical Models, and Optimization with an important second tier including Human Engineering.

Detailed reading of the titles (I didn’t read all 1700 papers) paints the picture that a lot of work is focused upon the computerization of the design integration process itself, not merely the automation of the component analyses that make up the design. Titles included “a reasoning method for a ship design expert system,” or “On mathematical logic for the ship design through the axiomatic approach.” There is even an education focus found in “Computer aided ship design in undergraduate design courses”, published in the Journal of Fibre Chemistry (!!).

Lest I spend too much time on this one search, perhaps you can already see that this knowledge management tool could be used in R&D planning as a way of determining what is already going on, and where. That information can inform decisions ranging from “We don’t need to do that, because somebody else already is” through to “We’d better get onto this topic before ‘they’ beat us to it.”

And here again I hope you can see my point: Knowledge Management represents a whole new discipline that is currently absent from the toolset of most naval architects. I have recently – thanks to Dr. Trumbach – begun adding those tools to my own toolbox, and I am already excited at the multiplication of my ability that has resulted.

Should knowledge management receive ALL of our tool funding? Certainly not! In fact, I claim that its high payoff actually justifies a small increment of funding in this area: And investment of “5” in hydro will yield a return of “5”. But it might only require an investment of “1” in Knowledge Management to yield a return of “5.” So let’s risk it: Let’s invest, say, “1” in this newly-discovered (by us) discipline.

If I were doing commercial marketing I would explain that this can become a skillset discriminator that gives Our Firm a head-and-shoulders advantage over the competition.

In naval design the stakes are much higher.




Thanks for listening.

Chris McKesson

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