At MITRE, Linking Past and Future Means Preserving Accumulated Knowledge

January 2012
Topics: Knowledge Management, Collaborative Computing, Human Resources Management
Long-term government programs risk losing accumulated knowledge over time.
men working on computers

Richard Kulpinski never forgot the words of a MITRE manager who told him early in his career, "My job as a department head is to train my future replacement." And so, after more than 48 years with the corporation, Kulpinski did just that.

As the former task lead for MITRE's work on the Multifunctional Information Distribution System (MIDS), Kulpinski joined forces with his colleagues to pass on MITRE's collective knowledge of Link 16, a secure, high-speed, and jam-resistant digital data network integral to MIDS.

Through a series of white papers, presentations, and technical exchange meetings, as well as productive mentoring relationships, the MIDS team sparked internal and external interest in Link 16 and ensured that knowledge of this digital data network would not be lost. For its efforts, the team received a MITRE Knowledge Management Award in 2010. Says Jeanne Trimble, team lead for Custom Research and Knowledge Management Services: "By transferring this knowledge to our engineers and sponsors, the team has strengthened MITRE's technical capabilities and created a community of Link 16 experts."

In the Early Days

U.S. allies and NATO adopted the Link 16 high-speed digital data exchange network to help military aircraft, ships, and ground forces exchange their tactical picture in near-real time. The first radio equipment was developed in the 1970s. Each decade thereafter, advances in technology enabled more capable and more favorable form factor radio equipment to be available to a greater number of platforms.

Throughout the decades, many MITRE staff advanced the capability of the Link 16 waveform and development of its radio equipment. The team continually passed knowledge to newer staff. Among those who currently have extensive MIDS and Link 16 experience are Kulpinski, Allen Post, Jerry Oynes, Ron Sea, and Ira Ross. As several members of the group began to approach retirement age, the team and its sponsors realized that once these particular team members left, valuable institutional knowledge might go with them.

"[We have] supportive sponsors who get what MITRE's about," says Mark Krupienski, the current task lead. "They, and MITRE, recognized that this corporate knowledge shouldn't be lost, so we took the initiative."

"It was a 'perfect storm' of both the sponsor and MITRE management recognizing the need," adds Brian Savage, the Joint Network Engineering group lead. Having sparked an interest in preserving the Link 16 legacy, the team set out to make it a reality.

What Really Started It

The MIDS team chose multiple avenues for disseminating and preserving information about their work. "We wanted to leverage all the available tools," Krupienski says.

Their first step was to arrange a technical exchange meeting (TEM) in October 2009. The Link 16 Enhancement TEM brought together Link 16 efforts from MITRE sites across the country to work on sharing information and developing a cohesive strategy. Says Savage, "The TEM brought the Link 16 community back together, and that's what really started it all."

As information began to flow among Link 16 experts across the country, a challenge of the knowledge transfer process was putting work that originated in decades past into a usable format. "We have engineers with more than 40 years of experience, but their information wasn't always easily transferable," Krupienski says. Paper documents from the 1960s had to be scanned. In addition, navigation models created on early Apple computers needed to be re-coded for newer computing environments—a process that has taken nearly three years.

With valuable connections established and updating efforts well underway, the team shifted its focus to mentorship. "In the more than 40 years I've been here, I've been constantly learning from others and passing on my own knowledge," Kulpinski says. "Continual training and mentoring is a hallmark of the corporation. So when Brian and Mark became the task leads, I helped them understand the job and the MITRE approach to it."

Krupienski and Savage weren't the only ones who benefitted from working with the original Link 16 team members. "This past summer, we hired two interns specifically to work on this issue," Savage says. "We made sure they both sat down with [Kulpinski and Post] to understand their work and how much time and dedication it takes to field a successful system." The team is hoping to bring at least one intern back for next summer.

Irreplaceable Knowledge

Finally, both the original and the new members of the MITRE Link 16 community collaborated to bring others into the fold. Together they created "Understanding Link 16," which began as a course at the sponsor site and proved so valuable that it transitioned to our internal training program, the MITRE Institute, in June 2011.

"Understanding Link 16" covers the fundamentals of how Link 16 networks are designed, implemented, and deployed. More than 100 people within and outside MITRE have taken the course. According to the MITRE Institute's Jim Dingwall, the three sessions were so popular that the Institute plans to offer them again in the future.

Through their hard work, MITRE's Link 16 community ensured that the company and our sponsors would continue to have the most current information about this digital data network. "The FFRDC concept includes providing an institutional memory for many of our sponsors' technology programs," says Jean Tatalias, director of Knowledge Services. "We lean heavily on the tenure of our long-term staff for that memory, but that's not always enough. The Link 16 team members have preserved our deep knowledge of this program and maintained the technical expertise critical to our role."

"The reason MITRE has been so successful is because we have great engineers who have been working in their fields for a long time," Krupienski says. "But we need to recognize that they won't be around forever, and that this is irreplaceable knowledge. It's important to soak up everything they know."

—by Tricia C. Bailey

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