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September 27, 2006 » 11:44 pm

The Future of Intelligence, Part 2

In my last post, I wrote:    (L8D)

Transforming national intelligence is not enough. We need to transform the relationship between intelligence and policy.    (L8E)

First things first, though. For the past two days, I and several esteemed colleagues participated in a CIA workshop on blogs and Wikis, organized by Mark Oehlert at Booz Allen Hamilton. The intention was for people within the CIA to learn more about blogs and Wikis from us, but the learning was decidedly bidirectional. We got a glimpse of how the intelligence community works, and we got a chance to further guide the CIA’s thinking on how to improve the way it collaborates, both internally and with others.    (L8F)

I spent both days listening closely for patterns of effective collaboration. Given my previous experience with government work, I wasn’t optimistic. These folks surprised me. There were certainly horror stories, but they weren’t significantly worse than stories I have heard and experienced in other organizations. More importantly, there is a small group of vocal, committed champions who believe strongly in how some of these tools can improve the way the organization works and who are actively trying to make this happen.    (L8G)

One problem I often see in organizations are claims that certain silos are necessary, claims that tend to be unfounded. Well, these claims are mostly true in intelligence. Given this constraint, how is effective collaboration possible? How can you build trust and traceability when there are different levels of classified information and when anonymity is critical and necessary? How can you have a conversation with someone who doesn’t exist, as far as the CIA is concerned?    (L8H)

We can divide these challenges into three areas: collaboration with folks within the organization who share the same security clearance, collaboration with folks in other organizations who share the same security clearance, and collaboration with folks on the outside who do not share the same security clearance. The first two scenarios are relatively straightforward to address. The third is incredibly difficult.    (L8I)

The notion of an Intimacy Gradient came up on multiple occasions. An Intimacy Gradient is an important concept in the design of collaborative spaces (both online and face-to-face), but it is a concept rife with problems when implemented online. You can create an online space where people feel comfortable sharing information and leaving artifacts, but that comfort can be completely misguided when it comes to digital artifacts. Blogs are a good example of this. Blogs feel like private spaces, and so people share information on them as if they were private, information that can bite you in the butt later on. (See Whine In Private.)    (L8J)

A more subtle example is the Wikipedia visualization that Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg demonstrated at Wikimania last month. The two were able to show all sorts of personal information about users inferred solely from their editing behavior, which is all publically available. I’m quite certain that none of these users had any idea that such revealing visualizations were possible, and that many would have thought twice about participating if those visualizations were available. Viegas and Wattenberg have been struggling with the ethics of making such visualizations available because of privacy concerns, but the reality is that someone less thoughtful can come along and do the exact same thing.    (L8K)

The intelligence community can’t afford to deal with these issues after the fact, so they must think very deeply about these issues ahead of time. The line between FUD and caution is a thin one, and it must be tread carefully.    (L8L)

That said, there are still lots of more straightforward things that the CIA can do to improve the way it collaborates, and they’re already exploring many of them. There are several active bloggers within the CIA, including several senior-level people. There is also a Wiki for the intelligence community called Intellipedia. Of the 40 participants at the workshop, more had used Intellipedia than blogs, and I suspect that many more will try it after the proceedings of the past two days. Change is happening, and many participants even argued that change was inevitable. Whether or not it will happen quickly enough is the question.    (L8M)

Although the focus of the gathering was on tools, the conversation returned over and over to culture and incentives for collaboration. Many of the ideas centered around ways to encourage blogging or Wikis, but most of these were misguided. I think rewarding people for using a tool is generally a bad idea. What you want to do is reward people for collaborating.    (L8N)

Booz Allen Hamilton, for example, has an employee review process known as the 360-degree appraisal. When employees are reviewed, management not only interviews the employees, they interview their colleagues and their clients. The end result is a holistic picture of their employees’ effectiveness. This kind of review process naturally rewards collaboration, even though there is no formal metric.    (L8O)

Another way to encourage collaboration is explicit Permission To Participate (one of the patterns that Wikis are so good at facilitating). It’s wonderful when senior level people actively blog and encourage others to do so, but sometimes, Permission To Participate needs to be even more explicit than that.    (L8P)

It’s hard to extrapolate too much about the state of the CIA from what happened at the workshop. For starters, the participants were obviously self-selecting. However, the fact that there were 40 people who self-selected was itself significant. There seems to be an impressive amount of savviness within the organization, and if it can ever figure out how to leverage that savviness, many good things will happen. The participants asked good, good questions throughout the two days, demonstrating a high-level of thoughtfulness and introspection.    (L8Q)

The most significant outcome for me was the opportunity to put a human face on the CIA. It’s an opportunity that most people will never get, because the CIA will never be a transparent organization, and it will never be able to fully leverage the notion of Markets Are Conversations. But perhaps I and others can act as a proxy.    (L8R)

I enjoyed meeting many people, including Calvin Andrus and the team behind Intellipedia (who I hope will attend RecentChangesCamp in May so that they may experience WikiOhana firsthand). I especially appreciated the thoughtfulness of those who were present, which included both champions and skeptics. Most importantly, I appreciated people’s hearts. The CIA point person for the workshop closed the gathering by remarking that the commonality between the guests and the participants was passion, then told an emotionally wrenching story about his son and about watching the plane crash into the Pentagon on 9/11. These folks are smart, they’re human, and they care. They care about doing their jobs well, and they care about improving this country.    (L8S)

The CIA has had a checkered history, and many challenges lie ahead. Change will not be easy. But they are doing some things well, and we should continue to engage with them, so that we can continue to learn from each other and improve. I came away from this workshop more optimistic about the CIA itself, but less so regarding its relationship with other intelligence agencies and with its customers, the policy makers. But, first things first. Baby steps lead to big changes.    (L8T)

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