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)

WikiMania 2006: Quick Hits and Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed Wikimania, but it felt distinctly different than last year. A big part of it was personal. The conference was held in Cambridge, my home for four years, so the location itself was familiar and uninteresting. I was only there for three days, whereas last year I came early for Hacking Days, where I had a chance to get to know people better at my leisure. I also had much more on my mind, whereas last year, I was fully present the whole time — morning, noon, and night.    (L0E)

Part of it was the conference itself. It wasn’t as international as last year, but it was still quite good — one out of four attendees were from outside of the States. There were also more visitors, folks new to Wikis who came to see what this stuff was all about. Several of these people were fairly high-level, described by Jason Calacanis as “folks who ride on the back of builders.”    (L0F)

The same held true for RecentChangesCamp earlier this year, except the spirit was quite different. There, the visitors were eager to learn and to participate, and the community embraced them. Here, many visitors stayed at arm’s length, choosing to observe from afar rather than immerse themselves in this wonderful community. At Wikimania last year, a different group of us would go out every night, laughing, sharing stories, mixing with other groups. This year, there were more clusters, more silos. I saw people — especially the visitors — sticking with the folks they knew, rather than mixing with others.    (L0G)

That is not our community’s way, and I found it mildly distressful. To some extent, it’s the price of success — especially true in the case of Wikipedia — and the result of the culture that those not acclimated to Wikis bring to the table. To a large extent, process is at fault. I find it fascinating that a community schooled in self-organization and the value of emergence continues to organize top-down gatherings. If it’s not careful, Wikimania may eventually go the way of Linux World, Comdex, and many other conferences that began as a wonderful, generative community gathering and eventually became a meeting place for fast-talking salespeople.    (L0H)

Despite my standing in the Wiki community, I’m an outsider to Wikipedia, and I only have three ways of encouraging a shift in how Wikimania operates. The first and best way is to become active in the community and in the planning of the next conference. In an alternative world, this would have already happened, but the reality is that it’s not likely. The second and worst way is to preach to the folks in the community, which I’ve been doing. I find this distasteful. It’s my personality to effect change, not to talk about it.    (L0I)

The third way is to create a space where people can learn for themselves and to catalyze that learning as much as possible. This, in a nutshell, is the purpose of Blue Oxen Associates. I’ve had some success in this area. The FLOSS Usability Sprints exposed some folks to effective collaborative processes, including one of the original Bar Camp organizers. I was then able to point to Bar Camp as a model for the RecentChangesCamp organizers, who wanted to bring Open Space to the Wiki community. Both the usability sprints and Bar Camp helped spawn DCamp, the Bar Camp for the usability community. Our “Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration” workshops have inspired a number of people to pursue similar event models.    (L0J)

In addition to helping the tech community learn about face-to-face collaborative processes, I’ve also helped other communities — from Planetwork to the World Economic Forum — learn how online collaborative spaces can complement physical ones.    (L0K)

All of this is just the start. I have bigger and better things in the works. More importantly, the meme is starting to spread. I’ve helped initiate some of this, but there are many other sparks, and others are starting to fan the flames. We will learn how to collaborate more effectively. But it will take time.    (L0L)

I’m sounding a bit ominous, and it’s an exaggeration of how I actually feel. As I said before, all in all, Wikimania was wonderful. When you bring great people together and get out of the way, great things happen. Even if there are minor obstacles, great people will find a way around them. This has held true not just for the participants at Wikimania, but for the organizers. I am amazed at the efforts, commitment, and passion of Samuel Klein, Phoebe Ayers, Delphine Menard, and the many, many others who worked ridiculously hard to make this conference happen. The whole community deserves tremendous praise. I hope it continues to do what it does well, while unabashedly exploring ways to improve.    (L0M)

One goal that the Wikimania organizers should have for next year is improving conference Wiki usage among the participants. Effective self-documentation via Wiki is a staple of Blue Oxen‘s processes, and we’ve managed to influence many others about it, including Bar Camp and the Aspiration events. But the best Wiki usage at an event I’ve ever seen was at RecentChangesCamp. The community was already steeped in Wiki culture, and the process encouraged self-documentation. The fact that neither Wikimania nor WikiSym has seen effective conference-wide usage of Wikis is an indicator that something is blocking the community’s natural instincts. It’s also a lost opportunity, as those who attend the conference seeking to learn about Wikis miss out on the chance to experience them first-hand.    (L0N)

Quick Hits    (L0O)

  • I was amazed at the number of speakers who exclaimed how honored they were to be there. Some of them were merely experiencing the euphoria of speaking at a gathering of their peers for the first time. Others were hardened veterans of the speaking circuit, including Yochai Benkler and David Weinberger. Yochai even interrupted his traditional two months beach getaway to speak at the conference.    (L0P)
  • Speaking of David Weinberger, I saw him talk for the first time, and now I know what the fuss is about. He’s a wonderful speaker — self-deprecating, sharp wit, great sense of humor, and very thoughtful. He did a Monty Python-like parody of Lawrence Lessig‘s presentation-style that had the entire audience rolling with laughter, and he managed to slip in references to Hegel and Heidegger without sounding pretentious. But I had two beefs with his talk. (Boy, I’m just Mr. Negativity today.) First, he disputed the notion that knowledge is just in people’s head, citing all the knowledge associated with the artifacts that surround us. I understand the point he was trying to make, but I didn’t like how he made it. Artifacts are not knowledge. I generally find myself taking the exact opposite stance as Weinberger — emphasizing that knowledge is in our heads, because it stresses the human element we so often forget when we think about our relationship to knowledge. Second, he made a hypothesis about Wikipedia editing behavior that practically everybody in the room knew was wrong. He admitted that he was speculating, and gracefully acknowledged his error when informed of it, but he never should have made that mistake in the first place. There were many people he could have simply asked before making such a claim.    (L0Q)
  • The best talk from someone I had never heard of was by Seth Anthony, who spoke about Wikipedia editing patterns. See Ross Mayfield‘s notes for a summary.    (L0R)
  • Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg, the IBM researchers who created History Flow, gave an outstanding talk where they demonstrated some new visualizations of Wiki usage. Some of those visualizations are available in my Flickr collection. I particularly found their visualizations of user behavior interesting, because of past suggestions that such visualizations could be a powerful way to help casual readers determine reputations. The biggest obstacle (besides the computing power required to generate these visualizations)? Privacy. Even though these visualizations were based on public data, that does not automatically make it okay to make those visualizations available. Witness AOL’s recent fiasco (and read Tom Maddox‘s commentary).    (L0S)
  • I caught up with Denny Vrandecic towards the end of the conference, and I’m glad I did. He gave me an in-depth demo of Semantic MediaWiki, which he had first proposed (but had not coded) at last year’s Wikimania. The notion of encoding link types in Wikis is not new, but up until I saw the Semantic Mediawiki, the best implementation I had seen was Evan Prodromou‘s WikiTravel. I think the Semantic Mediawiki is a better approach. It’s less expressive than WikiTravel, but more likely to be widely adopted. I plan on experimenting with it and incorporating some of its capabilities into my own Wikis.    (L0T)