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)

The Future of Intelligence, Part 1

About six months after 9/11, I came across a book by Gregory Treverton, who served as the Vice Chair of the National Intelligence Council under Bill Clinton. The book, Reshaping National Intelligence for the Age of Information, was published shortly before 9/11, and its insights into the state of national intelligence were both revealing and prescient. It’s a remarkable book, and it got me thinking more deeply about the incredible cultural and organizational challenges of national intelligence. Not coincidentally, around the same time, I was starting to synthesize my ideas on collaboration, a process that resulted in my founding of Blue Oxen Associates.    (L7T)

Things are starting to come full circle. Over the past year, I’ve found myself engaged in conversation with a number of people in the intelligence community, and it culminated in a two day workshop with the CIA this past week. It’s been somewhat of a surreal experience, given that I’ve spent much of the past four years working side-by-side with progressive and Open Source activists, many of whom consider the government an antagonist at best, an enemy at worst. Moreover, my one previous brush with government work — a project with the FAA — left me with a less than favorable view of how our federal agencies work. The culture there is stifling, especially in comparison to the Bay Area. There is a stated desire to learn and to improve, but there is very little real commitment. Those who actually want to do something are trapped under a blanket of repressive indifference, and those who manage to do something anyway are usually completely marginalized by their superiors and even their peers.    (L7U)

All that said, the fundamental challenges regarding intelligence are dear to my heart, and I find myself paying a bit more attention when these conversations and opportunities present themselves. I firmly believe that deep knowledge about collaboration is spread across a number of domains, and the only way to acquire this knowledge is to engage with each of those different communities. This especially holds true with intelligence, where the knowledge product itself is sensemaking and actionable knowledge.    (L7V)

I am also a patriot. That word has attained somewhat of a negative connotation over the past five years, which is not necessarily a bad thing, because it has forced us to deeply reexamine our values. I’ve gone through this process myself, and I’ve walked away even more sure of my feelings. I’d like to make both this country and the world a better place. Those two goals are not orthogonal.    (L7W)

Last year, I met Darniet Jennings, an intelligence researcher, at WikiSym. We’ve had a number of interesting conversations since, and he participated in our first “Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration” workshop. About six months ago, he referred me to a paper written by Calvin Andrus entitled, “The Wiki and the Blog: Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community.” Andrus, who is with the CIA, wrote this paper last year, and it has since become the de facto reference on the role of Social Software in intelligence.    (L7X)

I’ve found the majority of these kinds of whitepapers shallow and uninteresting. Andrus’s paper is anything but. Rather than offer some simplistic portrayal of these tools while repeating the same tiresome anecdotes and misconceptions over why they’re useful, Andrus frames the conversation in terms of systems theory. He cites Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Jane Jacobs, and he praises decentralization, localization, and emergence. The depth of his paper comes from this framing, which establishes the correct higher-level goals and philosophy behind these tools and which surfaces the intelligence community’s real challenges. The paper has flaws, but they are minor.    (L7Y)

The fact that such a paper exists and that it has been embraced by the intelligence community makes me hopeful, but that hope is tempered by Treverton. Andrus writes about the importance of empowering local, bottoms-up action, and he cites Tip O’Neill‘s famous maxim, “All politics is local politics.” For those who might perceive of the intelligence community as being overly centralized, this seems to be a refreshing viewpoint.    (L7Z)

However, Treverton suggests that this view is not foreign to the intelligence community at all. In fact, he writes that “intelligence analysts tend toward the long view and to take the world as a given.” Treverton then cites the very same O’Neill quote, writing, “Because they [intelligence analysts] are so immersed in the local, they are by profession believers in the adage attributed to former U.S. Congressman Tip O’Neill that ‘all politics is local politics'” (181). In contrast, policy makers tend to care less about the long view. Transforming national intelligence is not enough. We need to transform the relationship between intelligence and policy.    (L80)