Four months ago, amid a summary of Uncle Sam’s social networking applications used by the U.S. Intelligence Community, I mentioned how Intellipedia was a wiki for knowledge sharing and cross-agency collaboration, and A-Space was a sort of Facebook for spies.
Welcome to Chris Rasmussen’s world. Working for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (part of the U.S. Department of Defense), his classified blog, “Need to Share Not Need to Know Guy,” is one of most-read blogs in the Intelligence Community, he tells me. Sounds impressive.
Chris is a beta tester and evaluator for A-Space, which he’s worked on for over a year. He teaches classes about it and is his agency’s point-of-contact.
For an inside look at A-Space and how it can be used, watch this CNN video. Afterwards, please continue reading as I share with you an edited email interview with Chris who provides a fascinating perspective on best practices in social media that you may enjoy:
Let’s start with the basics. How do you define social media?
Social media has become such an umbrella term, it’s almost like a Rorschach test now in that everyone sees something in the ink blot slightly differently.
I believe it’s important to make several distinctions when it comes to social media:
- Is there an emphasis between user-generated content and back-end bottleneck traditional publications?
- Does the system work at the broadest level to increase the likelihood of serendipitous connection or does the system try to work issues with all expertise assumed up front?
- Are the processes transparent or opaque?
- Are your applications public facing, behind the firewall, or a combination?
- Are your services moving beyond using the internet to hang electronic paper?
- Is your organization also thinking about mashups, widgets, and freeing up data so the public or employees can consume services?
Everything doesn’t need to be in essay format to answer a question. The overlay of crime stats over a Google Map answers the question through a tear drop-looking icon instead of a perfectly formatted government report with a logo near the top. This is not to say that more traditional reports are not important. It simply means that you need to increase the options of self-selection and how services and ideas are consumed.
Are you active in social networking?
I use most social networking site services. It’s part of my job to stay up on the latest technology and trends, so I spend a lot of time reading about open APIs and playing around with services like Twitter.
Twitter has been very helpful to me professionally. It’s the darling platform right now that helps me aggregate what other tech professionals are thinking about and working on. It’s also a great place to throw out questions and get answers back in crowdsource style.
Twitter also helps with blurring of work and life. I think it’s important that people learn to accept all tweets from a person. Not everything I tweet is work-related. Do I speak for my agency or the federal government when I blip a Jimmy Buffett song? No, and everyone knows this.
The intelligence community is also investigating Yammer and Laconia as open source microblogging services to use behind the firewall.
The entire idea of the organizational position is changing. Public affairs departments and internal traditional publication units simply cannot control the message like they used to. The ability of a citizen or employee to reach hundreds, thousands, or millions of people used to be monopolized by TV stations, newspapers, and internal publication units. Now, most can click a button and reach more people than a TV channel.
This trend is not going away, so talking about the halcyon days of yore when things were simpler, more professional and noble may be fun and nostalgic; but such times are useless when it comes to thinking about co-existence or adapting.
Deep thoughts. What do you really do, Chris?
I believe that free-form tools without too much up-front imposed structure do a better job of managing knowledge than highly structured systems with too may rules and assigned work fields. Content and conversation is allowed to emerge that can be shaped, emphasized, or disregarded quickly. The disregarded part is important because in tools like a wiki, for example, you can’t break it—everything can be “fixed.” This is important because organizations have very long memories when they make mistakes.
The fact that there is a quick and transparent system in place to correct things helps reduce the growth of risk aversion culture throughout an organization. No one bats a 1000 in blogs, wikis, microblogs, etc. and this needs to be emphasized.
I have a bachelor’s in history and master’s in national security studies. The skills I learned working on my master’s have been among the most useful experiences of my life. My instructors, curriculum, and focus were first-class and really helped me prepare as an intelligence officer.
It’s important to note that I’m not a technologist or IT guy by background. Your educational background does not necessarily dictate your life path, but I think not having an IT background helps with being a better social tools evangelist.
I have a very low threshold for esoteric technical talk and I don’t worship the iPhone or the latest gadgets or tools within themselves. I always keep the focus on the business needs that IT is trying to fill. In fact, I’m known to carry a sign on a stick of Ogre from the movie Revenge of the Nerds to flash at meetings if the conversation gets too technical or the latest “cool kid” application like Twitter starts to dominate the meeting.
So, which is more important: tools for business or information technology?
I think we should clarify the definition of a tool.
- There are some tools that are better at certain things than others.
- Business needs include both daily operations or what you are doing now; in addition to what new processes and things you can do, revise, or stop doing.
The latter part is often overlooked by the pressure to keep the trains running on time. Also, many of the new tools are often used to mimic current processes. Couple this with the observation that many organizations keep adding social tools to their kits with limited replacement, which is not sustainable. You have to replace some systems or processes.
If you pack rat every old system or process out of fear of the unknown, the social tool-based processes will only bring a marginal revolution.
I’ve used this quote many times, but it’s a good one:
If I would have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse. – Henry Ford
Which reminds me of the assembly line and metrics. Can you share any metrics of A-Space and other tools?
I can’t share specific data but I can share these high-level aggregated numbers:
- Intellipedia has about 100,000 users
- There are about 64,000 blog posts
- There are about 46,000 social bookmarks
I want to add something about metrics. I understand the need for return-on-investment, but let’s keep the comparisons fair.
How many email studies have been commissioned to prove it’s helping with the mission?
How many exchange server mashups calculate email interaction and group by whatever variables to prove email is being used and remains valuable?
It’s hard to image an office without telephones and email. In many cases, social tools are put through more rigorous tests of utility than other tools. I don’t think we are ever going to see a tool as successful as email, but social tools are becoming a part of daily operations and collaborative success. Getting requests to tell “success stories” in social tools are getting tiresome, to be honest; there are too many to tell!
Let’s talk about A-Space. It’s related to Intellipedia, right?
I think they compliment each other. I look at this way:
Have you heard the refrain that “Facebook is taking over Wikipedia?”
Because they do totally different things and there is no such thing as a one-stop shopping service, that’s why!
I’ve been making this joke on the speaking circuit for years and it still gets a laugh every time—you can’t go into the store Target and demand an MRI. There is no such thing as one-stop shopping in life or computers. Any tool, be it A-Space or Intellipedia, cannot do it all.
I believe that A-Space’s “friend feed” or “what your network is doing” function is its best feature. Also, A-Space generates RSS signals off most of everything, which is awesome. The problem is that PKI-based RSS signals don’t work in more powerful filtering RSS readers like FeedReader right now.
This observation builds on Clay Shirky’s counter-argument to the common refrain that the glut of Web 2.0 content is causing “information overload” problems. We’ve had information overload since the printing press. Information overload is not something new. Did you read every book in your college library? The question is not one of overload but of filtering.
A-Space needs more granular filtering options rather than broadcast RSS blasts. Another awesome feature of A-Space is that it adds a social dimension to RSS output. You can subscribe to multiple feeds and that selection is syndicated as output, which is pretty neat.
Anyhow, I believe that Intelink-based tools (such as Intellipedia) are the “base” and A-Space is the niche network tracker, social RSS outputer, and super search tool to content that is generally not indexed. A-Space does have document tracking services similar to Google Docs but with a better editing history. However, I believe a truly open wiki is the way to go as the default for sharing.
How has the internet impacted government operations for you?
I’ve worked in government over six years. If you include my very specific educational background, I have over eight years of national security experience.
The effect of the internet touches almost every aspect of work, especially knowledge workers. Knowledge workers work on a computer and use computer-based tools to communicate.
You do not need to understand the electron flow of what’s happening in that CPU under your desk, but computer literacy is part of your job and this trend is growing faster and deeper. On the job training or practicing at home with social tools that are becoming a large part of daily work habits is helpful. For example, playing around with Facebook’s mini feed or news feed (social network activity signal) helps to understand A-Space.
Is A-Space where it’s at?
It depends on how you look at it. If an A-Space discussion thread answers the question at hand, why cut and paste that content or conversation to an agency-based production system with a logo at the top and create multiple versions? Questions and ideas get addressed and raised in all sorts of mediums and always have.
Are you working with other government agencies?
What is cool about the intelligence community’s social tool suite is that we are not playing catch up. Our tools, usage levels, training programs, and success stories are first class. I spend a great deal of time speaking with other federal agencies, local governments, and some international groups. I recently traveled to Canada to speak at a conference after the Canadian government launched GCpedia, which was partially inspired by Intellipedia.
The unclassified intelligence mission (also known as open source intelligence) is growing and we cannot work in a vacuum. At speaking events, I always encourage government employees at federal, state, local, and international levels to sign up for unclassified remote access to Intelink tools, such as Intellipedia and A-Space. In fact, I recently connected with West Point’s Commandant about getting more of their cadets into the unclassified tools.
Finally, any thoughts on President Obama’s appointment of a to-be-named Chief Technology Officer?
It’s too early to tell. Just because the President’s staff used Twitter and Facebook during the campaign and Obama is fond of his Blackberry, doesn’t necessarily portent a technical revolution. The grassroots have been growing across federal, state, and local governments for awhile. The federal government, in particular, could use some clear executive backing but it’s simply too early to speculate.
There are some serious questions about the actual power and clout of this CTO. Telling people you are the President’s CTO sounds cool on the cocktail circuit but there’s a big difference between figurehead coordinator and line authority collaborator within the U.S. government.
I’ll summarize with my version of a Jeff Foxworthy-like list:
- You know you’re a czar when an agency head can ignore anything you say;
- You know you’re a czar when you can’t task anything; and
- You know you’re a czar when you can’t fire anyone.
Any questions or feedback for me or Chris? Add a comment below!
If you would like to be interviewed for a future column in this series and/or contribute a guest post on your best practices in social media, please contact me.