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Persistent, Mass Collaboration Driving The Defense Information Advantage

July 2008
By Beverly P. Mowery

The need to share and the need to secure are not in competition.

Cultural changes in the U.S. Defense Department are bringing people out of their comfort zones and encouraging them to take advantage of technology opportunities happening around them. The movement toward a service-oriented world is challenging the systems mentality and is leading to a collaboration and information sharing environment that is more agile and responsive.

Years of building systems and local area networks led to duplication of effort and information hoarding. Big systems forced everything to be aligned, but the size of the systems made them hard to deploy. Today, the shift toward the service-oriented world, where the department provides certain core services on behalf of the entire organization and where the local organizations develop and share the services they need, enables the department to have the best of both worlds, according to the Defense Department’s deputy chief information officer, David M. Wennergren.

“The challenge is that this changes everything,” Wennergren emphasizes.  “We think about the capability we need in terms of a system….The place where phenomenal progress is being made in the department is where people are getting the idea of what a services-oriented world provides for us…This is happening not just in the back-end part of the business but also in the warfighting and intelligence mission areas,” he explains. 

Speaking at a critical issues in command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) conference co-sponsored by AFCEA and George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, Wennergren joined paper presenters, panelists and other speakers in exploring architecture, engineering, applications requirements and problems of service-oriented architecture; geospatial software integration as well as human terrain in C4I; and interoperability in collaborative applications.

“The department needs to create an information advantage for its people and mission partners,” Wennergren told attendees. Network centricity is not just about networks. The real power, he contends, “is about the people and the information that you are going to be able to connect together because you are network-centric.” The service-oriented view can make that happen faster.

Wennergren is clearly passionate about the powerful difference that data strategy work can make. “If you just insert technology for technology’s sake, it sounds like a lot of fun but ends up usually just creating more consternation and increasing costs for the organization,” he explains. The underlying concept has to be about understanding the processes and the capabilities, then seeing how technology can be used to make that better.

The data strategy also must be right because “we live in a world of unanticipated users.” An aircraft carrier might leave on one mission with everything designed to work with the rest of the carrier strike group, but if it is diverted, such as to assist with tsunami relief, suddenly the carrier is dealing with nongovernment organizations and their unanticipated users. 

While the department struggles with the importance of information sharing and the challenges of incorporating the unanticipated users in the process, the nature and severity of attacks on networks grow daily. Information security is a national imperative, but the need to share and the need to be secure cannot be in competition or balanced against one another, Wennergren advises. The problem, as he explains, is that “if your whole approach to security is the more classic modes of block, isolate, defend, withdraw, then you are not an information sharing organization.” The department must think about security and sharing simultaneously, not in isolation, or else the two become out of sync. 

To meet this information sharing and collaboration mandate, the department must understand Web 2.0 and beyond. “It is an era of persistent collaboration,” he relates, and social networks and mass collaboration are things the department has to become used to. “If you think Second Life is a game, I think you may be missing the point.” Business uses Second Life as a virtual collaboration space. “If you think Facebook is just about getting a date, I think you are missing the point.” The banking industry is using Facebook to find the experts.

Another sociological factor the Defense Department will need to address is that the next generation is going to take over leadership at a younger age than any other generation. So attracting and retaining net-generation people to work for the Defense Department is going to be important if the department wants to be an employer of choice. 

The department, suggests Wennergren, must recognize the power of Web 2.0 and how to use it to make itself more effective. The net-generation workers will want to use the tools they have in their regular life as part of their work life. They are multitaskers and mass collaborators, and it is a good thing, advises Wennergren