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The Intelligence Community Writes the Book on Collaboration

November 2009
By Christopher J. Dorobek

 
The Intellipedia suite of collaboration tools is years ahead of most other organizations—public or private sector.

Change is never easy, and that is particularly true in government. When it comes to collaboration, it is the intelligence community that has been evolving and testing its own boundaries.

To understand how and why, we have to go back to September 11, 2001. One reason for the terrorists’ success was the many missed signs of their imminent attacks. That failure was followed by intelligence issues in Iraq and incorrect findings about weapons of mass destruction. Other examples exist, but those two events spurred a core question: “Is there a better way for us to collect, process and disseminate intelligence data?”

The intelligence issues, particularly in the case of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, are well documented in the 9/11 Commission’s final report. The commission found that the government largely had the necessary data, but it failed to connect the dots. That data was scattered throughout many different organizations and among many people. Different parts of the intelligence and law enforcement organizations were not speaking to one other. In fact, these issues are not unique to the intelligence agencies. They are all too familiar throughout government.

Yet out of the intelligence disaster that was 9/11, the intelligence collection process has evolved. One systemic example was created from the very top of government and imposed on the entire community: the establishment of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is supposed to bring together the myriad intelligence organizations.

But evolution also has taken place at an almost grassroots level. What began happening was, to put it simply, collaboration “stuff.” Among the stuff that evolved in the intelligence community was a suite of tools. These tools developed with some top-down help, but they also evolved organically as a handful of people came up with a suite that allows people to share information—quickly, easily, efficiently—across traditional boundaries. The goal is to achieve the true power of information with the idea that the real power of information comes when it is shared. This is Intellipedia.

As the rest of the government still is dipping its toe into the pool of collaboration, the Intellipedia team is way out in front. In fact, it is dealing with issues that other government agencies likely will have to face in the years ahead. Many even argue that Intellipedia is ahead of most private-sector organizations. In the coming weeks, HarvardBusinessSchool professor Andrew McAfee will publish his new book, Enterprise 2.0: New Collaborative Tools for Your Organization’s Toughest Challenges. He highlights Intellipedia as one of his four enterprise 2.0 case studies—right up there with a case from Google.

An independent analysis of parts of the Intellipedia suite of tools assesses how they are encouraging collaboration. This study looked at A-Space. The more formal definition of A-Space is “a common collaborative workspace for all analysts from the U.S. intelligence community that is accessible from common workstations and provides unprecedented access to interagency databases, a capability to search classified and unclassified sources simultaneously, web-based messaging and collaboration tools.” The less formal way of thinking about A-Space is as a Facebook for the intelligence community.

Earlier this year, the Defense Intelligence Agency commissioned another study, assessing A-Space and whether it works. The study, conducted by knowledge management expert Nancy Dixon, was completed recently, and the report is fascinating. In short, the study finds that A-Space shows real promise. The report is worth reading, and I will have links to that report in addition to other issues at www.delicious.com/cdorobek/SignalNovember . But let me highlight Dixon’s top finding:

A-Space creates a collaborative culture that serves as a model for collaboration.

The most significant feature of A-Space is the open, shared and appreciative culture that is developing. Through this online interaction, counterparts in agencies are coming to know each other as valued colleagues. The willingness to help others on A-Space is evident everywhere. The informality of the language and the friendly banter create the feel of a comfortable conversation among peers. A growing sense of trust makes it acceptable to offer one’s thinking even when it is not completely formed. As A-Space numbers grow, it has the potential to make the interagency collaboration that is so badly needed a reality. It is this culture of trust, along with the functionality of A-Space and the classification level, that support the analytic benefits that are accruing through analysts’ interaction on A-Space—and could be a model of collaboration for any occupational skill in any venue.

We have a lot to learn about collaboration—particularly in the government—and vexing issues remain. Security rapidly comes to mind. But enormous amounts of data show the problems and challenges of failing to collaborate. Collaborative tools are not silver bullets, and they will not mean that no mistakes will occur in the future. But these  tools just may allow agencies to tap into the wisdom of the crowd to make more informed decisions with more complete and accurate data.

That seems worth an investment. And it will require a long-term commitment to change.

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris on Federal News Radio 1500 AM.