Ways of the wiki

In 2006, the United States intelligence community adopted Intellipedia, a closed online system for collaborative information sharing among the 16 national agencies, other security-related organizations and combatant commands. Although 90,000 users have flocked to the intelligence wiki, trust remains an issue: agencies and individual users still want to protect their data.

Chris Rasmussen, a knowledge manager for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency with the Department of Defense, has spent the past several years promoting Web 2.0 technologies. At a presentation to GTEC in October, he had a few words of advice as the Government of Canada launches GCpedia to promote greater cross-departmental collaboration.

Don’t fear the keeper
Every argument that was made against the copy machine, telephone and email are the same arguments being made against [Web 2.0] tools. And what are they? Somebody will mess up; somebody will email the director when they are not supposed to; somebody will post inappropriate content. I’ve been doing this for four years. There has not been one f-bomb dropped in the blogs. There has not been any inappropriate content put into Intellipedia. Everything that you do or say is recorded. Bad edits do not stay around very long. Somehow the wiki is [seen as] playing around at work. These are just different tools to work in.

You’re data isn’t special
When people come into a wiki, they submit generic content because most of the time employees don’t trust each other. How do you get them to submit that meaty content that they think they own? We’re not there yet with Intellipedia, with what we call purple intelligence.

Everyone thinks their data is unique. It’s not. It’s completely contextual. There are certain things that need to be locked down, but you do not do that from the get-go. You let a link control access. You put out 500 unclassified paragraphs in the unclassified system [and] leave…a “breadcrumb” link…[to the] top-secret part. Keep it as broad as possible. There is not a topic in the world that needs to be 100 percent locked down. [And] it lets people know that a conversation [at that level] even exists.

In 2005, the U.S. intelligence community issued 50,000 reports on the same topic, many far too long and way too redundant. Each agency is doing the same thing. Intellipedia offers to work together on one topic to reduce the amount of hay we’re throwing on the haystack. That is a trust issue. We’ve got great examples: we have a page on chlorine improvised explosives in Iraq; no one asked anyone to do it, [but] people just swarmed on it, answered the questions, and people downrange are using it for their intel. It is exactly what this was designed to do.

Think differently
If you look at the portal and knowledge management movements of the 90s, why did so many of them fail? They imposed so much structure up front, it choke off creativity. [However] when you come into this environment, read the guidelines. We have a phrase: all thrust, no vector. People hustle into the wiki and make pages called the FBI-CIA-DIA-Fidel Castro Page – it’s just Fidel Castro. Work topically, not organizationally. People are so used to promoting the organization that when they come into new tools, they bring in the old processes. Henry Ford said: if I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse. Lead with what you want, not with what you have. Your title does not dictate function in this environment. We want your knowledge, not your agency seal.

No dumping
Reports expire very quickly. Don’t just hang that in the wiki – capture the insights in the report as a topic and then point to it as a source. Don’t use the wiki as a dumping ground for re-hosting processes. You want to work at the broadest level possible to keep serendipitous interaction open. When you ask a question, you have no idea who is going to be able to answer it. [If] you start putting up roadblocks, or lanes or stay-off-the-grass signs, you block out serendipitous interaction.

Building buzz
Because you throw out a page does not mean you’re going to get a magical swarm. You have to try really hard to get people into this space. You have to bring it up at meetings, send out the link in emails, put it in a chat room, good old fashion evangelism, little mugs if they get a wiki account, posters in the bathroom. It takes a lot of work to get those eyes on the content.

Old is good
This is not an age thing; this is a mindset thing. Our top editor is 70 years old. Of the top 30 contributors to the unclassified side, there are probably only a couple in their 20s.

Teach ‘em well
If you want to sell this stuff, you need…training. Set up formalized classes within the organization. Have students come to the class with a project they are working on. You want to migrate business processes.

Final thought
Let the data go. Let your [employees] surprise you. Just give people the data and let them make the mash-ups.


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