Collaboration is More Than Document Sharing!

My friend Bob Watson pointed me to an interesting article this week in Red Orbit by Ashley Heher about the U. S. Intelligence Community’s planned implementation of social networking software to improve cooperation and communication among agents.

Heher notes the key features of the new app, dubbed “A-Space”:

Aside from simply being able to share documents back and forth, experts who are in the same field but work for different agencies could meet each other virtually and swap ideas and information directly. Experts say the current procedures for sharing information is so cumbersome that such communication is now impossible.

“It’s just a better way to build and grow that network so that improved analysis can come out the other end,” said Robert Cardillo, deputy director of analysis for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

It’s so tempting to respond with a resounding DUH!  Maybe if people are actually conversing with each other, instead of shipping memos and planning documents back and forth, important knowledge will be transmitted and even created!  We call this a “Community of Practice”

We run into this issue a lot. Many organizations have invested big bucks into document management systems, and IT departments, in particular, tend to view these applications (Sharepoint is a common example) as “the collaboration software we have that everyone needs to use.”  But making documents available does not collaboration create. There has to be a way for people to let each other know what’s in the doc, and why they should care. And the best way to do this is to have them actually talk to each other!  There is a huge difference between receiving an automated notice that somebody has uploaded a new doc to the shared repository, and being part of a conversation in which somebody says “Oh, yeah, we ran into that a while ago, and I wrote up this thing about handling it. Here it is, you might find this helpful!”

The quotes from people who have their doubts about how effective this initiative will be are telling—

Richard L. Russell, a former CIA analyst who teaches at the National Defense University, says the government needs to focus on building better analysis and human intelligence, not fancy tools.

“You may have a great technological infrastructure for managing information, but if you put garbage into it, the output will be garbage,” he said.

Hmmm. It sounds as if he thinks he’s talking about a database!  See, the cool thing about mixing people in with the data is you have someone there to say “yeah, this report came out before we knew about the stuff which is covered in this other report you should check out…”

Experts say the service will only be as effective as those who use it. And with many older workers puzzled by their younger colleagues’ obsessive use of Facebook and its ilk, full-blown use could take time.

Sigh. Well, yes, any community is only as good as the people who participate in it. But seed it with the right folks, and people might not be “baffled” by the chance to talk to others working on the same problems, the way they are by the “friending of strangers” on public networking sites.

Here’s hoping these folks have some really savvy people planning the roll-out. This technology could really help break down the siloing which has been the bane of U.S Intelligence…but there needs to be some serious culture change right alongside it, and some senior folks committed to using this tool and requiring it of the folks they work with.

It’s only our national security in the balance…