Month: July 2009

Intel clear on ROI of Social Media

While businesses around the globe are trying to understand their social media strategy, their ROI, what it all means, and how they should participate, the US Intelligence and military communities are well beyond that.

In the Intel community, it is well understood that they need to tighten the intellectual mesh of minds they have in order to improve situational awareness, and ensure they understand the implications of what it all means. They need to do this in a way that transforms their ability to deliver on their mission. Its a mission critical, life or death capability.

Intel understands that things like preventing the next 9-11, assessing the capabilities of enemies, details that make interdiction possible, require mining the full and varied expertise of everyone – not just those focused on that particular problem.

The goal for them is to maximize the likelihood that patterns of activity are identified, and that relevant info and expertise finds the places its needed.

The Problem

Imagine 10,000 people on 17 teams, working on 100,000 jigsaw puzzles. Now imagine that some of the pieces have been randomly distributed among the other players. Nobody knows how many pieces are in each puzzle. And some pieces may be missing entirely, or fit into multiple puzzles simultaneously. Each person has a limited number of puzzles that they are aware of, and some may be working on the same puzzle without realizing it.

They need a system that will make it possible for people to know what pieces the others have, for the pieces themselves to find the holes they might fit into, and – here’s the odd one – the holes can describe themselves to the pieces. This one needs one with some blue in it, or a fairly oval shaped connector. No problem! Actually, social media can deliver on this bizarre metaphor.

The good news, is that there is good news.

1. We now have  tools that can help the intel community on its way – first generation social workplace products such as Intellipedia and A-Space have demonstrated value for the community, and are laying the foundation for great things to come. By demonstrating their worth, they are paving the way for the next round of innovation and adoption. Further, those products (and others) have also created a level of credibility, experience and expertise in the community that is ready to go further.

Second generation products are appearing commercially (I officially work for Open Text and their new Social Collaboration product), and the vibrancy of the gov 2.0 and social media communities are moving the intellectual and thought barriers further each day.

2. The intel community – in conjunction with the military – will be blazing the trail here. I predict that we’ll see the commercial sector referring to what happens here over the next couple of years as a way to justify their own investment.

3. The Intel community is investing significant time, dollars and talent here, and they will make progress.

Challenges for the Intel Community

1. The US Intelligence community is purposefully silo’d in two dimensions.

– By subject area and by level of sensitivity of data. There are good reasons for this – they bulkheads that limit risk in case of an information spill or leak. But these same silos need to be carefully connected in order to be able to harvest critical insights and information that cut across areas. This needs to be done carefully, balancing security imperatives with the imperative to “connect the dots” in order to identify patterns of activity or unexpetedly relevant knowledge from various parts of the community.

2. Cultural Silo-ing.

– The  silo-ed and the clandestine nature of its business has not lead to a “sharing” cutlure. People within the community tend to keep things very, very close to the chest. I’ve heard it said that there are people within the community, who when they get ahold of a really, really important piece of information that is really, really sensitive, they’ll protect it to the point where they won’t tell ANYONE about it. Hmm.

– Further complicating the problem, the intelligence community is comprised of 16 different agencies (plus the Director of National Intelligence, a significant agency of its own), each with its own mission and subculture, and territory. The cultural imperitives for collaboration (Shared mission, respect, trust, commitment to continual improvement) are building, but still in  early stages.

3. The intel community serves many customers.

– Their customers include the executive and legislative branches of government as well as the military. Delivery of information – in a very timely fashion is critical. As is security. How then do they provide sufficiently rich, appropriate, timely and accurate information to these people in real time?

A variation for the military.

The military is also aggressively pursuing these types of solutions, and their initiatives have backing at the highest levels.

The Army has created a list of 12 principles for knowledge management:, the Navy, Coast Guard, and other armed services have been pursuing similar objectives.

Increasingly, as the military fights increasingly complex wars with increasingly complex enemies and environments, the people on the ground are the ones with the most up to date information. They see, think and act.

Increasingly, this is part of their training as well – to think on their feet. With all that seeing thinking and acting, there’s a lot of information and learning coming in from the field that needs to be distributed both to others in the field as well as to command and control. This needs to be quick, accurate and include feedback mechanisms for questions and discussion.

Again there are security issues, again there is a careful and urgent balance between security and information diffusion and the ability to identify experts in real time.

Social Media Helps

Social media concepts and constructs can help make progress here.

What keeps intel and military up at night? Its not the bad guys so much as its the “we don’t know what we don’t know” problem.

Social Media, properly leveraged, creates a way for information to rapidly diffuse through the community, enables instant identification of experts on the new random topic of the hour, (anyone speak Urdu and Kurdish and while expert in Spanish geography and Lama imports?), and the ability to rapidly collect and iterate on information as a team rather than as a gang of individuals.

It may not solve the “We don’t know what we don’t know” problem, but it ameliorates it with the advantages of “We know what we know” and “we learn very fast” .

Social media supports the development of a heavily symbiotic relationship amongst and between people in the community – people who’s goals are aligned, who trust and respect each other well enough to listen carefully and debate rigorously.

This maximizes the opportunity for relevant information to find its home, for patterns of activity and expertise to be found and exploited, for people to share, solve and overcome life and death challenges for all of us.

These communities present the most interesting and most pressing test of the capabilities of social media, and there are still some crucially unanswered questions (we’re working on it).

– Tight collaboration is a cultural, not a technology issue – but how fast and how tight can social networks grow? What are the rate limiters?

– What about misinformation and self-correcting systems – what do we know about how mis-information propagates and gets corrected? How can we use that to make predictions about the quality of information?

– How can we attempt to measure the likelihood that the right information gets to the right person? Is that even asking the right question?

As a geeky-American,  these issues feel to me like our generation’s moon shot. We know its possible. We have the technology, but perhaps not as much sophistication as we’d like – yet. But these are the problems – of Intel and Military, but also of Business, Academia, Government and even personal lives.

We don’t always think of governments as blazing innovation. But history has shown us that in the realm of technology, war has been a very effective innovator. As we solve problems for the military, we drive technology and innovation throughout the civilian world.

turning my back on “tacit”

It all started in college when my friend, Maggie, whom i considered the unwitting victim of a charming linguistics prof, picked a fight with me ( one of those days-long undergrad debates). She claimed that all human thought was limited by language and that we couldn’t think about what we couldn’t express in words. Fooey, says I.

I’ve been “i wish I had said”-ing  that debate in my head for 25 years. (ouch).

I’ve long since lost touch with her ( I’ll look for her on facebook later), but the first argument I wish I’d offered was poetry. You might argue that poetry is language, and hence falls within her camp, but I would argue that poetry evokes rather than expresses meaning.

The next thing I thought about was Tacit Knowledge – the stuff you know before you “know” you know it. (Like the fact that I knew her argument was terrible, but I couldn’t say why). This definition of tacit knowledge is akin to what Malcom Gladwell is talking about in “Blink” – a great read, if you haven’t yet.

So later I started getting excited about knowledge management. But knowledge management of the 90’s was about documents. Documents are expressed knowledge – or explicit knowledge. Documented knowledge.

But you know what? Most knowledge is undocumented – even if it could be – it takes a ton of effort. Which means that in most companies people know a lot of stuff that they haven’t written down. And everyday they make tiny additions and refinements to that knowledge just by talking, emailing, getting to the next step, whatever. which means that even if they wanted to document it all they probably couldn’t.

This is another kind of tacit knowledge – and what it means is that probably 90% of the critical knowledge in an organization is Tacit.

One of the many reasons I love social media is that it provides a wonderful platform for sharing small things. Ideas, snippets, links. And those snippets, and links between those snippets end up being a much better representation of what a person knows than the list of documents that they’ve written. And an even better representation of what the organization as a whole knows.

This is the most interesting thing in the world to me – really. Geeky, yes, but true.

So – why have I turned my back on tacit? Well its this. Normal people don’t get tacit knowledge. Its not a term that’s understood in our culture. And I don’t think we can get from documents to tacit knowledge in a single step.

So – when I talk to people about the benefits of social-media supported collaboration, I don’t talk about tacit knowledge (well, I try not to, but sometimes I get kind of worked up.) Cause they either think I’m nuts, or that its like the semantic web – a weird concept that they don’t get and surely won’t invest in. Its like talking about shakras or something in a business meeting – just too weird.

So – I’m focusing on helping people understand the “first order” benefits of this kind of tech-mediated collaboration. The fact that things don’t get lost, that its easy for a group of people to gradually build on what’s there till you have something good, that everyone is always looking at the same set of material. That long email trails where all the good stuff is buried that you can never find again are becoming a thing of the past.

Then I talk about how you can search this stuff, finding not only the snippets, but how they fit together, and the people who’ve been contributing to them. So you can learn from all this stuff, in context. They start to see how this is valuable.

But as soon as you mention the word tacit – you see the wall go up. Its like a verbal fart. It makes people uncomfortable.

Maybe in a few years… but for no… I do not discuss Tacit Knowledge, I will not use the word Tacit. I won’t. Really.

Can social Media Make Big Businesses Smaller?

I read a phrase recently on the Oracle Fusion blog – and I can’t find it again to cite, so apologies. But the essence tickled the question of why big business ocassionally gets knocked out by small business, and how social media might just possibly help big business compete against those agile, tight, “unencumbered” little guys. Personally, I’ve done the 5-guy startup right up through the 20,000 guy behemoth, so this idea resonated with me.

Small companies have advantages and disadvantages. Amongst their disadvantages are the need to get customers fast or die. The need for funding from outside firms, establish credibility, weak brand identity and recognition, and probably a score of others. Individual customers hold tremendous sway and can often derail things (not that this doesn’t happen at big companies).

Small company advantages run a gamut of issues, but I’m going to focus on the cultural and communications issues. They include people who know each other well, every member of the team is tightly connected to every other. Each member of the team is fully bought into and engaged in the vision. Each team member has a voice that is heard, has a personal investment in the outcome, and understands how his or her contribution matters.

In a (typical) big company, vision is diluted. Relatively few people have met the CEO, let alone heard him “unpack” the vision (outside the keynote speaches), the CEO knows few of the 10,000. There’s the appearence of “secrecy” at the top – the workforce believes that there’s a “strategy” and a “reason”, but that they aren’t valuable enough or trusted enough to know what it is. They hesitate to speak on behalf of the company, because they aren’t confident that they know the right thing to say.

At the Enterprise 2.0 conference last week, Marcia Conner of Pistachio Consulting asked “how many of us hire untrustworthy people?” It was a great line, but the fact of the matter is in a big company we often have no idea who we’re dealing with.

So – enter social media. Few companies will adopt social media in order to create a tighter team and culture where people know each other. A few companies will “get it” and invest, some will recognize the value of grassroots efforts and institutionalize them, but most Companies will adopt social media in order to solve a specific, urgent business issue: waste,  inefficiency, travel costs and distributed teams. Military and Intel will adopt because of the urgent need for rapid information diffusion and identification of expertise (that’s another post).

Social media tools will be adopted to solve problems, will do a pretty good job, and then there will be the secondary effects: transparency, faster innovation, a more cohesive corporate culture, employees who are more engaged, and feel they know the leaderships thinking intimately, and a host of other second order effects that we have some anecdotal evidence of, but have yet to really nail down.

If these secondary effects are half as common as we expect, then they may create the ultimate combination of big and small company advantages. Tight, focused, engaged teams who identify strongly with the mission and their contributions, while having the influence, stability an resources of a large company.

I’m not 100% sure if that’s a good or bad thing for the world as a whole, but I’m sure that the people running and working with those large companies, as well as their stockholders will be very happy, and small businesses will again be figuring out how to compete with the big guys.