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.



  1. This is an interesting aspect to consider. I wonder if you could expand beyond gov’t to even private enterprises who may view themselves as competitive but could benefit from sharing information in unique ways. For example companies working in related fields trying to solve very complex and related problems may not be willing to share openly – but through their sharing may actually find a solution faster (think of bio field).

    Maybe social media could get leveraged in ways we might not yet understand. For example providing a means for open – yet identity protected – means for information sharing, discussion, and connecting dots. Processing of the information may still be up to consumers, but provides means for information to be shared and discussed.

    Maybe I am totally off my rocker here, but an idea to consider.

    1. Tim – this notion of coopetition is a good one, and SM has the ability to help there, i think. And your idea that we’ve only just begun to explore the possible applications of SM is right on.

      I should clarify, however, that in the Intel/Military case, there is no role for the consumer – in the sense of the public. this is social media leveraged inside the agency in a closed environment.

      1. Sorry if not clear, by consumer I simply meant consumer of the SM. I think there are both public and private examples where this may not be “everyone.” As you describe, even within the silo’d gov’t agencies there may be legitimate need to have partitions – key is trying to help groups facilitate knowledge sharing and dot-connecting without necessarily breaching various privacy/partitions that must also exist (like protecting sources, competitive info, etc).

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