Intellipedia suffers midlife crisis
The U.S. intelligence agencies' internal wiki Intellipedia has gotten glowing press reports and accolades, as well as input from thousands of analysts. However, the wiki still struggles to make a permanent home in the spy agencies, according to one of its evangelists.
"We are struggling to take it to the next level," said Chris Rasmussen, a social-software knowledge manager and trainer at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, speaking by phone to the Semantic Community–Semantic Exchange Workshop held yesterday in Falls Church, Va. "Grass roots will only get you so far. [Intellipedia] is going well. But we're not replacing the big-agency systems," he added.
The problem? The growth of the collective intelligence site so far largely has been fueled by early adopters and enthusiasts, according to Rasmussen. About all those who would have joined and shared their knowledge on the social networking site have already done so. If the intelligence agencies want to get further gains from the site, they need to incorporate it into their own formal decision making process, he contended. Until that happens, the social networking aspect of Intellipedia is "just a marginal revolution," he said.
Established in 2005, Intellipedia, now managed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, has approximately 100,000 user accounts. Open to anyone with a government e-mail account, it has social bookmarking tool, a document repository, a home page for each user, and collaboration spaces.
Some agencies already have incorporated it into their official routines, Rasmussen said. The Defense Department's Joint Chiefs of Staff uses Intellipedia as the official conduit for vetting and publishing its weekly reports. State Department diplomats use it as the internal communication of record for some reports.
In each of those cases, the agency uses the site for its official records, rather than using it as a duplicate or shadow system. For true change to occur, other agencies must use Intellipedia as their official conduit, at least for some functions, Rasmussen said. Otherwise, it is just creating additional work for contributors.
"Out of the fear of the unknown, many people are doing the same [work] two or three times," Rasmussen said. An agent may have had an informative conversation on Intellipedia, but then documents the exchange on some agency's official system as well. "If you move the content and the conversation over to the new space, why maintain the old?"
Another problem is that managers may not worry that their employees would not be comfortable contributing information to a social-networking tool. Rasmussen said he talked with one executive who said employees may not want to contribute personal items to their home page.
" 'Are you kidding?' " Rasmussen responded. "This is work. We force people to do stuff [they don't want to do] all the time — we make people come in sober and wear clothes. In certain cases top-down may not work, but in certain cases it does."
Rasmussen said the site is also experiencing some other growing pains. For example. contributors tag their articles in ways that can be too agency-centric. He mentioned a page on former Cuban president Fidel Castro that was tagged in the topic header as coming from the FBI. The FBI is not the subject of the article, so the tag was unnecessary. Contributors need to learn to accept "an agency-neutral non-ownership" stance to their articles, he said.
Another problem is that participating agency employees still tend to work in more classified spaces than necessary, thus discouraging true collaboration. "If you bring too many locks into an overly cautious culture, that's all you get: locks," Rasmussen said. He also mentioned that mashups remain to be too difficult for non-programmers to create, and social networks continue to be held, presumably unfairly, by higher standards than other technologies.
"If I put inappropriate content on the office door, you don't ban the office door. These tools are held to higher standards than any other thing that I ever seen," he said. He noted that a lot of the concerns around "inappropriate content and the unwashed masses messing everything up hasn't materialized in the four years."
Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.