How Not to do Enterprise 2.0: A Case Study

Yesterday’s New York Times has a fuller version of a story that I first read on Boing Boing.  It’s about Christine Axsmith, a CIA contractor who was also a blogger within at least one classified Intranet.  Earlier this month she posted on her  blog "Covert Communications" (which was hosted on the Intelink network) an opinion that waterboarding was torture, and that torture was wrong.  Shortly afterward she was fired by her employer, BAE Systems, and also lost her top-secret security clearance.  

According to the Times, "Ms. Axsmith said C.I.A. officials had confronted her and told her that the agency’s senior leadership was angry about the blog."

Axsmith’s public blog Econo-Girl contains many messages of support (and some of condemnation), and I’d encourage you to check them out.  

My purpose in writing about this incident here is not to comment on how the war on terror is being conducted or opine on how well our intelligence agencies are doing their work and protecting us and our interests.  I just want to point this out as a neat example of how not to promote Enterprise 2.0, and how to inhibit all of the positive things that can come from the use of freeform social software within organizations.

I was happy to learn that over 1,000 blogs are up and running on classified Intranets, and I hope our intelligence agencies are making use of other Enterprise 2.0 tools such as wikis and tags.  I’ve always thought that intelligence work is the perfect application for these technologies, especially if they cross organizational boundaries, like those between the FBI and CIA, that have evidently been hindering some important work.

But if employees quickly and visibly get fired for voicing opinions, especially those that aren’t obviously crazy or seditious, Enterprise 2.0 environments are going to become the opposite of what they can and should be.  They’ll become forums for banality, cheerleading, and caution.  Or they’ll become online vacant lots.  This would be a shame anywhere.  It’s something worse than a shame in areas as important to us all as intelligence and national security.

Smart organizations will accept and embrace the fact that Enterprise 2.0 tools will be used to voice dissent within the community.  And they’ll realize that this is more than just OK; it’s important.

Let’s close this post with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote about dissent and the American President in a 1918 Kansas City Star editorial:

"… it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." 

As elected officials, citizens, bosses, and/or employees, are we smart enough to hear those words, and courageous enough to act on their implications?

CORRECTION (7.24.06)The original version of this post had Axsmith working for BEA.  That was wrong —  she worked at, and was fired from, BAE Systems.  The current version of the post (above) is corrected.  My apologies to BEA.