The Art of Community Building: Two Views

Intellipedia mavens Sean Dennehy and Don Burke were guests in my MBA course yesterday, and once again wowed my students. When they visit I always make sure to position myself near the door right after class so that I can soak up all the compliments; students say “Thanks, great class” to me as they leave, even though I didn’t do anything except get Don and Sean to show up.

Don, Sean, and a small group of their colleagues have been instrumental in deploying, growing, and maintaining a single instance of Mediawiki software across all 16 federal intelligence agencies. They’ve also been tireless in promoting its proper use, increasing awareness, and educating interested members of the US Intelligence Community (IC).

I describe the genesis, spread, and impact of Intellipedia and the IC’s other 2.0 technologies in my upcoming book Enterprise 2.0 (which will come out this fall from HBS Press). I find it a truly inspiring story, and one that gives me hope that even the most large, bureaucratic, and tradition-bound organizations can be changed by a combination of technology, innovative thinking, and tenacity. The work of the Intellipedians reminds me of Margaret Mead’s great quote ” Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

As Don and Sean spoke to my students, I was also reminded of an exhibit at London’s Tate Modern museum that I heard about, but unfortunately never saw. In 1990 the artist Yukinori Yanagi painstakingly created the flags of 170 nations by arranging colored sand inside clear plastic boxes (as craftsmen do when making sand art bottles.) He then mounted these boxes in a grid on the museum’s walls and interconnected them with plastic tubes.

Can you see what’s coming next? Yanagi released a population of ants into this grid, then let them go about their work. As they did so — as they foraged, built, explored, and expanded —  they literally eroded the flags. Sand of different colors moved among the boxes, and the elements of the grid became much less neat and sharply delineated over time. The piece, called “World Flag Ant Farm“, was not a particularly subtle political statement, but I find it a supremely clever idea. (for more on Yanagi and his work, see this page)

“World Flag Ant Farm” is not exactly the right analogy for Intellipedia; the sentiments behind them are too dissimilar. Sean, Don and their colleagues are not trying to eliminate all barriers and differencies within the IC, and are not advocating that the Community should become monochromatic.

But what they are doing is building effective digital connectors among the agencies and their people. Many intelligence analysts are using these connectors, because they realize that they can do their work better if they don’t have to stay within the same box all the time. And as they move around new connections get made and content gets distributed more widely, just as was the case in the exhibit.

Ant colonies are often held up as prime examples of emergent systems. Intellipedia and the IC’s other 2.0 tools are helping the Community organize itself in emergent ways, in addition to the hierarchical ways it’s deeply familiar with.

People can and do argue about whether it would be a good thing if the vision underlying “World Flag Ant Farm” came to pass —  if differences and barriers among nations disintegrated over time. But virtually every observer agrees that the US Intelligence Community needs to become less rigidly stovepiped and obsessed by current organizational boundaries, and to learn to operate in emergent ways to combat the dynamic and ever-changing threats America now faces. All of my work on Enterprise 2.0 and emergent social software platforms tells me that Intellipedia and its kin are the ideal technologies to help accomplish this transformation.

Don was talking to one of my ex-military students after class. He ended the conversation with “Thanks for your service,” which I thought was incredibly respectful and classy. It reminded me that, to my great discredit, I’ve never adequately thanked Don, Sean, and their colleagues for their work or expressed my appreciation.

So as a scholar and as an American I want to say thanks for your service. It means a great deal.