How We’ll Get Smart

by Andrew McAfee on September 17, 2009

I’ve done some research on the US Intelligence Community’s impressive use of 2.0 tools, including internal blogs and the community-wide Intellipedia wiki. I’ve written about what I learned here and in my book Enterprise 2.0. I’ve also finished a sequence of case studies on them, which will be available for download soon at the Center for Digital Business.

I came away from my work on E2.0 at the IC and my interactions with the “Intellipedians” (including Sean Dennehy, Don Burke, Chris Rasmussen, Andrea Baker, and Amy Senger) fervently hoping that Community broadens and deepens its use of emergent social software platforms. 9/11 showed us with undeniable clarity both how important it is to be able to ‘connect the dots’ among available pieces of intelligence, and how ill-suited the Community’s 1.0 legacy technology infrastructure was for facilitating exactly that activity.

So I read the recently-published National Intelligence Strategy of the US with great interest. This document is a statement from the Directorate of National Intelligence (DNI) of the official vision, goals, and objectives of the IC, its Mission Objectives and Enterprise Objectives, and the principles that underlie them. I was eager to see how prominently information sharing and novel modes of collaboration feature in the NIS.

I didn’t have to dig too deep to get my answer. The vision statement on page 2 of NIS is:

“The United States Intelligence Community must constantly strive for and exhibit three characteristics essential to our effectiveness. The IC must be integrated: a team making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. We must also be agile: an enterprise with an adaptive, diverse, continually learning, and mission-driven intelligence workforce that embraces innovation and takes initiative. Moreover, the IC must exemplify America’s values: operating under the rule of law, consistent with Americans’ expectations for protection of privacy and civil liberties, respectful of human rights, and in a manner that retains the trust of the American people.” (emphasis in original)

Excellent – this sounds like an organization that will embrace Enterprise 2.0. And sure enough, the IC’s fourth enterprise objective is “Improve Information Integration and Sharing.” In a bit more detail, this objective is to

Radically improve the application of information technology—to include information management, integration and sharing practices, systems and architectures (both across the IC and with an expanded set of users and partners)—meeting the responsibility to provide information and intelligence, while at the same time protecting against the risk of compromise.

Again, I’m encouraged by this. It restates that the IC has officially shifted its policy from the ‘need to know’ to the ‘responsibility to share’ information. This strikes me as a necessary condition for real change. We’ll have to stay tuned to see if this shift plus the deployment of appropriate ESSPs are sufficient to cause such change.

The only slight grounds for concern I see as I go through the NIS is the impression that the DNI might be thinking that powerful computers running sexy algorithms are the way to respond to today’s threats. I read, for example, that:

The IC must narrow the gap between our capacity to “sense data” and our capabilities to “make sense of data” in handling an exponentially increasing volume and variety of data and information…

The Intelligence Community faces an explosive growth in type and volume of data, along with an exponential increase in the speed and power of processing capabilities.

Does that last sentence as imply that massive processing is the right or best way to “make sense of data,” or the primary way that the IC will attempt to do so? if so, that would be discouraging news.

I absolutely support using using acres of computers to sift through the flood of incoming data and highlight interesting patterns, but we shouldn’t relegate human pattern matching and recognition capabilities to the sidelines in our fight against those who would do us harm. Inside the IC, Enterprise 2.0 means (among other things) letting analysts highlight things that they’ve noticed, and also searching around to see if others have noticed anything similar. It means letting them ask questions or raise concerns to the community at large, then see who responds to them. It means letting them form, refine, and test their hypotheses over time, and so change what they think is important or noteworthy. These are all efforts to “make sense of data.”

People are extraordinarily good at all these things, and ESSPs are powerful tools for helping them do so. Pre-programmed computers, in sharp contrast, are really good at looking for exactly what they’ve been told to look for. The US IC clearly needs more of both capabilities, but my work convinced me that the latter has been historically been emphasized within the Community while the former was not well-supported by technology. It would be an unnecessary and counterproductive shame if this bias continued.

What do you think?  Are you encouraged by how the IC is talking about using technology? What concerns, if any, do you have?  Leave a comment, please, and let us know.

Amy September 17, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Concern #1 – Data and knowledge from non-IC sources (like sousveillance or NGOs) can now be just as valuable (if not more) than the most complex and sophisticated sources and methods of collection and analysis. Integration cannot be limited to just the IC, behind the firewall.

Concern #2 – The vision states the IC must exemplify America's values. What are those values? Are we respectful of human rights enough to fly with those who have beards and are wearing headscarves? No amount of technology or intelligence will ensure our nation's security if we lose sight of the human behaviors and conditions that create threats in the first place.

cdorobek September 18, 2009 at 12:45 pm

Prof. McAfee —
Great post — of course. But also so timely.
It really does seem that the intel community is at a turning point with Intellipedia — and it is a difficult question… do they continue with what has worked… or do they move forward and invest in Intellipedia.
It will be interesting to see how it unfolds.

Chris Rasmussen September 18, 2009 at 3:23 pm

Dr. McAfee: thanks for the shout out.

The DNI’s formal guidance helps, but research has consistently shown that informal culture trumps formal guidance in many cases.

We are at a crucial point with analytic transformation within the IC. The IC’s social media “existence” story was inspiring to many inside and outside of government several years ago. The sentiment was “if the IC can host these tools so can our toothpaste company and we don’t have half the security.” It was amazing that a secretive bureaucracy even hosted these tools in the first place. But after four years one has to ask, what has happened to one of the leaders in Enterprise 2.0 collaboration? I know many like to spin “change takes time” clichés but four years is a long time. That’s high school that undergrad college. Also, this is not a training issue. Training is important but all the tool proficiency training is for knot if the process underneath doesn’t change and does not reward horizontal knowledge co-creation.

Intellipedia, for example, touts some impressive user stats and hosts impressive office, technical and scientific content, but Intellipedia is weak on true social science-like analytic content because not a single agency recognizes Intellipedia or A-Space content “official.” The primary view of most social software-based knowledge is “good for collaboration but not the product. “Products” in the community are agency-specific vertically vetted (chain of command) reports. Each agency is essentially an independent publication center and most interaction between them in the collaborative space is viewed as mere “coordination.”

This product-centric view of intelligence needs to be reformed. My team argues that a move toward “living intelligence” is the appropriate step. We suggest moving the review process into the same place where the collaboration takes place and to view intelligence more as a service rather than a “product.” This would actually replace something and would be fundamental reform. One must ask of any “2.0” effort: what has this replaced and does it provide fundamental or structural change? If the answer is “incremental, nothing, or very little” then you have a marginal revolution. Speeding up the current process has some advantages but in many cases these types of moves often treat symptoms rather than the root cause.

Please take a look at the YouTube video “toward living intelligence” that explains our thesis and solution.

markbrewer September 18, 2009 at 7:06 pm

This is right on. In order to be more competitive or more successful or move faster or solve harder problems, we've got to get more people (more brains) working on the problems. Whatever we can do (2.0 tools and ideas) that makes this go faster and better is something that is moving an organization or team in the right direction.

Atle Iversen September 21, 2009 at 5:00 am

The field of artificial intelligence is very interesting, but it is nowhere near the capabilities of the human brain. Therefore, “powerful computers running sexy algorithms” is not the solution – at least not for the near future (if ever).

However, I agree that computers can and should help us to “make sense of data”, but analyzing the data (or rather, the information) should be left to people. The technology and tools are progressing rapidly, but maybe the amount of data is increasing even faster ?

Mike Dolbec September 21, 2009 at 9:44 am

How We’ll Get Smart, I found this article a very interesting perspective on the use of Enterprise 2.0 technology in the IC.

gstrzok September 22, 2009 at 6:29 am


I am encouraged and pleased with the discussions that are taking place in the IC, and in fact I am a involved with several of many of them.

As for concerns – simply put, I think that the issue we currently face is how do you get that many individual agencies/bureaucracies to make the changes necessary to achieve the provided vision or adopt the enabling tools and practices?

I am not sure there is someone running around with a big enough stick or a bunch of carrots.

jeanmariebonthous September 24, 2009 at 3:03 pm

As a former practitioner of economic intelligence and author of a book (“Revealing the Language of American Business Intelligence”) and several articles on the influence of national culture on economic intelligence, (…) Ive had a chance to verify that, to be effective, intelligence needs to operate in a balanced manner along four dimensions: technical/analytical, synthetic/synergistic, administrative/detailed, and qualitative/interpersonal.

The US culture of intelligence leans excessively towards the first dimension, with an exaggerated in the power of technology, and a chronic difficulty to grasp the underlying human factors. The most balanced approaches to intelligence are found in Sweden, followed by Germany, Japan and France.

A can be expected, the same national cultural blindspot affect how US organizations approach IT implementations.
In the 90s I had a lot of experience with large-scale ERP implementations in the US and Europe. In the US, most corporations expected these systems to create magic and adoption to happen with little effort. In comparison, European companies were a lot more aware of how challenging the human factors would be and invested a lot more in fostering adoption.

I see the same happening with Enterprise 2.0. While everyone in the US says “its 90% about people and 10% about technology, the reality in the field is that its 90% about technology and 10% about people, which results and will keep resulting in huge financial waste.

We in the US have a lot to learn about the central importance of the human factors at play in collecting and processing intelligence, and about how secondary the crunching power is.

And along these lines, we also have to pay greater attention to how central the human factors are that rule adoption of technology.

limboonchuan September 30, 2009 at 8:49 pm

I love their comments, but have you notice that a lot of organizations have lofty and fascinating objectives and aims and normally even have them displayed prominently in their web sites or on plaques etc. But the buck seems to stop there. Hope that I am not too cynical, but the lovelier the mission statements and objectives, the more dismal the execution, it seems to be a inversely proportional relationship between talk and task.

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Pete Modigliani November 15, 2009 at 9:11 pm

Andrew McAfee @mcafee on how the IC should embrace Enterprise 2.0 to overcome critical shortfalls and finally collaborate.

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