I spent the day yesterday at Enterprise 2.0 in Boston, all in all a fascinating day and great conference, but what caught my attention was a presentation by two representatives of the CIA, and I’m not talking about the Culinary Institute of America, but *the* CIA, as in the preeminent intelligence gathering organization in the U.S. It seems that the CIA has found that the wiki is a very efficient way to analyze large amounts of information and has dubbed their offering: Intellipedia. Fancy that.
According to speakers Don Burke, who has the very cool title of Intellipedia Doyen (which is defined, by the way, as a senior member of a group—I had to look that one up) and Sean Dennehy, who has the less lofty title of Intellipedia Evangelist, the wiki seemed like a natural fit for a community of intelligence analysts to share information.
But getting his colleagues to see this was not always easy at first. As you would expect in any large organization with a tendency towards institutional inertia, there was a pretty hard push-back and it was even more pronounced in the charged environment of intelligence gathering. In fact, back in 2006 when they were trying to just broach the idea of a wiki, they were accused of being nuts, and worse, of risking the lives of operatives in the field.
But Burke told the old joke about Wikipedia: ‘It doesn’t work in theory, only in practice.’ He had the foresight to see the similarities in the intelligence gathering process and how these would apply in a wiki. He especially liked the History tab, which provides an audit trail of who touched the document and when. For an agency that is often asked what did you know and when did you know it, this could prove invaluable.
The CIA chose the MediaWiki platform, the very same one that powers Wikepedia. They have divided it into three areas of access. Sensitive but unclassified, Secret and Top Secret and as you would expect you need credentials to pass through each of these gates. Further, some employees can read only, while others can edit and join the conversation. Intellipedia is actually a platform, a collection of tools including ones to share documents, photos, video (in a YouTube style Flash environment), linking, RSS subscription services and of course search technology to search for information.
It’s still very much a work in progress in the early adopter phase, but Burke says for a group of people who are not dealing with hard facts, but with puzzles and mysteries, being able to put ideas up on a page, then discuss and debate the merits of each one could be extremely valuable. He adds that it brings other social computing elements into the mix with the goal of moving from a “community of agencies to a community of analysts.” And as Burke points a relationship starts with a first name.
The CIA, for all the connotations that go with the name, is not altogether that different from any large organization looking for more efficient ways to process and share large amounts of information and a social computing environment offers a way there. Burke and Dennehy recommend starting small and working your way towards larger goals (as with any culture-changing technology implementation), but if an organization like the CIA can embrace social computing, it seems as though private enterprises should be too.