CIA first scoffs at, then embraces, collaborative technologies

BOSTON?When a proposal surfaced to introduce the use of wikis and blogs in the intelligence community, the idea was met with skepticism, to say the least.

Comments about the proposal's author were harsh, said Don Burke, a proponent of Enterprise 2.0 at the CIA.

"We all looked at him and said this guy is crazy ? this guy is certifiable," Burke said at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference. "We just went through 9/11, through Iraq, and now this guy is saying we can go and make edits in the middle of the night on a wiki page?"

But after further examination, Burke and other members of the intelligence community realized the idea wasn't so crazy. In fact, wikis ? which give users the ability to edit encyclopedia entries ? and blogs bring a level of collaboration and teamwork many intelligence officers want. That led to the creation of Intellipedia, a system that uses the same software as Wikipedia but is built specifically for the intelligence community.

Burke is the Intellipedia doyen at the CIA. In many ways, the skepticism Intellipedia faces is similar to what Wikipedia faced.

"The joke about Wikipedia is it doesn't work in theory, it only works in practice," he said.

Now the intelligence community is discovering that the fledgling Intellipedia also works in practice, said Sean Dennehy, Inetellipedia evangelist at the CIA.

Dennehy has more than 15 years of experience in various elements of the U.S. intelligence community. He developed a sabbatical program that introduces intelligence community officers to the numerous Web 2.0 applications being deployed on multiple intelligence networks.

One Wikipedia feature that was attractive to the intelligence community is the back-and-forth debate that happens among editors of encyclopedia entries. A place for intelligence officers to debate topics fits well with the way they are used to working, Burke said.

In Intellipedia, edits to an entry are dated and attributed to the person who made the edit. That kind of record is important to agencies such as the CIA, Dennehy said. "In the intelligence community, we are often asked, 'What did you know, and when did you know it?' " he said.

Intellipedia exists in three networks: unclassified, classified and top secret. It allows anyone with access to those networks to read the information but only lets authenticated users make edits.

Tools include intelligence blogs, Web-enabled shared drives, photos and a video service similar to YouTube.

"It allows people to share videos very quickly and easily," Burke said. "It dramatically improves the way we can do that?. Before, we didn't know if the recipient of the video had the right player or application or whether the file could be passed through a firewall. Now we just upload the video to this, and away you go."

For government organizations and other enterprises considering implementing something like Intellipedia, Burke recommends thinking beyond how Wikipedia works. For example, the tool does not have to be just an encyclopedia. It can also be a place for teams to debate ideas.

In the intelligence community, for example, Intellipedia is used as a place to examine issues from various angles and perspectives to determine what the agencies are dealing with.

"We want to get to the point where everybody is contributing their knowledge," Dennehy said. "We are nowhere near that point now. We are still in the early-adopter phase."

At this point, getting greater adoption is more a cultural problem than a technology problem. Emphasizing that Web 2.0 is a good way to share important data is one way to gain new adopters, Dennehy said. It is also effective at limiting duplicated efforts. If one user sees that information about a topic already exists, he doesn't waste time re-authoring that same information. But if the user has a new perspective on the topic, he can add that information.

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