The value of social software: More help from unexpected quarters

Some months ago I referred people to a document produced by the US Department of Defense on opensource.

The very existence of the document intrigued me, given its source. I guess I didn’t feel that an organisation like the DoD was likely to be open-minded about opensource. Shows how wrong I can be.

I said I was intrigued. And I began dreaming of what ifs.

What if I was trying to convince people of the value of social software, what kind of organisation would I like to see as a “poster child”? What kind of “reference site” would make people sit up and think “Hey, there’s something going on here, and we want some of it?”

And I thought to myself. We really need a poster child that fulfils the following characteristics:

  • Very command-and-control, very hierarchical
  • A global brand with high brand recognition amongst the Fortune/FTSE/DAX/CAC whatevers
  • Known worldwide for its secretiveness and hush-hush-ness as well
  • So silo-ed that its right hand really didn’t know what its left hand was doing
  • In fact so silo-ed that it didn’t know there was a right hand and left hand, or wouldn’t admit to it
  • A business that had a demonstrably high reliance on quality information
  • Operating in multiple geographies, timezones, cultures and languages
  • Wondering how to reinvent itself as the world seemed to change faster and faster

If we could find this elusive poster child, then we would all find it easier to demonstrate the value of social software to C-level executives in major organisations worldwide.

I told you I’d been dreaming.

Well, I stuck that dream in the back of my head. Filed under wait-and-see-because-truth-is-stranger-than-fiction.

Then, a few days ago, while walking around the blogosphere, following a trail laid by Mark Berthelemy, I found an interesting document. Not sure which of the people he links to mentioned it, but it was there somewhere. So thanks, Mark.

Maybe, maybe, we have the possibility of finding that elusive poster child. Just maybe.
Titled The Wiki and the Blog: Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community, it is written by D. Calvin Andrus of the CIA.

CIA. Interesting. Let’s see how they do against my “poster child” checklist. Command and Control. Hierarchy. Global brand. Secretive. Business based on information. Global multicultural operation. Desperately needing to reinvent itself. Etc etc. Hmmmm.

It’s quite an interesting paper, particularly since it is written for an environment that could not be more hostile towards openness and collaboration, hostile by design and by nature.

The bibliography is also interesting; A reference to George W Bush is a sine qua non, so no surprise. I’d expect to see references to Claude Shannon and Alan Turing and Benoit Mandelbrot and Bob Metcalfe. Even Adam Smith. I’d only be mildly surprised to see Steven Johnson and Deborah Gordon, and only slightly more surprised to see Ward Cunningham – Bo Leuf and Larry Downes – Chunka Mui. But I wouldn’t expect such a document to refer to Jane Jacobs, what a delightful surprise.
Within the document (and I’ve only read the 30-page version) Calvin Andrus dismisses classical reorganisations as variants of Titanic deckchair rearranging; provides a reasonable summary of the critical success factors of complex adaptive systems, and even suggests a technology stack that has active feedback loops at the top of the stack…..
Some of it may seem Social Software 101, but do remember the audience it was written for. We are not in the business of preaching to the converted, but in converting those who can’t or won’t listen. I have definitely learnt from it, and a number of you may find it useful as well.
If the CIA, or for that matter any major grouping of intelligence services, can truly grasp the value of social software, then there is hope for all of us. I look forward to finding out more about this experiment, and will try and get in touch with the author.

3 thoughts on “The value of social software: More help from unexpected quarters”

  1. Social software in the Army, introduced by company commanders, later brought into the system:

    (Sounds like a social software adoption story from a large company.)

    The Bad Guys use social software too, and disrupting the adversary’s communications is key. Should the DoD be enlisting the Slashdot trolls and sending them to the Defense Language Institute?

  2. I have not met Andrus; but, as a result of a project I was involved with last year (which did not require any of its members having a Security Clearance), I had the opportunity to meet and talk with some very bright people in the CIA. These people are “intelligence analysts;” and their sense of the subtleties of interpretation is probably sharper than any literature professor I know. The first of these analysts I met actually ran into me while I was scanning in a copy of Gibbon for some experiments we were running in an area we were calling “productive reading.” After bouncing around between Gibbon and Homer, we moved into the twentieth century and discovered that we both saw great value in the Neustad-May book THINKING IN TIME. Then I gave him a lead to a paper he had never encountered, which was a study of the role of reading in politicial decision-making in Elizabethan England. This is not the sort of conversation you generally have in an IT setting, even in the research division!

    So much for the good news. In case you have not heard, the intelligence analysts have taken most of the heat from the White House, first for failing to “connect the dots” before 9/11 (a myth that is now blown out of the water but that Bush supporters now are trying to perpetuate with the assistance of Disney) and then for not telling the White House what it wanted to hear about Iraq (connections to weapons of mass destruction and Al-Qaeda). There has even been talk of cutting back on the budget for the analysts and putting more money into field agents (perhaps under the assumption that the best way to win the War on Terror is to hire more James Bonds).

    This is my way of saying that Andrus is a very smart guy. Even if I am not familiar with him, specifically, I know enough about the company he keeps to know that he covers more ground than that between Adam Smith and Steven Johnson. My guess is that you could tap him on the pre-Socratics and probably has a pretty interesting set of RSS feeds. Unfortunately, his is still a voice in the wilderness; and, even more unfortunately, it is a wilderness that his own employer has made.

    By the way, if you are interested, there is a whole text on intelligence analysis on the CIA Web site. I met the author, and he is another very smart guy. He does not talk specifically about social software, but it is clear from the text that the best analysis arises from intense engagement with other analysts!

Let me know what you think