Intell's wiki pied piper

GenXer Chris Rasmussen argues that Web 2.0, like Intellipedia, can help break barriers

Christian Rasmussen File

Position: Knowledge management officer at the National Geospatial- Intelligence Agency.

Background: Grew up in Southern California in the 1980s. “I’m kind of a tailgunner for GenX,” he said.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in history from California State University at Fullerton and a master’s in national security studies from California State University at San Bernardino.

Family: He is the oldest of four children in his family and has two sisters and a brother.

Outside interests: He enjoys reading and movies, playing basketball and attending sporting events.

Management tip: “In this environment, lead by example. That’s how you earn credibility in this community.

Make contributions, blog, reply to comments, tag content, get in there, like Gen. Cartwright, and lead by example.” [Former Strategic Command leader Marine Gen. James Cartwright was a frequent blogger.]

Editor's note: This story was updated at 5:50 p.m. Dec. 17, 2007. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has changed.

Christian Rasmussen, 32, is a new kind of government leader. His employer is the National Geospatial- Intelligence Agency, but most of the time Rasmussen practices his tradecraft in a collaborative workspace where intelligence analysts virtually rub shoulders with analysts from other U.S. intelligence agencies.

That virtual secure workplace, named Intelink, is not in a federal building, but is on the Web. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence acts as a virtual building manager in the sense that it hosts the suite of Web applications that a growing number of intelligence analysts use daily. One of the applications is Intellipedia, a wiki for sharing information on topics related to national security.

“Chris is one of the lead users of Intellipedia, and he’s a prolific blogger in the community,” said Sean Dennehy, chief of Intellipedia development at the CIA.

Dennehy said Rasmussen also contributed to the development of Intelink’s social bookmarking software, Tag Connect, one of the “big three” applications in the Intelink workspace, alongside Intellipedia and intelligence blogs. Tag Connect enables analysts to discover other analysts who are working on the same topics — conditions in Pakistan, for example — and to read articles on that country they have bookmarked and tagged “Pakistan.”

“All my colleagues out there who are working on similar stuff, they’re finding all this stuff and they’re tagging it,” Rasmussen said. “So they’re acting as my personal search engine, and I’m acting as their personal search engine.”

Rasmussen said analysts should share their bookmarks with other analysts, which social bookmarking lets them do. “Wouldn’t you like to see the Web sites that Einstein visited?” he asked. “That’s kind of the idea behind social bookmarking.”

That idea leads Rasmussen to an observation about a new culture that is developing among intelligence analysts who use Web 2.0 tools, such as social bookmarking and Intellipedia. It’s a culture in which intellectual property rights aren’t applicable, Rasmussen said.

A lot of Intellipedians have that mind-set, he added, which is not to say that analysts can’t be passionate about the topics they are researching. But they don’t own those topics, Rasmussen said.

The size of the intelligence community is a classified number, but the number of Intellipedia accounts — 37,000 — is not classified information, Rasmussen said. Community members can access Intellipedia from three separate networks: top secret, secret and unclassified.

“The top 30 editors on all three networks generally contribute up to 30 percent to 40 percent of the content,” Rasmussen said, so the number of Intellipedia accounts can be deceiving. “It’s a small group of gardeners right now that are the real advocates for it that are generating most of the content.”

The same is true of Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia, which has a relatively small number of primary editors.

Intellipedians are not all members of Generation X and Generation Y, Rasmussen said. “Some of the top editors have been in the community for 25 years and just see a better way to do business,” he said. “The generalization that it’s just a bunch of young people — that’s not accurate.”

Although the most senior-level leaders in the intelligence community are not active contributors to Intellipedia, they would be welcome, Rasmussen said.

Marine Gen. James Cartwright, former leader of the Strategic Command, was exceptional for his interest in social networking.”

He was on a system that was specific to Strategic Command, but the philosophy there is the same,” Rasmussen said. “People with the inform atio n, regardless of title or rank, need to get that [information] to whoever needs to know it. You would see [enlisted service members] interacting with him signing his name ‘Hoss’ with four stars. That’s the kind of leadership and interaction that we want to see.”

Rasmussen said he personally finds that the Intelink tools make him more productive.

For example, he no longer receives the volume of e-mail that used to overwhelm his inbox. With the time Rasmussen saves by using e-mail less, he monitors 300 Intellipedia pages daily using a function in Intellipedia named Watch This Page.

“If you find something of interest, you hit Watch, it’s put on your watch list, and every time you click into your watch list, the changes are in bold and highlighted,” Rasmussen said. “They give you the option to click in and see the differences and who did them and at what time, so everything is attributable and recorded.”

The fact that Intellipedia attributes every contribution is one of the secrets of its success in the intelligence community, said Bruce McConnell, president of McConnell International, a consulting company. “There’s ego gratification in providing great edits, so that you become a recognized contributor.”

That’s how Rasmussen has become a leader. “Where you sit doesn’t necessarily dictate where you stand in this environment,” he said.

The environment in which Rasmussen loves to work isn’t so successful that it doesn’t have to prove itself. “This is so new for everyone,” he said. He can point to a couple of examples of well-sourced articles based on Intellipedia, but nothing spectacular that might persuade all who doubt its efficacy. “We’re winning thousands of small victories.” But for some, that’s not enough.

“People are looking for the national intelligence estimate that catches bin Laden and that will prove Intellipedia works.”

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