Feds look to ants, wikis and blogs

The intelligence community can learn from the behavior of ant colonies to improve information sharing -- and it can use wikis and blogs, a CIA official said today.

The intelligence community must respond more quickly to maintain tactical and strategic advantage over adversaries, said Calvin Andrus, chief technology officer at the CIA’s Center for Mission Innovation.

“We’re not in an arms race with our adversaries -- it’s a time race,” Andrus said at the E-Gov/FCW Events Knowledge Management 2006 conference in Washington, D.C.

Reorganizing is not the answer because that presumes the past can predict the future, Andrus said. The future is becoming increasingly unpredictable as decisions involve more complex interactions of information and as faster communications technology accelerates the decision-making cycle, he said. The intelligence community must change quickly in ways that it cannot predict, he added.

That’s where ant colonies can play a role. Complexity theory states that complex, adaptive group behavior can be built by having individuals follow simple behaviors, Andrus said.

In an ant colony, each ant knows a few rules -- move dirt, carry a pupa, find food -- and uses them to react in various situations, Andrus said. If too many ants are carrying pupae, others will go find food on their own without looking to the queen for direction or permission.

In a similar way, Andrus said, “we need intelligence officers who just go do." They can't do that if they have to ask for permission every time they want to share information, he said. “It’s about letting employees be free to share and act” and trusting them to follow simple rules of engagement.

Wikis and blogs allow real-time analysis and reaction to intelligence information to occur as quickly as users can update information, Andrus said. “It just happens, just like an ant hill happens."

Blogs can be used to track and share individuals’ intellectual capital, especially their disagreements and mistakes, Andrus said. Wikis can aggregate common knowledge and wisdom, he said, and they don’t require participants to get permission to act or update.

“Wikis and blogs allow us to stand on the shoulders of others and have brilliant ideas we would not have had otherwise in the service of protecting our country,” Andrus said.

The CIA already has more than 1,000 internal blogs and an internal wiki with about 10,000 pages, Andrus said. To encourage employees to release information, the agency had to change its policy forbidding the posting of any information on its network, he said.

Many organizations are including meeting minutes and first drafts of report in wikis, Andrus said. “There’s a point where technology disrupts the old way of working,” he said. Wikis and blogs will change the intelligence communities forever once a classified network for them is in place and enough people are using them, he added.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence must build an incentive and reward structure to change the organization’s business model to incorporate wikis and blogs, Andrus said.

Wikis and blogs are as essential as e-mail and word processing for 21st-century organizations, Andrus said. “Gen-Y-ers have it down."

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