5 reasons why DOD should embrace social media (and 5 reasons why not)

5 reasons why DOD should embrace social media …

Debate continues to rage at the Defense Department over the use of social-media tools. We asked some experts to present the arguments on both sides of the debate. Here are the pros.

1. Web 2.0 technology improves collaboration.

The information-sharing culture that is central to social media can open doors to joint efforts. For example, DOD Techipedia lets scientists, engineers, service members and others collaborate and share information.

“Web 2.0 specifically improves ‘open’ collaboration,” said Tim McLaughlin, president of Siteworx, a Web design and development firm. “Most organizations collaborate in a room or by [teleconferencing], especially at the DOD. The Web browser not only makes the invitation of a much wider party possible but it is also more cost-effective.”

Social media is also revolutionizing military operations. “The command and control of the future is command and feedback,” said Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, NATO Supreme Allied Commander-Transformation, at the recent LandWarNet conference. The network-centric approach “creates unity of effort if done right and creates harmony in the fog and friction of war.”

2. It streamlines internal and external communications.

Speedy communications define the modern business era, and DOD’s mission makes it even more of a candidate for streamlining the process. For example, the Intellipedia wiki — which allows federal agencies and national security organizations, including combatant commands, to share sensitive information with one another — “offers one centralized place everyone can get to rather than playing e-mail games back and forth,” said Brock Webb, a computer engineer at the Defense Information Systems Agency.

Social-media tools also help put a human face on DOD. The makeover of Defense.gov includes several interactive features to engage visitors, and the Facebook pages of various military organizations boast hundreds of thousands of “fans” who discuss their interests with one another on page “walls.”

“These tools change the way people look at the organization and the way people look at information,” said Michael Piller, experiential learning manager at National Defense University’s Information Resources Management College.

3. It costs little or nothing to use.

Many organizations are drawn to social-media technology because of its low overhead. At NASA, scientists developing Ares, the new manned spacecraft, use Facebook to collaborate with colleagues at different locations — for free. NASA also created an inexpensive in-house tool called Spacebook using many open-source applications.

Some companies have developed Web 2.0 tools specifically to replace traditional server-based software and deliver them as low-cost or free services, said Michael Sutton, vice president of security research at Zscaler. Google’s Gmail is one example.

“While enterprises historically needed to purchase software-based e-mail solutions, they now have the option to leverage an enterprise version of Gmail and pay on a per-user basis,” he said.

4. It has the potential to attract to young recruits to DOD.

Social networking’s explosive popularity has outpaced traditional recruiting strategies. “Social media is gradually, but at an increasing pace, becoming the default for information exchange,” said Les Benito, public Web director at DOD’s Defense Media Activity.

DOD has thousands of online followers through Defense.gov and various Facebook pages. The sites allow DOD to share information on benefits and signing bonuses, warfighters’ personal experiences, and the latest military news.

“Our guys are telling their stories and putting it out there themselves,” Benito said. “Service members are the best messengers, and they need the access and tools.”

In addition, the new technology is allowing deployed service members to keep in closer touch with their friends and families than ever before.

5. It’s highly portable.

Concerns about the disruptions caused by natural and man-made disasters, including a potential swine-flu outbreak, are prompting DOD and other agencies to explore ways for employees to work from home. Web 2.0 technology is an obvious solution. For example, if employees use a wiki to collaborate on a project, they can access that application anywhere via the Internet.

However, portability is not always a simple solution. If the wiki is hosted on a secure network — as DOD Techipedia is — administrators must make that network accessible to employees at remote locations without compromising security.

“As DOD personnel need more ubiquitous access to data and systems from wherever they are — such as on their iPhone in a foreign country — security will have to keep up to make sure data is protected as access becomes portable,” said Ryan LaSalle, director of research and development for national security programs at Accenture Technology Labs.

Fortunately, the new technology has the potential to simplify security issues. “Web 2.0 tools provide application flexibility that could keep up with these security parameters in a way that traditional rigid applications could not,” LaSalle added.

But concerns about security aren’t going away that fast — see next page.

… and 5 reasons why it shouldn’t

1. Sensitive information is on the public Internet.

In an increasingly network-centric government and military, a single information leak could jeopardize homeland security on a grand scale.

“We are facing the most serious economic and national security challenge of the 21st century,” said Robert Carey, the Navy Department’s chief information officer. Because social networking doesn’t adhere to DOD’s paradigm for security, “it presents a major conundrum.”

The numbers are staggering: On any given day, DOD’s Web users total more than 7 million at 15,000 locations in 100 countries, said Tom Conway, director of federal development at McAfee. “It’s a battle between utility and security, but we need to balance both,” he added.

2. The tools can make it difficult to comply with federal regulations.

One advantage of Web 2.0 technology is that customers do not have to manage the software or hardware it runs on. But that lack of control is also a hurdle.

For example, government regulations require agencies to maintain records of employees’ work after they leave an agency. However, once a user closes a Web-based account such as Gmail, all the data is gone. Thomas Jones, deputy chief technology officer for the District of Columbia, said the district had to build a front-end system for its Web-based mail program to capture and save employees’ data.

Furthermore, having to search across multiple Web 2.0 sites can make it difficult for agencies to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.

3. The technology lacks standards.

Web 2.0 is more of a philosophy than an architecture. Standards are emerging, but they are far from mature.

“Integration is never really easy, but it’s getting a lot easier to do things with data and people that were tremendously hard or expensive just a couple years ago,” LaSalle said.

For example, enterprise mashups, which combine data from different sources into one online tool, are gravitating toward a software architecture called Representational State Transfer, and a Google-led consortium and open-source organizations are competing to create a single standard for social computing, he said.

4. Sharing personal information can put employees at risk.

Tools like Techipedia give users the ability to quickly share information and ideas. However, allowing employees to post to public sites such as Twitter and Facebook without some kind of parameters is dangerous, said Ali Manouchehri, chief executive officer of MetroStar Systems.

For example, a DOD employee could put himself and others at risk by tweeting about his day. “Adversaries with poor intent can target federal workers by knowing their routine through following them through a social-media outlet,” Manouchehri said. “Protecting your privacy is certainly an aspect to take into account, and the risk can be detected, mitigated and deterred by following mission-oriented rules of engagement.”

5. The tools demand a lot of bandwidth.

All the tools require access to the Internet, and some of the newest ones can be bandwidth hogs.

“If you look at the number of organizations that have banned YouTube not for concerns over content or lost productivity but because of network quality-of-service issues, the Web 2.0 camp needs to be more worried about the availability for large pipes almost everywhere,” said Jeff Nigriny, president of CertiPath.

Furthermore, many employees need to have access to Web 2.0 tools even when they’re working off-line, LaSalle said. Technologies such as Google Gears seek to provide that service. It’s a browser extension that allows users to navigate certain sites off-line and sync up their activities when they reconnect to the Internet.

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