The CIA's Collaboration Growth Curve & IBM's Lotusphere ecosystem

One of the highlights of last June's Enterprise 2.0 conference was Don Burke and Sean Dennehy of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) describing how their 'Intellipedia' wikis were transforming the agency into a more collaborative organization: that presentation is embedded above.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor on

One of the highlights of last June's Enterprise 2.0 conference was Don Burke and Sean Dennehy of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) describing how their 'Intellipedia' wikis were transforming the agency into a more collaborative organization: that presentation is embedded above.

Ten months later Time magazine picked up the story - 'CIA discovers Web 2.0' - noting the system, which was started in '06, 'has grown to a 900,000-page magnum opus of espionage, handling some 100,000 user accounts and 5,000 page edits a day, according to the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. '

There are three security levels: unclassified, secret and top secret.  The latter is currently the most active area with 439,387 pages and 57,248 user accounts according to the Time article. The whole thing is ultra secure and deep inside Intelink, the classified system which connects the 16 US spy agencies and links to the U.S. military, Department of State and other associated agencies.

Despite steady growth and increasing use patterns, Intellipedia is ultimately essentially a collaboration environment around the existing process of US intelligence analysts creating 'National Intelligence Estimate' (NIEs) documents which are essentially peer review, command and control positioning papers.

...Greg Treverton, director of the Rand Corp. Center for Global Risk and Security, says the problem isn't that Intellipedia can't produce NIEs but that decision makers rely too heavily on such reports to begin with. "There's much too much concentration on finished intelligence," Treverton says. "Intelligence analysis should be a sense-making exercise, a process of working on problems and trying to get sharper at them. Intellipedia is ideal for that. If you slice it at any given time, you are saying, 'Here is the best state of understanding at the moment.'

The Collaboration Curve

John Hagel III, John Seely Brown (JSB), and Lang Davison discuss their concept of 'the collaboration curve' on harvardbusiness.org, and there are some interesting parallels to the cultural and process challenges of the CIA's historically deep rooted processes, as they relate to Intellipedia.

There's a classic story in economics primers illustrating the power of network effects. It tells how the first fax machine gave little value to its owner--after all, there was no one else with whom to send and receive faxes. As time went by, however, the value of that first machine increased as other people bought fax machines, and soon its owner could send faxes to the far corners of the earth, and receive them in return.

The point of the story is how the value of a node in a network rises exponentially as more nodes are added to it. These are called network effects.

Now let's add a twist to the story. What would happen if, at the same time more fax machines joined the network, each machine rapidly improved its performance? The result would be an amplifying effect on the first level of exponential performance. One exponential effect occurs from growth in the number of nodes. A second amplifying effect arises from the improving performance of the machines themselves.

Fax machines, of course, don't perform better as you add more of them to a network. But people and institutions do. And that's where the concept of network effects gets more interesting--when we apply it to how people might perform better.

Perhaps a limitation of parts of CIA methodology - the honing of finely tuned positioning intelligence estimate documents - could benefit from this type of thinking. A keiretsu approach of interlocking relationships with intellipedia as an enabling component...

The evidence for the collaboration curve is, as yet, mostly anecdotal. But these curves may explain the rise of network-centric efforts ranging from open source software development to "crowdsourcing" to "networks of creation." In nearly all of these group efforts, rapid leaps in performance improvement arise as participants get better faster by working with others. These leaps in performance describe the shape and power of the collaboration curve, a new force in our professional and personal lives that turns the experience curve on its side, and explains why the whole of us, working, playing, and, learning together, can often be greater than the sum of our parts.

IBM's Lotusphere Circus visits town

I spent this morning at the 'Lotusphere Comes to You' roadshow event in San Francisco: IBM do a great job of putting on an annual product evangelism event (visiting what seems like most places on the planet) to spread the word on their Lotus ecosphere.

I was musing on the idea that the agility of modern enterprise collaboration techniques and technologies are arguably far more powerful when consciously assembled to achieve given objectives, as opposed to people attempting to work within the manufactured framework of a product suite, when watching the Lotus demos.

In truth though IBM have done a great job of rolling up the innovation of the Enterprise 2.0 movement and 'blue washing' it: the future product line looks very slick and wel thought through even if  everything was presented  as if originated in IBM's labs.

The caveat is that most of what they are offering is available today for a fraction of the cost, and even from IBM partners such as SocialText, where the IBM roadmap shows initial roll out of product later this year.

The legacy issues of upgrading from earlier versions complicate things, but many of those attending the event, studiously handwriting notes from the slide decks quoting Mike Gotta of the Burton Group and other E2.0 luminaries, were clearly in the 'no one ever got fired for buying IBM' camp.

I always enjoy talking to the real and potential customers at these events - it's easy to forget just how complicated life in the IT trenches is for these currently mostly budget constrained people. The main concern I heard was seat license costs.

Like the CIA's limitations, most big companies are a combination of legacy bureaucracy and a percentage of innovators. I was hoping to hear something about how the new IBM  Business Analytics & Optimization Services might intersect with the Lotus collaboration juggernaut but it is too early for that conversation publically. That has the potential to be a very powerful, game changing advantage for IBM's vast suite of offerings...

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