What I Learned (about KM and social media) in Military School

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Situation: You are thinking about introducing social media into a challenging environment.

We recently spoke with Dennis Cornell, Chief, Project Management Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Defense Information School.   Dennis, along with his colleague and resident social media expert, Army Staff Sergeant Joshua Salmons, answered a few questions about how social media is being used in their secure military environment.

Q.  Your role, being responsible for strategic planning and maintenance at the Defense Information School really puts you on the hot seat for learning about and appropriately implementing anything new that changes how you deal with "information" in general.   Do you have a process for deciding what to experiment with and what you eventually have people use as a matter of policy?

Dealing with changes in technology and making decisions on what to use and when to implement is one of the bigger challenges within a military environment, especially here at the school where we are so technology dependent.  When my job was mainly focused on the IT world, it was critical to be an internet research junkie.  Up to 20% of any given day dealt with researching technology whether it was a new application, a new hardware set, or a new policy governing a particular technology.  Life on the DoD’s NIPRnet is filled with restrictions and policies that make it difficult to find that 90% solution that meets the school’s requirements for communication and information sharing.  Adding to the difficulty of implementing a common platform is that most people use a lot of different tools outside of the workplace. 

Being on the so called “hot seat” means having to filter a lot of ideas of those that see a tool for its “cool factor” and focusing on the tools that meet the needs of the organization as a whole.  Then it becomes a matter of examining the new, fancy tool to see if it holds any benefit for internal operations, if it needs to be included in the “here’s what’s out there” list, or if it’s yet another product.

We do have an internal development network that allows us to test new applications that are either recommended by leadership or through our planning team.  We use the DINFOS staff to provide feedback during our test and evaluation approach before any decision to implement into the live environment is made.  The difficulty is with applications that we cannot host internally.  External policies of the DoD play a huge role in whether or not those applications can be leveraged as a resource for information sharing.  Many of the current social media tools are on the “blocked” list within the DoD community.  The challenge then becomes a matter of having an exception granted and proving to the decision makers at the DoD level that the tool not only is vital to mission success, but that it poses no threat to the DoD network.

Q.  What does a power Social Network user look like at the DOD? Is it the
"Coolness" of the apps that attracts them or is the functionality?

I’m going to call on the school’s Social Media guru, Army Staff Sergeant Joshua Salmons to give you the “cool” answer for this. 

From Joshua Salmons:
“I’m going to define the DoD power social network user as someone who has a healthy knowledge of social media and IT, who knows how SM can augment the public affairs mission and which precautions should always be exercised when speaking to the public.

Basically, the power user is a social media advocate and is well versed in explaining the value of these new applications. These individuals have endured constant conflict with nay-saying bureaucrats and doubters and are very sharp on the monetary-, labor- and process-saving benefits to social media applications.   People who are drawn to apps just because they look cool aren’t power users.  A big part of leveraging social media apps in the workplace is user adoption. Functionality alone does not ensure widespread use amongst the masses. Applications should have a certain coolness or sexiness to them—meaning function should meld with form and interface to exude gestalt.

When Xerox engineers first developed the mouse and graphic user interface, company execs dismissed the “cool” new technologies. They said computers were for professionals, there was no need for anything to make them more accessible. Steve Jobs bought the idea for the mouse and GUI and, today, Apple products are still very artistic in their design in addition to their functionality. In turn, they attract an extremely ardent following.”

Q.  Do you use any of the older (what we used to call groupware) collaboration apps within the DOD?  What do you see as potential replacements for them and why?

I’ve been a Sharepoint user since 2001.  I first introduced it into the school as a means of sharing documents and collaborating in a single-source environment.  With the latest version of Sharepoint, some of the more common social media tools have been implemented.  This has allowed us to grow a wiki-like applications which we’ve named the DINFOPEDIA.  This tool has allowed us to more readily share information internally.  One of things that the school has had to overcome with collaborative tools is the old school mentality of knowledge is power, and if it’s my knowledge then I also have job security. 

There are numerous portal products on the market and new ones being developed all the time.  While I don’t foresee implementing or find a replacement for our current platform, if there is a tool that provides the greater than 90% solution and is cost effective, I’m sure it will be something that I recommend for test and evaluation.


Q.  Are any leading edge applications used to collaborate between agencies at the DOD?  Are there any used for collaboration with outside organizations, suppliers or vendors that work particularly well?

Platforms like Intelink are becoming places where dozens of agencies can contribute toward projects at various levels of classification.  The biggest advocate for collaborative communication in the early part of the decade was the Army with its push to have all service members use the common platform Army Knowledge Online.  The DoD piggy-backed on what the Army did and followed AKO with their version called the Defense Knowledge Online (DKO).  Both provide email service, file sharing, and discussion groups.  They are very expansive portal systems which, in my opinion, have grown to the level of actually being overwhelming. 

Q.  What Web 2.0 or social networking application do you see the biggest
potential for within the DOD?

If I had to pick one, I’d say wikis. Given the transitory nature of the military, the opportunity to store and transmit tacit knowledge is amazing. Policies, field manuals, regulations, personal tips from vets can all be collected, organized and given out where it’s needed. The monetary savings on printed material would be worth it alone. The benefit of current, up-to-date TTPs, regs or even phone rosters—all secured as appropriate, of course, is great!
Posted on: March 30, 2009 12:47 PM | Permalink

Comments (2)

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I must concur with Mr. Cornell and Mr. Salmons on the subject of wikis. These resources, while often not considered ''''substantive'''' by graduate schools, provide endless other resources in their bibliographies for further research, and a ''''first glimpse'''' into current thinking by colleagues.

I think their attempt at official content is refreshing. The latitude allowed by publishing on the Internet is nothing less a brilliance-enhancer, or mental-enzyme, bringing synthetic thinking into the realm of those of us not in the academic realm.

The fact that the Army has been using Social Media for some time was not within my knowledge set. I am pleased that the DoD and Army have furthered the Internet''''s uses, even to the ''''level of actually being overwhelming!'''' (Cornell, Salmons, this article). Army Knowledge Online sounds to me a paradox in such a stratified environment. Nonetheless, its use there validates its value in most any context where work must be completed on a timeline. In my experience, the level of intensity to which a timeline is kept often proportionally dictates the final level of user adoption of workplace collaborative tools in any environment.

That intensity is by definition strict in a military environment. The limits on knowledge sharing that must be imposed to obtain or maintain a military advantage are a test of the control that technology can exert on its own flexibility. In this regard, this testing of the limits of a technology''''s controls of itself very nearly defines the word ''''military.''''

I appreciate Mr. Salmon''''s summary: ''''function should meld with form and interface to exude gestalt'''' which summarizes the more fully explicated: ''''A big part of leveraging social media apps in the workplace is user adoption. Functionality alone does not ensure widespread use amongst the masses. Applications should have a certain coolness or sexiness to them.''''

What needs to be understood about ''''functionality'''' is that the level of functionality relates to the sense of effectiveness gained by the app''''s use, ''''sexy'''' being a richer form of the term ''''ease of use''''. If the interface when used is problematic, it does not have ''''ease of use'''' and, certainly, is not ''''sexy.'''' Anything that merges with the user''''s abilities well enough to become ''''intuitive,'''' is ''''sexy'''' and therefore eminently usable. ''''Sexy'''' is the far end of a spectrum of ''''unusable'''' to ''''usable.''''

In a production environment, the operators learn to use tools; such that, when approaching a task, they intuitively know what tool to use. If in the process of being ''''productive,'''' operators sense they must use the social app to communicate, to prevent recurring misuses of resources, or provide repetitively accessed information, they have ''''adopted'''' the app.

Creating this event should be the goal of any software developer, and maintaining its frequency in the applicable context, the software engineer''''s. For project managers, the goals are to keep the two of these connected to each other''''s context, timeline and limitations.


Thanks Allison. I love the follow-up. What may (or not) surprise folks is that our most successful "social media" tool has been a wiki site. Being able leverage the tool as a knowledge management enabler has been the most embraced functional tool that we have deployed. With the constant turnover of organizational personnel, mainly our military staff, the need to capture their success has been vital to our mission success. I really feel fortunate that I have a guy like Josh Salmons working for me. He is of the "new generation" era that eats and sleeps social media and is really our focal point in the social media transformation of our organization. I guess in the world of technology, sometimes "sexy" can be a PM's portal of opportunity!!

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