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16 October 2007

No maps – but perhaps guides – for these territories

One of the under-examined aspects in the adaptation of new web n.0 technologies to the intelligence community has been the potential utility of social bookmarking (in the model of del.icio.us and other related sites.) This has been in part remedied in the most recent Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, in an interesting article on the “The Application of Social Bookmarking Technology to the National Intelligence Domain”. The authors come out of the Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program, a fascinating group that has done good work assisting characterization of the trends in global terrorism from an outsider and OSINT perspective. (We continue to be fascinated at what role these sorts of projects have in exploring and validating analytical tradecraft in new contexts, and against new problem sets. We can think of no better example of this within the community itself than NCTC/Worldwide Incidents of Terrorism.)

What is interesting is that the concept of shared pointers to interesting and useful information sources is by no means a new thing within the intelligence community. Methods of such sharing – from the humble file card to the group email list – have had a long and successful history. Most, however, occur below the surface of recognition under the general rubric of mentorship. But it is clear who has such connectivity and sharing, and who doesn’t, when one compares analysts’ knowledge and situational awareness. It is not clear that a social bookmarking technology is the real answer – although the tool may help ease the formation of the kinds of emergent behaviors that drive the real successes of this sort of collaboration – the highly connected interdisciplinary individuals who routinely cross multiple cultural and organizational boundaries.

It is those rare individuals who essentially act as guides within the unexplored territories of information sharing. They do so, often at great personal risk, as the volume of material they typically pass between large numbers of individuals – often on the order of dozens of items a day to hundreds of folks in informal networks – can result in numerous administrative or political problems given even the smallest of mistakes by any individual in the chain. Despite this, they are vital to the work of the community. And while some hold official positions as liaison officers, most simply happen to enjoy an unusual mixture of independence, immunity from pressure, and a very large personal social network built over time through friend-of-a friend referrals. And in most cases, their organizations do not even understand the value these individuals bring to the table – sometimes even far in excess of anything else that particular shop might be doing.

Encouragement of these guides – be they mentors, gardeners or the near autistic savant – is more than technology, and demands as much focus as the tools and toys. Guided information consumption is critical to the cultivation of the analyst, both for its informative and situational awareness value but also for its inspirational effects. These are hard to measure, and difficult therefore to justify investment in. Nonetheless, without them, there would be far fewer exceptional intelligence practitioners today; and likewise those gaps will grow in tomorrow’s workforce if there is insufficient focus on such efforts – formally or informally.

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