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The cult of expertise

I just got back from 1.5 days of meetings with members of the CIA’s intelligence analysis community who are interested in what social software can do for them. There were six of us “experts” and about 50 CIA folks. These are the people who put together analyses and “estimates” about what’s going on in the world so that our leaders can ignore them and do what will get them re-elected (or, in some particularly Oedipal cases, do what will make Mommy love them more than Mommy loves Daddy). In short, these folks are among the few representatives of the Reality Principle in our government. I would like them to be able to do their job ever better.

We weren’t given any confidential information (well, except that Mrs. Wanda Appleton of 123 Elm St. better stop what she’s been doing…you know what I’m talking about, Wanda), but we agreed to blog only generalities so that discussion could be frank. Here are my generalities:

This was a totally fascinating set of sessions. The CIA folks there included visionaries (e.g., Calvin Andrus), internal bloggers, the people behind Intellipedia (an in-house wikipedia), folks from the daily in-house newspaper, and some managers not yet sold on the idea of blogs and wikis and tags.

It sounds like there’s a fairly vibrant blogging community already, including some senior people. But, there’s cultural tension over, for example, whether a blog that contains any personal information means that a government employee has been misusing tax payers’ computers. It is a culture in transition, as you can imagine.

It began with an informal presentation by one of the analysts (first-name only, no email address) who took us through a typical day. He gets evaluated on the basis of the written reports he produces. There is some collegiality — more than I encountered as an academic — but the back-and-forth of commentary isn’t captured. It all comes down to the finished written document. (No document is ever finished, the panel said.)

The panel overall stressed that the issues were social, not technical. Also, we pushed for building memory by capturing more of the work-in-process and by linking linking linking. I personally would like to see the Agency get past the cult of expertise, moving instead to a view of knowledge as social. That means showing work in progress and capturing the discussion during and after publication. But that also means changing how analysts are evaluated and promoted. One of the participants said that already one’s “corridor reputation” affects one’s career. There should also be — and will also be — an e-corridor reputation that helps advance you because you’re a great commenter, a frequent contributor to the wiki, or have a blog that’s getting read.

The people we met with are serious about understanding the opportunities, experimenting, piloting, and evangelizing. I liked them. I would like them to get better and better not only at understanding what’s happening in the world but also at not being “spun.” [Tags: ]

Keep in mind that we met with the report-writing analyst side of the Agency. As for that other side where they engage in “operations” — unrepresented at this meeting — I sure would like them to stop torturing people. But, hey, I’m just a crazed Boston liberal.

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