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Collaborative government knowledge

With the release of the 9/11 commission reports, the message is clear: Government agencies need to share knowledge and collaborate. They also need to ensure that critical information makes its way up the chain to officials who can act on it. Although this will be an expensive undertaking, any money spent on systems that enhance the U.S. government's ability to identify a potential threat is far cheaper than the millions spent protecting targets or the billions cleaning up the mess after the fact.

The corporate world has long recognized that there are myriad benefits to be derived from many collaborative business knowledge (CBK) activities, including facilitating knowledge worker collaboration, creating systems that allow users to actually locate information and mining data for "invisible" relationships.

The 15 separate agencies that gather and analyze intelligence employ tens of thousands of knowledge workers, none of whom are able to access information from other agencies, let alone benefit from the more advanced CBK techniques that are becoming the norm in the enterprise. The intelligence community has systems with largely interoperable data and a corporate culture that does not encourage playing together with the other agencies in the sandbox.

Until 9/11, just as it was assumed that hijackers intended on flying planes to Cuba or another third-world country, the intelligence community kept its knowledge on a need-to-know basis. During the Cold War, the atmosphere was spy vs. spy, and that strategy made a certain amount of sense. Terrorists, on the other hand, don't engage in James Bond-like escapades and haven't been caught trying to steal state secrets. Yet the intelligences agencies, spread through six Cabinet-level departments, had little incentive (in terms of their work) to collaborate. In fact, the very opposite has been inbred in their culture.

The resignation of CIA Director George Tenet presents the intelligence community with a unique opportunity to start afresh. Tenet's replacement can create true collaborative intelligence environments, places where knowledge workers in the intelligence community will be able to not only find information for which they are looking, but more importantly, due to the interconnection of systems from the various agencies, make discoveries which heretofore were not possible.

The three tenets of collaborative business knowledge are equally applicable for collaborative government knowledge systems:

• One environment rule: Users remain in one overarching environment for their work.• Friction-free knowledge sharing: Applications require little or no user intervention to ensure appropriate disposition of information.• Embedded community: Community and collaboration tools are embedded deeply within the work environment.

This position was recently endorsed by a member of the 9/11 commission who predicted that the panel will support centralization of U.S. intelligence agencies as the only possible way to prevent future terrorist attacks. Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," Commissioner John Lehman, a former secretary of the Navy, noted that the intelligence community, at the present time, " ... couldn't distinguish between a bicycle crash and a train wreck." Although he didn't go into detail as to how this would take place, Lehman advocated a centralization of information so that it reaches officials "in a position to make a difference."

The benefits of deploying such collaborative government technologies are contagious. Once government and intelligence agency knowledge workers open the door to inter-agency collaboration and create systems that allow users to locate and share information, the potential to make agencies responsive and productive--both to citizens and each other--will be unlimited.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and chief analyst at Basex (basex.com), e-mail jspira@basex.com

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