Thursday, March 20, 2008

Part 8 -- Final Comments (A Wiki Is Like A Room...)

Part 1 -- Introduction
Part 2 -- What Is A Wiki And Why Is It So Different?
Part 3 -- The Origins And Scope Of The Data
Part 4 -- Some Broad Metrics
Part 5 -- A Few Comparisons
Part 6 -- "...And The Survey Says!"
Part 7 -- What The Decisionmakers Thought

I have struggled for the last year to explain to people what it is like to use a wiki to do intelligence analysis. In many respects, there is little difference. Analysts identify sources of information, collect and organize them, apply methods both structured and unstructured and generate their best estimates commensurate with the time and resources at their disposal. A wiki is just another tool used to conduct this analysis. To talk about "wiki-based" analysis, in this context, makes about as much sense as talking about "Microsoft Word-based" analysis.

In other ways, the differences are significant. Analysts are massively and consistently more productive using a wiki. The reduction in “transaction costs”, while modest in individual terms, quickly add up giving the teams more time to spend analyzing the data and less time spent sorting it our or sending it around to other team members. This results in better, more nuanced, analysis no matter how difficult the problem or how successful the team ultimately is in examining the topic under discussion. Not all wiki-based products rise to the level of the INSIGHT project or the Non-State Actors project, but, I believe, all 15 of the wiki-based projects we have completed have been better because the analysts used a wiki.

Most surprisingly has been the degree to which decisionmakers like the wiki format in presenting the final analytic product. While they all acknowledged that traditional methods of delivery still need to be in the mix, the accumulated evidence clearly indicated a strong positive reaction to wiki based products. In an unscripted hat tip to the classic version of the adoption cycle, however, these same senior decisionmakers, while overwhelmingly positive about wiki based products for themselves, were less certain about how other senior decisionmakers would view the same type products.

How, then, to best describe the impact that using a wiki has on the analytic process? What metaphor could give people unfamiliar with wikis a sense of both the way in which they are used by analysts and the way in which they are seen by decisionmakers.

Finally, one day it hit me. A wiki is like a room to which an analytic team has been newly assigned. Empty at first, it is a bit intimidating. How best to use the space? Where should things go? There is no “right” answer. Each analyst will likely adopt (or get assigned) a certain section of the space and then proceed to make it his or her own. This space will be idiosyncratic, structured for the individual analyst’s needs and not for the group’s use. Fairly quickly some common space will also be established. This space may even emerge, without explicit direction (“All the stuff on South Africa is in the corner. Why? I don’t know. That’s just where we’ve been putting it.”).

As time goes by, norms and conventions also begin to emerge that allow the entire group to function more efficiently in this space. As analysts compare work (A simple process – everyone is in the same room!), some patterns begin to emerge as well. Ideas, leads and sources are exchanged rapidly and efficiently leading to new analytic pathways to be explored by the rapidly gelling team.

At some point, remarkably early in the process, at both the individual and the group level, this shared team space has obviously proven its worth. It's where the action is. If you want the latest, you go to the room. If you want to know if someone already has the answer to a question of fact, you go to the room. If you want some help with a particularly tricky analytic method, you go to the room. Ad hoc sub-teams can easily form to work on particular issues -- the information necessary to get started on virtually any new project is all in one place. Most importantly, once something is put in the room, no one else has to go find it. It is all there.

As the project nears its end, the team gets the word: The senior leaders are coming down to the room to get the results! The team reorganizes itself one last time to finalize the product and prepare the space for presentation. Old documents and old versions of documents are thrown away or hidden. The team prints fresh maps, annotated appropriately, and the old maps with all of the notes and scribbles are discarded or put away. A clean copy of the final report gets printed. The space gets organized for the final show and tell.

Surprisingly, the decisionmakers like the room, too. It is better than the sterile presentations they are used to getting. Of course, they are interested in the bottomline results and appreciate all of the work the team has put into the final product, but they like being able to walk around the (cleaned up) room and see other things that the analysts have been working on. They like being able to look at some of the details of the analyst’s work, to examine the sources firsthand. Their increased understanding of the process adds credibility to the final estimative conclusions. In the end, they turn to their executive assistants and say, “We need to do more of these kind of briefings”.

Yep. A wiki is pretty much just like that.


Tom Algoe Hilbert College said...


Thanks so much for the great series on wikis. (And thanks for the great blog in general, it has become a part of my daily routine - such a diversity of information.) This Tuesday, I will introduce the research groups in my class to the wikis they will use to complete their strategic research projects. Should be great fun!! I'll keep you posted on the progress and results. -- Tom Algoe

Kristan J. Wheaton said...


Good luck with your wiki project! I hope your students learn as much as mine did!