U.S. Army considers social networks as Generation Facebook enlists

WASHINGTON -- A defining phrase in the military is "by the book," and when it comes to knowledge management and IT, the book ( a 142-page PDF document ) is clear: "The IT community must maintain focus on the needs of its customers."

Today's customers are changing and the U.S. Army IT wants to adapt. The young men and women joining the military don't use e-mail, and have grown up using social networking tools Facebook (See the Army's Facebook page ) and MySpace (See the Army's MySpace page )as their preferred means for sharing information.

"That really challenges us to get similar capabilities to collaborate but within a small circle and a secure environment," said Robert Neilson, knowledge management advisor to the U.S. Army CIO.

Military branches are using some social networking tools because they see merit in them, but adoption faces obstacles ranging from implementation costs to security.

The real benefit of social networking technology is the openness of it, the ability to invite people and gather information but "we have to temper that," said Neilson.

The Department of Defense has task forces exploring the use of social networking, said Neilson. But there are also broader and targeted efforts to ensure that information is shared in ways that improve performance and doesn't leave with a retirement.

Col. Rose Favors, the chief defense counsel of the U.S. Marine Corps., speaking at a Digital Government Institute conference Thursday, turned to collaboration tools to improve the operation of her office.

The defense counsel office includes 40 attorneys and 20 enlisted Marines in offices around the world, including in war zones. Some of these attorneys, not long out of law school, were working in offices by themselves. "I need them to feel the strength of the whole," said Favors.

Favors said she had been getting information via faxes, e-mail and telephone. "I need data; they need knowledge," she said. The tool that Favors adopted this year was Microsoft SharePoint , and her office began using it to share legal briefs and other documents to enable closer collaboration on defense strategies, among other things.

Favors displayed screen shots of the SharePoint pages and almost seem apologetic for their relatively rudimentary layouts. To some it might seem amateurish, she said, "to our world it's amazing."

Brian Newman, a knowledge management practitioner with a Washington consulting firm Oculus Group LLC, was impressed with how Favors had arrived at a decision to first improve the business process and then determine if there is a tool that could help.

What often happens in knowledge management initiatives is the user will begin by evaluating tools instead of determining "what it means to manage knowledge," Newman said. "If they start with the tool, everything from that point out is going to be bias to a tool-based solution."

This story, "U.S. Army considers social networks as Generation Facebook enlists" was originally published by Computerworld.

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