The way the Navy implements policy has remained largely unchanged in 237 years. The Navy identifies a need, prepares a response, and mandates it from above[i]. This top-down approach cannot work in social media—or any field that is highly technical and rapidly changing. The trajectory of social media development in the Navy has consisted of three largely indistinct phases: hesitant adoption, hasty implementation, and halting stagnation. What is needed now is a transition to a more open system aimed at lowering internal barriers to communication.

Social media use highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques to achieve social interaction. A McKinsey Consulting report recently estimated that “things like improved communication and collaboration from social media in four major business sectors could add $900 billion to $1.3 trillion in value to the economy.” This value is mostly added through increased productivity. There are enormous gains to be had through connection and collaboration within the Navy.

The Navy and Marine Corps are two massive organizations and it takes considerable time to learn how to navigate within them successfully. Internal tools to break down communication obstacles are required. When a Marine 2nd Lieutenant learns that the canteens for her troops are leaking due to poor design, she should be able to quickly and easily reach the contractor to provide feedback. When the Navy decides to form a new staff to engage with Pakistan, a heritage Urdu speaker should be able to volunteer to contribute, even if he happens to be a Machinist Mate. As it is now, an enormous amount of human capital remains untapped because the right connections are not being made.

Ad hoc expansion into this field has taken us down the wrong path. As individual units sought to have a presence on the Internet, they tasked motivated and tech-savvy Sailors to create their web pages. The Department of the Navy (understandably) sought to standardize the appearance and content of these sites and placed them under the larger umbrella of the official domain. This has resulted in web sites that contain outdated content and communicate very little to the public. Quite often they feature nothing more than chain-of-command biographies, boilerplate information, and the Sailor’s Creed without so much as a phone number for the quarterdeck of the ship. The tag line “This site has been approved for release by the Commanding Officer” at the bottom of the home page is also a disincentive for the site to contain dynamic content or interact with the user in any way—lest the CO be held responsible.

Some of the barriers to a clear flow of information are imposed by the Department of Defense and the U.S. Government’s restrictive policies concerning personally identifiable information, classification, and operational security. Many more are self-inflicted wounds. The Navy, rightfully, is not willing to pay to develop and maintain uniformed personnel with the skills required to implement web design and other high-end technical infrastructure. As a result, the Navy has to contract for these services. These contracts have not been well thought out, well negotiated or well executed. This has resulted in a number of high-profile failures. Let us consider two here: NKO and NCMI.

Navy Knowledge Online (NKO) is nowhere near as good as its Army counterpart (AKO). Consider a typical NKO-user experience. One can get NKO to work with other browsers, but it is still (frustratingly) designed to only work with Internet Explorer. You need to use a CAC card or a frequently-changing, hard-to-remember sixteen-digit, alpha-numeric passcode that cannot too closely resemble any of your previous ten hard-to-remember sixteen-digit, alpha-numeric passcodes. What exactly is so valuable in NKO that makes it more difficult to access than an online banking site? Once you do get in, you are bombarded with 1990’s style pop-up windows, with each click only seeming to invite more clicks to confirm some ActiveX setting or another. Content is difficult to find and even more difficult to navigate. For many Sailors, the only time they are on NKO is to complete mandatory general military training. The user experience is otherwise so poor as to dissuade them from accessing the enormous body of useful knowledge and training that is buried within the sprawling site.

Navy-Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) has also proved to be an expensive miss[iii]. Since I have been commissioned, I have had two shipboard email addresses, two useless tranet addresses, a State Department address, and a Navy War College address. All expired when I transferred. I have never been at a major shore command long enough to warrant the bafflingly high expense of establishing a NMCI account. I understand that there are enormous technical challenges in creating the world’s largest intranet. Still, there is no reason why every Sailor entering the Navy today should not have a email address that would provide continuity through out their entire career and follow them into the reserves or retirement. The Army already has implemented this portability feature. This one change alone would prevent the inefficiency of lost connections that result from the frequent personnel rotations within the service.

There are gains to be made by developing social media connections within the academic elements of the Department of the Navy as well. Every year the Chief of Naval Operations tasks ten hand-selected O6’s from a variety of backgrounds to work on the CNO’s Strategic Studies Group. And every year the report that they produce gets labeled “For Official Use Only” which, while not a security classification, prevents the report from informing the larger debate on the issues that are most important to the CNO. Similarly, each year Naval Post-Graduate School (NPS) students expend extraordinary amounts of thought and effort to write graduate theses. These ideas are often shelved without making an impact in their respective fields because there is not an adequate distribution method in place to share these works.

Technologies are most successful when leaders of an organization use them regularly and actively advocate for them within the organization. As far back as 1995, Admiral Jeremy Boorda assigned a point of contact to explore the possibility of establishing a Clearinghouse, an open discussion of matters of concern to the Navy, but the idea was stillborn—perhaps because of the technological limitations of the time. It is time to bring that back and the model already exists. The Warlord Loop is an invitation-only, email discussion featuring voluminous, freewheeling, and unclassified exchanges about national security. The Navy needs something similar where Sailors and Marines can join the discussion on important and relevant topics that interest them.

In some respects, the technical side of social media is the easy part. The Navy does not need to rush to embrace new and unproven technologies. It does, however, need to craft considered policies that steer it away from unread Ombudsman blogs, barren websites, and stale Facebook pages.

[i] Author’s note: Typified by U.S. Admiral Ernest King (reported) quote about the media during World War II, “Tell them nothing. When it’s over, tell them who won.”

[iii] Author’s note: At least SWONET, an expensive and clumsy attempt to mirror what Sailor Bob was able to do better and for free, was mercifully killed earlier this year.

Posted by LT JD Kristenson in Navy
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  • Your information on SWONET is a little incomplete – Navy embarked on an admittedly belated overhaul to move the site away from solely content-generation and discussion boards to be of more direct use to Sailors through things such as permanant emails, a place to store data between commands, and a document exchange behind an FOUO firewall. While there was still much work to be done, at the core was very much the beginnings of the sort of clearinghouse model for which you’re advocating. Unfortunately the new version only rolled out a few months before the decision was made to kill SWONET, and predictably, by this time most had understandably given up on the site after an underwhelming run.

  • Thanks for the shout out!

    SWONET was a portal site, and the fundamental mistake was that they spent a lot of time and money paying contractors to create a custom portal solution from scratch when there were dozens of off the shelf COTS and FOSS solutions that would have done a better job. As a result, they spent time, money and energy on the nuts and bolts of creating and running the custom backend of the site, when they should have been concentrating on content, moderation and customer service.

  • Excellent Article.. and very insightful viewpoints on how the Navy has managed the various attempts at networking with peers and the public before it became known as Social Media.
    While having Web Developer or Design skills assists in understanding the dynamics and more importantly the analytics of Social Media, these skills are not a necessary requirement in creating and maintaining a great Social Media presence.
    Among the most important aspects of Social Media is the sharing of high quality and relevant content.
    I have a list of Military & Historical related Facebook Fan Pages and I believe that the Military presence on Social Media is not only extremely large but these pages are also among the most active on the Facebook Platform.
    The Fan Pages that are indeed sharing high quality content and engaging their Fans are the most successful.
    This dynamic is the same for Social Media in the Civilian world as well.
    Content is King.. having high levels of Fan engagement is a good indicator that you are doing Social Media right.

    Rod Doty
    HTM Volunteer [Content]
    Naval History & Heritage Command

  • JAV

    Everything about NMCI sucks. Agree especially with the point on email addresses. It is ridiculous to have to deal with S-6 every time you move to transfer your address, or to get a new one. When I arrived in Iraq, it was “go straight to Comm, they need 2-3 days to set up your email”. I wasn’t having any of that, we got it done in 3 hours-but why should it have needed to be done at all? Why a different address instead of just using the If I can use my same civ email address from anywhere, why can’t I do the same withe the .mil?

  • Dee

    Have seen large corporations struggle with the same challenge. As an example a recent innovation and improvement has been:

    Beyond the email permanence there is also the challenge of appropriate levels of participation and segmentation of content. But when you start to see where these sites can be mined for information tools such as Autonomy as an example can tell you things about sentiments and provide other analytic facts that make the effort worth the effort.

    I think the activity is cradle to grave, in as much as a group of recruits would have affinity to keep in contact, where a command would have a continuity of interest, and such. But large companies are recognizing the usefulness of the these tools and creating “improved” systems to facilitate this information. In respect to security as an example, is there sufficient security to state in a post that the training deck is incorrect? If so is that information a “smoking gun” in litigation? Etc… etc..

    In essence not only is the tool needed to perform the task efficiently but there also has to be a responsible and educated user, something taken for granted here as the commentary is professional and responsible (by and large) and the user educated.

    But I think that the process has to proceed to cradle to grave and compliment existing channels of communication, and no I still don’t do twitter.. But have the skills to build these sites. Some of it I see as an “existential roar” it is communities of commonality that matter.

  • Kudos LT, you raise some great points.

    Like to make you aware that this month Navy Warfare Development Command (NWDC) launched the Navy Center for Innovation Blog . The purpose of this forum is to present Navy problems for open discussion and debate by a cross-section of warfighters, academia, technical experts, and civilian outliers in order to generate innovative solutions. (As you will observe from my reply,) we are also combing the blogosphere to harvest and contribute to other dialogs.

    The Navy Center for Innovation is also working aggressively with the Naval Postgraduate School, the Office of Naval Research, the Naval War College and the Marine Corps Combat Development Command to synergize efforts that will elevate and increase “cross-domain” collaborative, creative thinking. What’s more, the Navy Center for Innovation portal has an interactive form where thinkers can directly propose an idea to NWDC consideration,

    The battlespace is evolving much too rapidly to maintain the calm seas course we are on for developing capabilities. We must better leverage the cognitive strengths within our Navy and beyond. We must seize and hold the initiative in fielding materiel and non-materiel solutions. Get in the fight, join the debate. It’s time to start thinking!
    CAPT David Tyler
    NWDC, ACOS Concepts and Innovation

  • Robert_K

    “Similarly, each year Naval Post-Graduate School (NPS) students expend extraordinary amounts of thought and effort to write graduate theses. These ideas are often shelved without making an impact in their respective fields because there is not an adequate distribution method in place to share these works.”

    This is simply not true. While I have no affiliation with NPS, I have used NPS academic work to further my own research interests. NPS regularly publishes an index of abstracts : and uses two expansive data bases with user friendly interfaces – BOSUN and Calhoun Their library staff is very helpful (even for non-students) and you can even upload relevant reports or studies for wider dissemination. Similarly the NWC uses DTIC which is a little more cumbersome.

    Ideally there would be a central repository for this type of information that would feature a push/pull information approach – similar to but we aren’t there yet.

  • DTIC also has a number of theses, and they have been beneficial in my research and writing as well.

    But…I think there is a greater question. Navy spends money on sending officers to NPS and any number of JPME institutions. Where’s the tangible return?

    What NPS projects are focused on solving or advancing the solution of real world problems? And are then experimented with or acted on?

    How many NWC or other JPME students actually seek to publish any of the five to ten papers they write in any given year?

    Education is for the individual, and the corporation gains by having educated individuals. If, and only if, the individual shares the fruits of that education rather than just hanging the diploma on a wall somewhere.

  • Robert_K

    Because NPS is a WCF activity it does a fair amount of sponsored research and from what I have seen, the research is on par with some of the FFRDCs (and a much better value).

    “Where’s the tangible return?”

    That is a tough question and one that I and others have asked many times of late. From what I gather, the greatest concern at the war colleges, NPS and other graduate education programs is the fear that students will become an extension of the sponsoring office’s staff and will not have true intellectual freedom.

    I know many top graduate students in the NCR with an interest in national security issues who would love to actually have someone within government read the fruits of their academic work – however there simply is no means available to facilitate this at the moment.

    The army has taken a slightly different approach, as it publishes its areas of research interest each year. The DON should do the same and offer a means for any graduate student to submit their work for review. Review by whom, is another question…

    Publishing is another issue and involves capacity. The NWC Review and a few other publications at NPS are really the only govenment funded publications. No offense, but Proceedings has a significant backlog for authors. Not many other publications will entertain very navy-centric submissions. Thus blogging has taken a significant role in pushing ideas and bridiging the gap between academics and practitioners.

  • Mike M.

    Don’t get me started on NMCI…the biggest disaster since Pearl Harbor. I suspect that the Navy loses at least 10% of productivity just due to waiting for locked-up computers. And I can vouch for the general avoidance of NKO as well. (I’ll draw a kindly veil over the content of the mandatory training)

  • Guy


    Well done – another solid piece. Your points are well taken and parallel recent discussions within OPNAV concerning innovation. More specifically, can the Navy create a culture that welcomes innovation and, if so, how can it be fostered?


  • Dee

    Ideally there would be a central repository for this type of information that would feature a push/pull information approach – similar to but we aren’t there yet.

    I just returned yesterday from an Informatica, Cloudera and Mapr presentation. And the meeting got me to thinking that as a first step 4 commodity PC’s (Acer Refurbished Black Aspire X1 AX1430G-UW30P Desktop PC) from walmart at $912 and a The HKC 19″ LED Widescreen Monitor (N1812) at $88 for $1000.00 total (no tax and pickup in store) and then drop mapr3 on top of it.

    I think sometimes we “over-think things” when prototyping the correlations of data is more important. As I was sitting in the audience I was thinking the sales presentation at one level could have been described as a technology in need of a reason, and on the other hand the technology has become so ubiquitous that there is no real reason “not to just jump in?”

    If you actually look at the links and hardware what you will see is that for that $1000 (some serendipity in that is the actual price of what is needed as a baseline) you can own your own Amazon at home, toss in the hparser community edition from Informatica the WSDL for all the “cross-domain” information is published.

    My wife is going along with my idea of getting a shed installed, I wanted it to site a generator, my next “honey I have this idea” moment is going to be 1K for my own “amazon” so if the zombies do attack I can ride it out playing with technology stacks, that I could load and test at Google or Amazon, or just process some strange questions on my own in the man cave.

    The facade fell away yesterday, similar to Information Dissemination, you have to just dive in

  • JD, well said. Many have thought this for the longest but have not said it. You have only brazed the surface. Catchy title. Unfortunately, the article needs to elaborate on nearly 20 years of development and discussion. Very good start.

  • Dee

    Using Hadoop you have a spot to “land” large amounts of data cheaply, you can then analyze that data. Interesting Aussie article that speaks to challenges.

    Few consider the possibilities of data mining and how patterns of behaviour can be identified over time.”

    The review recommended education for family and friends on the dangers of sharing details like names, ranks and locations.

    Several troops argued for a total social media ban. “I see too many members who post info/pics of themselves which identify … what unit they belong to and where they are serving,” one said.

    Security expert Peter Hannay, from Edith Cowan University’s school of computer and security science, said geo-tag information “can be data-mined and sold to anybody”.

    The Department of Defence said it was working on new social media guidelines, to be released by Christmas.

  • JD Kristenson

    Thank you all for the feedback on the article; I truly appreciate it.

    So, in related news, I just found out (from the ship that I am headed to next week) that I received an ORDMOD ten days ago.

    1) Why didn’t I hear this from my detailer FIRST?

    2) Is the expectation REALLY that I check BUPERS Online daily while on leave?

    3) This is a classic example of how the Navy does the basics poorly. BUPERS Online has my email address on file. ***Why doesn’t a modification to my orders trigger an email to my work or personal account (or both)? *** It is basically free, inverts the model from “pull” to “push” and is just the right thing to do when the message being communicated is one that directly affects the lives of Sailors and their families.

  • Great article, glad you wrote it.

    Did you really promote the open sharing of ideas by advertising a very closed group?

    I’m just a lowly B.S.-only Poli Sci guy from USNA with a few years of operational experience and JPME, so how much of a “luminary” (from The Warlord Loop site) would I need to become in order to join the “open discussion?”