Tags: Facebook, JD Kristenson, social media
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 navy.mil 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 This has resulted in web sites that contain outdated content and communicate very little to the public.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 protected] 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.
[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.