I'm posting the Executive Summary of a study I conducted with the Defense Intelligence Agency. You can read the full study - all 30 fascinating pages here.
Executive Summary of How A-Space is Shaping Analysts' Work
This report provides an overview of an exploratory scientific, qualitative study conducted by the Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA) Knowledge Laboratory in April- June of 2009. The ethnographic study based on twenty in-depth interviews with analysts identifies how analysts are using A-Space and what impact that use is having on their analytic work within DIA’s Directorate for Analysis (DI).
The primary benefit that A-Space brings to analytic work is a venue for seamlessly incorporating cognitive diversity to address complex analytic issues. Research indicates that cognitive diversity, (e.g. different perspectives, interpretations, heuristics, and predictive models) when applied to complex problems, consistently results in more and better solutions.
• A-Space is an environment in which analysts collaboratively create new meaning out of the diverse ideas and perspectives they collectively bring to an issue. Through this collaboration, analysts have the potential to break through long held assumptions to provide new ways of thinking about complex problems.
Analysts talk about A-Space as a setting where they are able to test out ideas and theories. Analysts, faced with a stream of data from a multitude of sources have the task of finding patterns in that data that will be useful to decision makers. Sensemaking is the term used for that human ability to make meaning out of a stream of seemingly unrelated information. It requires creating hypotheses and testing them against the data and interpretations of others. And conversation, with analysts who have diverse perspectives, is the most effective means to engage in the testing and revision of hypotheses. The peer-to-peer environment of A-Space provides a conversational format to engage in joint sensemaking, which may be the most significant function of A-Space in terms of being a human intellectual force multiplier. As analysts experience the benefits of on-line sensemaking conversations, over time, such conversations could become more prominent in the everyday discourse of analysts.
• Networked relationships on A-Space provide a stream of cognitively diverse information without the costly time investment that maintaining strong ties requires
Networking is highly valued by analysts because it provides access to new ideas and diverse perspectives. However maintaining networked relationships is a time consuming activity. The time cost limits the number of relationships an analyst can invest in. The most productive network relationships for gaining unique or novel ideas are not the close relationships among an analyst’s teammates (what sociologists call strong ties) because team/division members tend to have redundant knowledge. Rather the best source of new perspectives and ideas are colleagues in other directorates or agencies who have access to information from totally different sources or provide unique perspectives or interpretation of the existing data. But these more distant relationships (called weak ties) are the most costly to maintain because they require a planned interaction by phone/email/in-person. A-Space, however, reduces the time-cost of maintaining weak ties by providing analysts a way to establish and maintain relationships through frequent on-line interaction in an informal, peer-to-peer culture of mutual trust. A-Space also greatly increases the number of distant network members an analyst can interact with, again without increasing the time cost.
• A-Space is reinforcing the value of asking questions of colleagues, providing analysts the means to uncover flaws in their own data and reasoning
When analysts ask a question on A-Space they are making a tacit acknowledgement that, even if considered the expert on their topic, other analysts have perspectives and data that can add to their line of reasoning or uncover faults in that reasoning. This willingness to be shown to be wrong – to overcome the natural tendency to only seek confirmation - is facilitated by a culture of openness that analysts themselves have developed on A-Space. Through the on-line interaction, counterparts within and between agencies are coming to know each other as valued colleagues. There is a growing sense of trust and a willingness both to help and to receive help from each other.
• A-Space is providing analysts a set of new practices to: 1) build cross agency networks, 2) gain situational awareness, and 3) hold discussions of interpretation, that operate in parallel with the normal production process. These new practices constitute an emerging model that provides a level of cognitive diversity not previously available.
Analysts appear to be making use of A-Space for practices that were either not available or were very difficult to accomplish before A-Space was accessible – practices such as cross agency networking, situational awareness, discussions, and making available highly classified team products. However, practices like co-authoring and coordinating products, which are part of the normal production process are only rarely conducted through A-Space, even though the functionality is available to do so. Thus two models, operating in parallel, appear to be emerging. The challenge for analysts will be to merge these two models over time - bringing greater cognitive diversity into the normal production process and moving co-authoring and coordination more fully into A-Space.
• The non-hierarchal nature of A-Space, results in analysts feeling that it is okay to offer their thinking even if it is not completely formed or thought through, increasing the speed of product development by eliminating faulty hypotheses early on and quickly settling on those that are viable.
A-Space provides the means to test ideas and theories against knowledgeable others and to do so early in the formulation process. Early testing saves both time and effort that would have been spent on those ideas that do not measure up, and it lends support and expanded rationale for those that do. As valuable as offering thinking early on in the process is, it requires a safe environment in which to risk that thinking. A-Space provides such an environment by being peer- to-peer rather than hierarchal. Research indicates that peer-to-peer conversations are consistently more open and trusting than those that involve hierarchy. Discussions on A-Space can be vigorous and critical without being judgmental in tone. The informality of the language and the friendly banter create the feel of a conversation among equals.