MITRE’s Stephen Huffman: Social media will be increasingly important for internal collaboration

Among the internal collaboration efforts led by Stephen Huffman, vice president and chief technology officer (CTO) of The MITRE Corporation, is Idea Market, an online collaborative environment focused on generating, discussing, and managing ideas for new R&D projects. “This is a capability that has fundamentally changed the way we manage our research program at MITRE,” says Huffman.

The approach goes like this: When MITRE is soliciting proposals for new R&D projects, any staff member can submit an idea through the platform. All other staff are then free to comment and offer additional suggestions — even vote on the ideas they think are best. “The capability has allowed people with ideas to receive feedback from the entire company, and to help them discover others with similar ideas so they can potentially become research collaborators,” says Huffman.

The idea caught on, from the start. Launched in Spring 2009, the forum attracted 850 idea submissions and roughly 1,000 discussion threads during its first 30 days — all based upon a 40 percent participation rate across the entire MITRE employee base. A big part of that participatory success? An ongoing communications campaign that has included weekly reminders, participation recaps, and statistics of most popular ideas.

Other internal collaboration tools

Among them is a robust intranet, which was named one of the Nielsen Norman Group’s 10 best intranets for 2010. Additional efforts include blogs and wikis — in the latter case, MITREpedia. Employees are encouraged to enter their topics within that framework to avoid multiple competing wikis on the same topic. Meanwhile, a robust corporate engine facilitates location of wikis that may have been generated in a separate location.

Social bookmarking is another breakthrough. “We’re also taking some of the things that we develop under our research program and deploying them in our internal infrastructure as pilot services so we can get feedback from a broader community,” says Huffman. A step in that direction is a social bookmarking capability, Onomi, launched this past year, which allows communities to form, tag, and share information, as well as carry on discussion threads about particular topics.

External collaboration

Huffman’s also keeping an eye on a broader, growing need: collaboration among external organizations. “In the future, we need to be able to collaborate across corporate boundaries,” says Huffman. And so, Huffman’s team recently jumpstarted a collaboration social media capability, Handshake. Akin to Facebook, it requires participation through invitation only. “So, we still have control,” says Huffman, “but it does have a mixed population of users — those from inside and outside the company.”

The cyber threat

Greater collaboration, both internal and external, raises a number of cybersecurity considerations. “Industry, as a whole, really has a grand challenge to develop ways to deliver trustworthy and secure information services that enable open collaboration,” Huffman says.

By their very nature, collaboration tools are designed to enable information discovery and relationship building. “That’s a good thing,” Huffman says. “However, it also provides an opportunity for cyber attackers. So, the emphasis will have to shift to architecting systems that allow for individual access based on the role that someone plays relative to the organization.”

Additionally, companies will need to realize that it’s not going to be possible to be 100 percent effective at keeping cyber attackers from penetrating networks. “We need to find ways to enable systems to continue to perform their intended functions and safeguard the data they contain, while simultaneously detecting and eliminating intruders” he says.

MITRE is working on a number of initiatives in this area from methods to detect malicious insiders to the development of open-source software packages that proactively monitor Internet servers to root out fast-running, malicious programs designed to infect user systems.

What’s ahead

MITRE continues to be a launching pad for ideas, thanks, in large part, to a strong collaborative platform. Current R&D projects span everything from healthcare IT to national security.

Meanwhile, Huffman calls his the best job in the company. “It’s really because I have the opportunity to deal with so many bright and capable people, across a wide range of disciplines,” says Huffman. “It’s very exciting to have people bring forward their ideas and see what develops.”

UP CLOSE: MITRE CTO Dr. Stephen Huffman

Favorite websites: Defense Technical Information Center’s DoD Technipedia; also, — “by itself, it’s just a big repository but I believe you’ll see a lot of innovation around people providing value added services and other sources of information using this,” says Huffman.

Favorite tech gadget: The new class of devices such as the iPad. “Or, more accurately,” says Huffman, “the new paradigm that the iPad represents — a big playing field for anyone to create and distribute applications, which will spill over into the traditional personal computer market.”

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