A small pilot program helped lay the groundwork for and develop the technology that would become milBook—part of the larger milSuite offering. “milSuite actually grew from a stand-alone wiki and blog developed for the Fort Monmouth community to support knowledge gathering and sharing in light of the BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure] 2005 decision. With a work force in transit, these capabilities provided a knowledge management platform to harvest and communicate knowledge during the transitional period,” said Filler. “The original wiki and blog were officially released in early summer of 2008. A few months later, the AKO/DKO released a product called AKO Wiki as a pilot to its community.”
Jive Clearspace was the original software used in the pilot, chosen, according to Filler, because “they are feature-rich and provide a Facebook-like capability.” Clearspace integrates the functionality of discussion forums, blogs, wikis, instant-messaging chat, and VoIP into one user interface. Collaborative content placed into any system (blog, wiki, etc.) can later be retrieved through the use of a common search interface.
That pilot eventually expired. But the technology had been created, and it eventually gave rise to milSuite. Filler describes milSuite as “a collection of Web 2.0 capabilities available to military users with an AKO/DKO account. … Currently, milSuite comprises milWiki, milBlog, and [its latest addition] milBook.”
Flexibility was key to making this newest incarnation of a social platform work. So the MilTech team got to work on creating a customized platform. All of “milSuite is powered entirely by commercial-off-the-shelf software (COTS). Each product has been, of course, altered where necessary. But by using open source and COTS products, we can significantly reduce costs and allow for plug-and-play capabilities.”
In order to make sure milSuite and all its various parts would work effectively when it was most needed, the MilTech team turned to its intended users. “The milSuite team worked with numerous focus groups and relied heavily on feedback from the user community during its testing process. The team also met with and briefed [members of the DoD on milSuite] before anything was developed, so the expectations were set early on,” Filler said. “This ‘focus on the user’ approach and open discussion of what we were looking to achieve made it so user acceptance was extremely high early on.” Now, milSuite—and by extension milBook—is available to users with an AKO/DKO account or common access card, which includes all military services and the DoD.
milBook—the Facebook-esque arm of milSuite—launched on Oct. 1, 2009, to a small number of dedicated supporters, and then it exploded. “After sending an email to roughly 50 users, we grew to more than 1,000 users that week from word of mouth alone,” says Filler.
With the success of broader, more public networks, it’s no surprise that milBook has enjoyed quite a bit of success. But don’t expect to find anyone playing Farmville or Mafia Wars on this site. “Although the name implies a familiarity with social networking, milBook is definitely a professional network of military individuals connecting with one another through professional groups,” Filler said. “We have [formed] 300 groups in a few short months on everything from Google Wave’s possible impact to senior executive board members discussing policy.”
“Every day we see people using milBook to connect and share ideas on hundreds of topics and groups. Examples range from groups on improving medical procedures to a group of chaplains helping out soldiers with questions,” he adds. “We have seen Navy and Army members come together to discuss different ways of improving systems, to software groups discuss how they can better collaborate.”
In some cases, users collaborate to edit field manuals on-the-fly. Filler explains: “This is an effort out of TRADOC [Training and Doctrine Command] that involves the ‘wikitizing’ of existing field manuals so that other soldiers in the field can comment or even alter doctrine to be reviewed by the manuals’ proponents.” Allowing for real-time feedback from the field is invaluable in many ways—not the least of which is its potential to save lives.
As one might imagine, security and clearance concerns are of the utmost importance—especially with a wiki. You cannot allow any and everyone to make edits to documents such as field manuals. “milSuite has a restricted audience that is smaller than the greater AKO/DKO community. Each site is unclassified and allows for marking of content where appropriate,” Filler explains. “Users understand what they can and cannot share, and the community is actively involved in any discussions where debate might surface.”
The military considers milSuite to be a rousing success, with high user adoption and the ability to facilitate exactly the kind of collaboration it had been hoping for. So why stop there? Filler says, “milSuite plans on expanding both horizontally and vertically and is very transparent with our community about what we are looking to do down the road and how we hope
to get there.”
He says the MilTech team plans on taking cues from more of the best that the private sector has to offer when it comes to Web 2.0 tools, and it hopes to create a sort of one-stop shop for all of the DoD’s needs. “A good way to understand what we hope to achieve would be this analogy: Take YouTube, Flickr, Wikipedia, Facebook, Yahoo! News, TinyURL, Google Docs, and iGoogle; integrate them all so that you have little duplication of content types, i.e., videos, pictures, etc.; and then allow users to search across them and access them on your mobile platforms.” It’s a tall order, but it’s one the MilTech team is ready to tackle.