Thursday, May 5, 2011
What the State Department's new social portal offers and how it helps offices achieve their mission.

Previously, I've written about State's new internal-only social media portal, Corridor, and some of the ways its administrators can measure its success.

Today, I want to explore the features of the site, some potential features IRM's eDiplomacy office may want to add in the future, and how each of those features can be used by State employees to fulfill their mission.  Finally, I'll write about a single killer app that the office could offer.

Current features:

Microblogging / Newsfeed - This is standard, like what Facebook and Twitter offer.  Currently, original posts are delimited to 256 characters, but comments are not limited in length.  Use: there are a few uses here; the ones that spring to mind most readily are personnel management, knowledge retention/transfer, business process optimization.

  • personnel management: The news feed is a great way for front-line staff to let their managers know where they are, who they're talking to, and what they're working on.  Conversely, it's a great way for managers to assess the activities of the staff in their charge, see if they need help with some tasks, or if they are not prioritizing their portfolios as they should be.
  • knowledge retention/transfer: when a foreign service officer is leaving a post, or a civil service officer is accepting a new assignment, they may try to write up notes for the person who is coming in to replace them.  How much more beneficial might it be, though, to be able to scan through an entire tour's worth of updates to see who a person's predecessor met with on specific issues?  This aspect is even more useful when successive officers can comment on an intial post, updating the information as necessary - turning the newsfeed into an ersatz wiki.
  • business process optimization: in every organization, people have questions about filing an expense report.  Or ascertaining the per diem in a specific location.  And a million other administrative processes.  By encouraging administrative personnel to be active participants in the community, Corridor administrators can help streamline business processes across the agency.

Profiles - Profiles, as they are currently configured, offer users a number of fields that they can populate with information.  What remains to be seen is how users will be able to search through profiles so that they can either find a person with a specific experience (say, someone who was posted to a specific country or position at a certain time), or find a group of people with a specific skills set (say, economists with 3/3 language rating in Korean).

Groups - Forming sub-groups is essential to any social network.  These groups tend to fall into two categories: the first is what I'd call professional-serendipity groups.  An example of this would be a dog-lovers group that coalesced around affection for their canine companions who also found that they were able to help one another with professional tasks.  The second kind of group is an ad-hoc working group.  An example of this would be people who performed similar tasks in different regions or functional bureaus forming groups to accomplish defined goals.

Potential future additions:

Collaboration Space - Especially important within groups, this feature would allow users to create and cooperatively edit presentations, text documents and spreadsheets, at the very least.  This feature would help staffers expedite document creation, editing, and approval.

Virtual Drive with taggable documents - Related to the collaboration space, but with even wider applications, a virtual drive would let people share documents--from administrative/HR forms to resumes to press releases--and then allow anyone to tag them.  Storing, finding, updating, and sharing documents would be far easier than sending them as email attachments or using a SharePoint site.

Classified Space - State, like many agencies, generates some documents that are need-to-share and others that are need-to-know.  There should be a place on the social portal for each kind of document and activity.  This would help ensure that the most important work the State Department does is able to benefit from Corridor's features.

Versions of these tools are already offered by eDiplomacy, but they should be integrated into Corridor.

Killer App:

Community Managers - Just as the killer app on the iPhone (and all smart phone to come thereafter) was the users' fingers, the killer app for Corridor may be their community managers.  The site, as it succeeds, will grow in size and complexity, and having a human being (or a few of them) to help newcomers to the site get accustomed to its workings and help advanced users with technical issues or relay new requirements to the engineers will add immense value to the entire community. 

The community manager(s) will help overcome a major obstacle faced by every social network: getting people to wring the full value of a multifaceted digital tool.  I'll write more about that, and other potential obstacles to Corridor's success next week--including the need to embed the tool so that it becomes a default portal through which State employees communicate, collaborate, and integrate a social layer into all of their activities.