January 24, 2020.

The website of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) describes collaboration as an approach used by the Intelligence Community (IC) to establish “intelligence and information sharing relationships with international, military, domestic, and private sector partners to promote intelligence-related communications, standardize processes for collaboration, lead coordination of IC information sharing and foreign liaison issues, identify emerging issues, forge solutions in support of military operations, and maximize the use of private sector information and expertise to support intelligence missions while protecting privacy and civil liberties.”

The following scenario involves a critical situation at an unnamed embassy, demonstrating the urgent collaboration challenges that many of us face in the dynamic world of intelligence/incident operations.

An Embassy Engulfed in Questions

A strategically important embassy unexpectedly found itself in a turbulent shutdown mode one evening, with staff conducting evacuation preparations at a fever pitch. Hours ago, the Ambassador to the United States decided that a recent threat to the embassy was credible. Therefore, this location was no longer safe for personnel due to this possible imminent attack. The Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force, which had been alerted earlier, was on the scene and working quickly through their emergency checklists.

But then, everyone received word that the execution plan had just been accelerated, and that the embassy must evacuate immediately. The speed and manner of this caught many by surprise, with a number of questions that remained:  What changed? What could happen next? Are we still prepared?

The 24×7 operations center, responsible for maintaining situational awareness (SA), providing threat warning, coordinating resources, deploying assets and updating leadership, is charged with keeping pace during these situations and evaluating the information throughout its communication channels. Their computers were suddenly inundated with a vast and fast tsunami of documentation and discourse. Tempers flared as the speed and volume of communication overwhelmed the staff. One frustrated senior leader privately remarked, “We didn’t need more data, we needed a way to efficiently share and discuss the information we had, and quickly make sense of it all. So that we could understand what does all of this mean, why was it important, and what could happen next?”

The collaboration process had become fractured or piecemeal at best, with stove-piped information sharing. Many staffers were making numerous desperate phone calls and/or unleashing a flood of emails, none of which included everyone who needed to see the details or had the ability to provide the answers. Several people were observed with a phone on each ear simultaneously. Things were moving too quickly and they just couldn’t keep up, with fleeting opportunities that were being missed. Even more questions were being asked. Did leadership have a clear picture of the situation and an understanding of what was expected moving forward? What was being missed? More importantly, many were asking, “How and who can we engage to identify our gaps and unknowns?”

This story of an embassy and its supporting organizations struggling to answer numerous questions of a crucial or even life-and-death nature has been fictionalized for instructional purposes, and it provides a number of lessons learned that we can examine.  Stellar Solutions is at the forefront of creating collaborative solutions for situations just like this one and providing hands-on training to address these human-centric needs.

Our experience and analysis suggest that the operations center in this story could have benefited tremendously from a lightweight, bottom-up solution like the Human Net. This resource provides a venue for informal interaction via a continuous chat environment that is facilitated by skilled collaboration operators. Just imagine the difference in the above scenario, if the center had access to an online chat space for sensor operators, planners, individual brokers for down-range elements, analysts, logistics personnel, supporting elements, etc.

Stellar maintains a time-tested and recognized role in innovating, educating and operating in the world of online collaboration and information sharing within the IC and Department of Defense (DOD).

Notable collaboration achievements by Stellar’s highly trained staff in the classified environment include:

  • Establishment of an agency-endorsed, national level certification program.
  • Serving as a go-to resource in support of high-interest, crisis events impacting the national interests of the United States.
  • Recognition from the DNI though a 2018 National Intelligence Meritorious Unit Citation for efforts supporting a Strike Support team.

Celebrating our 25th Anniversary this year, Stellar continues to develop and implement novel capabilities in response to the evolving and critical needs of our customer community. Our ongoing development of innovative collaboration concepts for U.S.-based and international IC and DOD locations is a good example of this commitment. Additionally, our experts are training and certifying watch officers, program managers, collaboration operators and facilitators in the art and science of using the Human Net to address some of the most challenging and complex events that can unfold in the blink of an eye.

About the Author:
Lisa Parker is currently serving as one of four National-level Collaboration Facilitators supporting IC and DOD activities.

Stellar Solutions is a trusted partner to the Intelligence Community, with expertise in national geospatial, intelligence, and reconnaissance programs.