MITRE Intranet Still Making History 20 Years LaterSeptember 2015
Topics: Information Privacy, Knowledge Management, Metadata Management, Information Services
Twenty years ago, long before "friend" was a verb and only birds tweeted, MITRE started a social networking revolution within its walls by launching the MITRE Information Infrastructure. A web-based intranet platform, the MII ("em-eye-eye") had a simple, but vital purpose: "To allow employees to find within MITRE the answer to any sponsor question," says Michal Cenkl.
For MITRE researchers back in 1994, tracking down the experts, skills, and knowledge they needed amidst a corporation of thousands of employees scattered across the globe could be challenging. So Cenkl, currently director of innovation and technology in MITRE's Center for Information and Technology and one of the MII's early architects, set out with his design team to build a corporate intranet that would make information sharing easier.
"In designing the MII, we started with the idea that MITRE is a contact sport," he says. "Our mission is all about solving problems by contacting the right people to get the right information. To make that possible, we invented social networking without even realizing it."
Pioneers in the Online Privacy Debate
MITRE's timely adoption of Internet-protocol networking paired with the rapid adoption of the web browser Mosaic provided the enabling infrastructure and common platform necessary for developing the MII. What Cenkl and his team didn't have in place is any experience dealing with the privacy issues that still bedevil social media users today. The question of sharing vs. privacy first presented itself when MITRE did away with its printed employee phone directory and put the information on the MII instead.
The online directory gave users much more than a co-worker's extension number. Job title, current projects, subjects of expertise—everything that would be useful to know about a MITRE employee could be found in his or her listing. Some wondered whether this put people's privacy at risk.
"People were nervous about posting employee photos in the online directory," Cenkl says. "There were fears that people would take these photos and use them in 'creative' ways. People were also uncomfortable about listing information like their employee numbers or the projects they were working on.
"We engaged in a lot of debate over these decisions. MITRE was very early to the privacy discussion without understanding that we were even engaged in the privacy discussion."
But from the start, MITRE committed to providing as much information as feasible on the MII. "And I think in hindsight we got it right," Cenkl says. "We've compared ourselves over the years with companies that made different choices along those lines, and it's been obvious that building and maintaining a maximally open environment is the key to success."
A Home-grown Hit Custom-tailored to MITRE's Needs
The MII's ability to put the full range of company expertise at the fingertips of our employees soon caught the attention of our sponsors. Cenkl and his team found themselves making presentations to government agencies that wanted their own MIIs.
"In the late '90s, we were giving a couple of demos a week about how powerful this capability really was," he says. "And sponsors loved it. A lot of sponsor work resulted from the investment we made in developing the MII."
Of course, Cenkl and his team couldn't simply transplant the MII to another site. The MII, after all, had been designed from the ground-up to meet MITRE needs in a MITRE way. Cenkl realizes he may have been able to avoid such a huge undertaking by contracting to a vendor the challenge of building MITRE's intranet.
"The problem was that any commercial product out of the box wasn't going to be a perfect fit for us," Cenkl says. "We've invested 20 years into tailoring the MII to the MITRE experience. It would be almost impossible to replace what we've designed with a commercial product without giving up some functionality."
If Facebook Can't, We Can
As a company built on expertise, MITRE is always willing to trust a job to the experts. But sometimes even the experts find themselves lagging behind MITRE's vision. Responding to the requests of sponsors and other partners, the MII design team in 2007 began researching ways to turn the site "inside out" and make it available to external users. Intrigued by the possibilities of the social media phenomenon spurred by Facebook, Cenkl and his team visited the company's offices in 2007.
"We asked them about their interest in developing a 'Facebook for the Enterprise' or a 'Facebook for Government.' But at the time, they were focused on the consumer aspect of their business; they didn't have time for anything else. So we went back and we developed Handshake."
Handshake is a business networking system through which MITRE now creates and supports relationships between thousands of employees, industry experts, vendors, members of academia, and sponsors. In 2011, Handshake won an Intranet Innovation Award, being described as a "social network intranet application with a difference."
Since its debut, the MII has been a cornerstone of MITRE's culture of knowledge sharing. And although ancient in Internet years, the MII remains as spry and eager to learn new tricks as any Silicon Valley consumer start-up. Expanding capabilities and fresh designs keep the MII as vital a part of the workday for MITRE's millennials as it is for those employees whose careers have been entwined with it these past 20 years.
Looking back over those years, at least one old-timer enjoys the sense of a job well done.
"In retrospect, I can’t really think of many things we did that were flat out wrong," Cenkl says. "We made a lot of really good decisions, and we didn’t even know it."
—by Christopher Lockheardt